The drive to set up a mining operation on an asteroid is a matter of simple economics. While building an asteroid mine will cost billions of dollars, it will be far cheaper than carrying supplies from Earth to the moon or Mars.
Spacecraft would have to carry food and supplies for the mining crew and the equipment for the mine. Newly developed spacecraft should make landing on an asteroid possible. After all, we have already landed on the moon, and some asteroids pass by closer than the moon. A spacecraft going to an asteroid would need less rocket power and fuel than one going to the moon.
One problem will be how to keep the asteroid from rotating while it's being mined. Some experts suggest attaching rockets to the asteroid to take the spin out of it. But once miners land on the asteroid, just how do they plan to dig on it, process the materials extracted and transport it to a space colony or to Earth?
No one knows for sure what the first asteroid mine will look like, but here are some good assumptions:
- The machinery will likely be solar powered, to reduce the need for fuel that would have to be hauled to the asteroid by spacecraft.
- The equipment will also have to be lightweight to transport it to the asteroid.
- Some experts, including Lewis, have favored using robotic equipment to limit the personnel needed to carry out the mining project. This would reduce the amount of supplies, like food, required for a manned mission.
- Miners on asteroids would use techniques similar to those used on Earth. The most likely method would be to scrape desired material off the asteroid, and tunnel into veins of specific substances. Scraping, or strip mining, will pull out valuable ore that will float off the asteroid.
- Because much of the ore will fly off, a large canopy might be used to collect it.
- Asteroids have nearly no gravity, so the mining equipment, and the astronaut-miners who operate it, will have to use grapples to anchor themselves to the ground. However, the lack of gravity is an advantage in moving mined material around without having to use much power.
- Once a load of material is ready to be sent to either Earth or a space colony, rocket fuel for a ferrying spacecraft could be produced by breaking down water from the asteroid into hydrogen and oxygen.
- After an asteroid's minerals and resources have been exhausted by the mining project, the equipment can then be transported to the next asteroid.
Because of the lack of gravity and atmosphere, ferrying the newly mined materials to the moon will be easy. Once there, they can be refined and formed into structures!
Related How Stuff Works Articles:
Other Interesting Links:
- Asteroids -- A Multimedia Tour of the Solar System
- Asteroids (National Space Science Data Center)
- Asteroid Mining (NASA Science News)
- The Challenge of Space Mining (SpaceDaily.com)
- Feasibility of Mining the Near-Earth Asteroids
- The Future of Space Mining
- Is Asteroid Mining Feasible? (Scientific American)
- Mining and Processing an Asteroid
- Recovery of Asteroid Material
- Successfully Mining Asteroids and Comets
- Trying to Make Money from the Moon and Asteroids (Scientific American)
- Why Study Asteroids?