Surrounding the Earth are hundreds of mineral-rich rocks, or asteroids, containing what might be billions or even trillions of dollars worth of resources, including metal and water. The possibility of tapping into these unclaimed goldmines has been a long-held and seemingly unobtainable dream, but it might be one that is now moving closer to reality.

Consider the stats, and you’ll start to realise why mining asteroids could be so important for the future of the human race. Just one near-Earth asteroid several kilometres in size could contain more precious metal than has ever been used by humanity, and enough water to power fleets of rockets.

The problem, as is ever the case with new space exploration proposals, is money. Who’s going to stump up the cash to mount an expedition to an asteroid that, for one, could fail, and two, would require huge infrastructure to even be considered a moderate success? The answer could be in the form of private enterprises with an eye for adventure and discovery rather than a significant return in investment.

One company that made headlines earlier this year to do just that was Planetary Resources. A conglomeration of entrepreneurs and technicians including co-founder Peter Diamandis and film director James Cameron, this ambitious venture will be the first to aim to mine asteroids and return their valuable resources to Earth or use them in space.

To read the rest of this article, check out issue 6 of All About Space magazine, on sale now.

Illustration by Adrian Mann

FutureTech

Could mining asteroids open up the Solar System’s resources to humanity?

How could we extract valuable resources from floating space rocks near Earth?

The Hayabusa probe, built by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), was launched on a Japanese M-V rocket on 9 May 2003 from the Uchinoura Space Centre in Japan. Its mission was to become the first man-made object to return samples from an asteroid – in this case Itokawa, an S-Type asteroid chosen for its occasional proximity to Earth and its interesting iron and magnesium-silicate surface.

To obtain the necessary speed to reach Itokawa 186 million miles (300 million km) away, Hayabusa used its ion and chemical engines to orbit the Sun for more than a year. This provided continual acceleration, and when it finally approached Earth again it performed a swing-by to propel itself towards the Itokawa asteroid two years after its launch.

Communication to and from Hayabusa at the asteroid took 40 minutes, so it had to finish most of its mission alone. Upon its approach it dropped a 10cm-wide sphere with a reflective surface onto Itokawa. By shining light onto the sphere, Hayabusa could calculate its distance to the ground.

The probe was supposed to drop a lander, named Minerva, onto the surface. However, the lander missed the surface, and JAXA instead decided to land Hayabusa directly on the asteroid. Attempts to fire a ball bearing into the ground to kick up dust were unsuccessful, but fortunately the power of its engines disturbed enough dust to be collected inside a capsule.

After leaving the asteroid it lost all propulsion barring two ion engines, in addition to experiencing a communications failure with mission controllers. However, thanks to some clever workarounds including the use of the Sun’s pressure against the solar panels to help steer the spacecraft, Hayabusa eventually limped home three years behind schedule.

Upon arrival at Earth the capsule containing the sample from Itokawa separated from the probe, with the latter burning up as planned in the atmosphere and the former landing safely in Australia on 13 June 2010. However, all was not over just yet. JAXA were still unsure if Hayabusa had successfully retrieved samples or not. It was not confirmed until several months later that the particles in the sample container were from Itokawa, bringing to an end a remarkable mission that had been so close to failure but eventually came up trumps with the sample JAXA were looking for.

Image courtesy of JAXA and Akihiro Ikeshita.

Space Exploration

The incredible story of the first mission to mine an asteroid

How the Japanese mission that seemed destined to fail returned the first asteroid samples to Earth.