Astronomical Value in an Astronomical Location

Asteroids: An Untapped Resource


Asteroids are ancient remnants of the Solar System’s formation, around 4.6 billion years ago; waste material in a cosmic building project, numbering 1,038,379 in a count in early 2019, located mainly in the Asteroid Belt, between Mars and Jupiter.


They are anything from tens of metres to hundreds of kilometres in diameter, like Vesta, at 530km, yet making up a mass of less than the Moon [1] (at 0.07345e+24kg [2]).


But, with such a comparatively small size to even the Moon, how come we’re interested in them? Well, it’s to do with what they’re made of: many precious metals and minerals ranging from gold to phosphorus, being what 2011 UW158 (or 436724 for short) is made of, being then valued at around $5.4 trillion in 2015, and 796 Sarita, at over $100 trillion [3] [4].


This amazing mining potential is something not unnoticed by any means, with the rise of companies like 'SpaceX' and 'Blue Origin' already spending lots on space, and others more targeted at mining, like 'Planetary Resources' and 'Deep Space Industries', all in the knowledge of the increasingly profitable prospects of space, once seemingly a sci-fi dream, but soon, possibly, reality [5].


Animation of radar images of 2011 UW158

Animation of radar images of 2011 UW158. Credit: Arecibo Telescope/NASA


Governing Space


However, as seen on Earth, exploitation of a pristine place isn’t great for the environment and the heritage shared by us all, being why places like Outer Space, Antarctica, the High Seas and the Atmosphere have been put into the Global Commons (outlined by the UN), to be protected for all of us to enjoy [6].


The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, signed by many nations, is one of the foundation laws for the Global Commons, outlining, among other things, lack of sovereignty and exploitation of Outer Space [7].


This doesn’t take into account, however, the commercial approach to Outer Space, not being led by a nation but by private entities, leading to the Artemis Accords: the most recent piece of Outer Space legislation, designed to govern commercial use of Outer Space, so as to make it sustainable to use, but still protected as our common heritage [8].


Exploration


So, after that bit of legal training (but as a disclaimer, I’m not a source of Outer Space legal advice), you can now go and search for what’s out there and where is best to mine.


There are four major missions that have happened in recent years that have paved the way for exploring asteroids, and comets, potential, while also having routes in everything from protecting our planet from asteroids falling to Earth, to finding the origins of the Solar System and even the origins of life.


Hayabusa


Hayabusa (aka MUSES-C) is first to be launched on our list, back in 2003. From the Japanese “はやぶさ” meaning “Peregrine Falcon”, Hayabusa set a course for the asteroid Itokawa, taking measurements of everything from its gravity to what the surface is like, gathering samples to take back to Earth in 2010, landing in Australia [9].


These samples were the most important part of the mission, being something that we can’t get unless we actually go there, so are scientifically valuable, revealing insights into the formation of planets in the early Solar System that rocks on Earth couldn’t, because of the active conditions experienced here [10].


Re-entry of Hayabusa over Woomera Test Range

Re-entry of Hayabusa over Woomera Test Range. Credit: NASA/Ed Schilling


Rosetta


Launched in 2004, it was destined not for an asteroid, but for a comet. Although comets are not as commercially exciting as asteroids, scientifically, they are very exciting, possibly holding the answer to how water is on Earth and how life formed, making this mission very important to s