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  (at 0.07345e+24kg ).
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  .
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 .
Animation of radar images of 2011 UW158. Credit: Arecibo Telescope/NASA
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 .
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 .
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 .
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 (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 .
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 .
Re-entry of Hayabusa over Woomera Test Range. Credit: NASA/Ed Schilling
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 science.
Destined for Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the mission went so far away that it took 23 minutes for commands to get there, flying along side something that had never had images so detailed taken of it before . Then, a probe landed on its surface, making a triple touchdown before coming to a stop in a dark zone, relying on just 60 hours of charge to take measurements, before dying.
However, in this time it detected organic molecules (meaning molecules needed for life), and molecular oxygen in its coma (an envelope of gas around the rocky nucleus) along with many other key findings, still being revealed today  .
Image of 67P by Rosetta's NAVCAM. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM, CC BY-SA IGO 3.0
Launched in 2016, OSIRIS-REx was focused again on the physical properties of asteroids, looking at their chemistry, mineralogy, geochemistry, landing on asteroid Bennu, a carbon-rich asteroid, to do this. It could, along with improving the science around asteroids that could impact Earth (as discussed previously), again help us learn how the planets and life formed.
The mission has recently taken a step forward, picking up its sample from the surface to be sent back to Earth for further analysis in 2023, so as to learn more about this exciting object .
Artist's impression of OSIEIS-REx touching down on Bennu.
Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona
The final mission is the follow-on from Hayabusa, launched in 2014 and this time targeting another asteroid called Ryugu, using similar but upgraded technologies to Hayabusa, with upgrades including a new device that can create an artificial crater in the surface to gather rock that is less weathered by things like solar wind than the surface, gathering better samples.
Another major difference in the two missions is that Ryugu is older than Itokawa, possibly having a higher likelihood of revealing the secrets to the origins of life .
On 21st February 2019, it landed, firing a 5g pellet at >1,050km/h to create a crater and gather a sample, before touching down again on 11th June 2019, collecting more samples from the dust made by the previous touchdown, as well as collecting further samples, to make up a very heavy 100mg. It might not sound like much, but this can help pave the way for many more discoveries once back on Earth .
The two samples collected on Ryugu’s surface then fell to Earth at 11km/s on 6th December 2020, after having touched down on Ryugu’s surface just 1 year earlier, making landfall in the Australian outback, like with the previous mission, with people from JAXA (Japan's space agency) quickly rushing to the scene to collect the 16kg capsule that protected it from the elements, making sure the sample was safe .
Cameras in Australian Outback capture capsule fireball in sky. Credit: EPA
All the data from these projects will then make it possible to pave the way for a better understanding of life and the Solar System, whilst also, possibly, paving the wave for a future in going to asteroids not to collect samples to test, but to collect rocks to use to improve our lives, whilst doing this ethically, within constraints that the Outer Space Treaty and Artemis Accords.
by George Abraham, ADAS member.
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