(1) Capture Asteroid. (2) Mine It. (3) PROFIT!! (4)…KABLOOM

By Veronique Greenwood | September 1, 2011 2:06 pm

Reel ‘er in!

We all know that asteroids close to the Earth are Bad News. (Although not as bad as many would have you think.) But what if we could catch one? Bring it home? Put it in Earth orbit? Maybe mine it for some valuable minerals; do a little science; potentially, I don’t know, back a new currency? Sure, say some Chinese scientists in a paper on the ArXiv. We should go for it!

In fact, there’s a snazzy little number approaching the Earth right now, they write. It’s about 30 feet wide. Should be pretty easy to hook in, using one of a variety of techniques outlined in the paper, which include “conventional explosive, kinetic impactor and nuclear explosive,” as well as “Enhanced Yarkovsky effect, focused solar, gravity tractor, mass driver, pulsed laser and space tug.” The nuclear route may not be advisable, they opine: “Because the nuclear explosion can release a very large amount of energy, the result may be a fragmentation of the target NEO.” Better to go with the kinetic imapactor, they decide. A little tap to the ol’ asteroid, and it will accelerate just enough to get stuck orbiting the Earth.

After that, well, the orbit could be unstable, and eventually the rock would fly off across the heavens. But with that as practice, one could could move on to mile-wide rocks, which, according to calculations made by gobsmacked tech and science bloggers around the web, could yield trillions of dollars of metals.

“Interesting idea. What could possibly go wrong?,” says the ever-polite ArXiv blogger. “What possible objections could anyone have to this idea?” writes Clay Dillow at PopSci.

The folks over at Dvice say it best, though: “Now, were something to get screwed up and that mile-wide metallic asteroid hit Earth instead, we’d be looking at something like a 24-mile-wide crater and a fireball so large that trees 200 miles away would spontaneously burst into flames, among other fun effects.”

Sign. Us. Up.

  • http://sueannbowling.com Sue Ann Bowling

    The Law of Unintended Consequences?

  • Don

    Mining it huh? I seriously doubt that is the reason for them wanting to do this, any more than it would be our reason. Sure it is a great idea, and also true about the minerals and metals, but it does Make a nice doomsday weapon though, and depending on size, much more powerful than a nuke strike. Of course at a mile wide, I’ll stick with the doomsday weapon scenario. Yeah I know, I have a bad view of humanity in general, but i think I have good reason to be.

  • mjwshagy

    Maybe we could put it in orbit around the moon instead. That might be safer.

  • feh

    “(…) we’d be looking at something like a 24-mile-wide crater and a fireball so large that trees 200 miles away would spontaneously burst into flames, among other fun effects.”

    Sure sounds like a hoot. Let’s do it!

  • http://Discovery.com Bigkaram

    Just tow it to the moon and set it down. We then visit it or set up a mining came around it. No orbit.. No kaboom..just safe hunk of precious metals and minerals. Oh ya.. No fire on the moon either and plenty of unused craters for the waste

  • Brian Too

    I’ve always wondered exactly how the asteroid mining idea was supposed to work. Do we de-orbit the thing on to Earth’s surface? Do we take a portable blast furnace into orbit? Is the market here on Earth or do we value the production output outside of Earth’s gravity well?

    Not saying it’s a bad idea, but I get the feeling the whole proposition is a bit ill-defined.

  • Tommy Lee Bennett

    Another idea:

    Collect a number of these objects, composed primarily of water, into Earth orbit. Use nuclear devices – reactors, not bombs – to melt the ice, ending in an ice layer formed by gravitation around a solid – preferably metal – core.

    You now have many of the components of a space habitat in Earth orbit without needing to lift them into orbit from Earth.

    Energy: the left-over nuclear devices. Water: melt the ice. Oxygen: electrolysis of the water. Shelter: melt the ice and line with plastic foam. Radiation shielding: the object itself. Structural materials: iron from the core.

    Add propulsion, hydroponics, etc… you eventually arrive at a long duration space vehicle.

  • Jesse

    @Briam — it actually isn’t so undefined as you think. Imagine sitting on a great big honking chunk of nickel-iron. Let’s assume it’s an asteroid a mile (about 2 km) on a side and only 5% of it is nickel. That’s ~3 x 10^12 kg or at current prices $78,400,000,000,000. (I used London Metals Exchange).

    That’s about six times the GDP of the United States. I didn’t even count the value of the iron.

    Now, how to get it “down”? Well, say you get it into earth orbit. You could send a shuttle equivalent up to LEO and a manned satellite-like craft to MEO or even higher. Send another with some cutting tools. Chop off chunks — say a ton or so apiece. Attach parachute or heat shield. (Or both). Drop them in. A small reaction control thruster cold fine-tune it as it falls in. To put it in perspective, an asteroid that is coming in at 1,000 miles an hour (twice the speed of a jumbo jet) has a relative speed to the Earth’s surface of zero if it’s coming in prograde.

    This is way oversimplified of course. The complicated part, tho, is not, IMO getting smaller bits in to Earth. It’s getting peopel up there to cut it down to size (or robots, but they are really bad at that kind of inexact stuff that requires on the fly thinking — there is a reason we still use people to mine, and it isn’t the expense of robots, necessarily).

    I haven’t even gotten to the value of being able to send heavy metals to a space station — easier than bringing it up out of a gravity well.

  • http://daybrown.org Day Brown

    A nuclear meltdown in a bored shaft would act like a rocket to put it wherever you want with a lot of precise control. Secondly, life on a space ship, without the protection of 15 lbs of atmosphere over your head is like moving into a nuclear power plant. But boring into an asteroid, mining it, would provide the radiation shielding.

    Furthermore, even limited by the speed of light, some nearby systems may be feasible for colonization, but you’d need the shielding of an asteroid to survive the years in space and not get cancer from the radiation. No need to work this out now, but if a suitable planet is located, then the mass of an asteroid could be used to build the needed shielding as well as provide the “fuel” for a nuclear rocket.

  • Hemo_jr

    Orbital mechanics are well understood. It is all simple Newtonian physics. It is pretty close to impossible to make a mistake that would send a mile wide asteroid crashing into Earth.

    And it is unlikely that anyone would be moving mile wide asteroids into Earth orbit in the first place – at least for a long while. More likely it will be smaller asteroids — ones the size that would tend to burn up in the atmosphere and not cause a crater – say less than 100 feet/30 meters wide. Those are easier to handle and would give us experience.

    As for it being ill-defined. So? There is plenty of time for developing and refining procedures. And mining/extraction is one of the things that could be tested once a small asteroid is captured. There is the energy, in the form of solar power, Mirrors can concentrate heat. Smelting can be adapted to micro-gravity and vacuum. The fact is that industrialization of space will mean less pollution Earth.

    When railroads started up in the 19th century, objections were raised based on fears that going 30 or 40 mph was not something that people normally do. And who knows what kinds of physiological problems might be caused by going so fast? Further, people might fall off, they might die.

    The objections against asteroid mining is reminiscent of this kind of Luddite reaction. We should be more rational than that.

  • Chris Winter

    I think the main point here is, just as with a mine on Earth’s surface, you don’t transport the ores; you refine the metals in place and bring them to point of use. That means some sort of a smelter operation on or near the asteroid. A solar concentrator could provide process heat. Slag might be a problem; but, with a mass driver you could use it as reaction mass to adjust the asteroid’s orbit. The Space Studies Institute has looked at this in detail.

    Also, any resources in space would have to be very precious to be worth bringing back to Earth. Once we are in a position to start mining asteroids, though, we’ll also be in a position to shape and use those metals in space — which makes better economic sense.

    Regardless, I would not support putting the asteroid in Earth orbit. Hemo_jr writes, “It is pretty close to impossible to make a mistake that would send a mile wide asteroid crashing into Earth.” My response to that is three words: Mars Climate Orbiter.

    (Google in your friend.)

  • Icepick

    I think that an automated smelting plant that combined autonomus programs would be safer and then use of a magnetic accelarant and deacellarent (throw and catch) to bring it close but not to close to an orbital station would be best. One batch of precious metals would make any corporation or individual the richest in the world!


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