Interplanetary mining company, Deep Space Industries, has announced plans to mine near-Earth asteroids within the next decade.
If successful, this could be the world’s first asteroid resource mining mission.
Deep Space Industries, who made the announcement on Tuesday, intends to launch a test spacecraft called Prospector-1 as early as 2017. It would be an “experimental mission to low-Earth orbit that will test key technologies needed for low-cost exploration spacecraft,” reads the company’s official statement.
Following the test run, an improved spacecraft, Prospectus-X, will travel beyond Earth to nearby asteroids to explore and mine them for mineral resources.
Though asteroid mining has been long discussed by scientists, there is still little we know about how it works in practice. Could mining affect an asteroid’s geology? Are its minerals transportable across space?
Dr Alice Gorman, a member of the Space Industry Association of Australia, and Senior Lecturer in archaeology and space studies at Flinders University, tells SBS Science that Deep Space Industries' missions could mean just as much for the advancement of space exploration as they do for the mining sector.
“The significance of this mission is that it’s testing methods of locating a highly critical resource, water, as well as the water-powered thruster technology that can use this resource. So it’s two proof-of-concept missions in one package,” she explains.
“Success could mean we’re one step closer to developing space-based industries.
One of the biggest obstacles facing space exploration today, says Dr Gorman, is that everything required for the mission needs to be packed into the aircraft on Earth before it takes off.
But if this mining expedition succeeds, it could launch the start of an entire space industry, where travel resources could be manufactured mid-orbit, or once landing on a different planet:
"I think this is more the issue than simply replacing terrestrial resources like iron and rare earth elements with equivalents from space.”
However, all this is hypothetical, she explains, since our knowledge of space environments is still very limited:
“We really know so little of the solar system – the samples of space environments outside of Earth-Moon-Mars are really tiny. It’s very difficult to say what impact mining would have on the environmental values of an asteroid, but we do have to start considering the question.”