How soon could asteroid mining become a reality?

DATE: 13/12/2016

About 10 years, if funding is allocated by US Congress during 2017 and later years.

NASA is currently planning the Asteroid Redirect Mission, which would use a robotic spacecraft to - among other things* - return 20–50 tons of asteroid material to lunar orbit for human astronauts to work with. Under the current plan; ARM would launch the robotic spacecraft at the end of 2021, arrive at the asteroid 2008 EV5 in 2023, and return to Earth-Moon space in 2025. Astronauts would work with the returned asteroid material in 2026.

ARM would provide the opportunity to flight-demonstrate space resource utilization on a fairly large scale. For example, the astronauts could put a few hundred kilograms of asteroid material into a prototype water-extraction system provided by one of the current space-resource start-up companies and get ~30 kg of water out of it (2008 EV5 is perhaps 10% water by mass on its surface).

ARM by itself wouldn’t quite be enough to make asteroid mining profitable. e.g. It would involve launching >5 tons of robotic spacecraft and getting back at most ~5 tons of water. At that point, it still makes more sense economically to ship water up from Earth. But demonstrations of space resource utilization are a necessary precursor to larger-scale asteroid mining that would be cost-effective in terms of providing products such as water, radiation shielding, and steel in space.


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