Asteroid Mining is in Our Near Future

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Prospector-1, the first asteroid mining probe will be launched by the end of the decade, on a search for water. DSI

In the not-too-distant future, a robotic mission will lift off from Earth carrying mining equipment to an asteroid. It will settle onto a near-Earth object and start harvesting materials needed for solar system exploration or structures for colonies. Such a scenario is a mainstay of science fiction stories, with hardy miners settling down on chunks of space rock to make their fortunes. In many stories, mines supply rare materials needed on Earth (or other colonized worlds).

All the stories look forward to a time when we extend our reach out beyond Earth to explore and use the worlds around us. What will an asteroid mine look for? And, who will use its riches?

Asteroids and Solar System History

Asteroids are made of rocks left over from the formation of the solar system. That makes them very ancient — some 4.5 billion years old, at least. They contain iron and other minerals common on Earth, as well as other not-so-common minerals such as iridium. Some are also water-rich and it's likely that a lot of Earth's water came from such asteroids as they slammed together to make our infant planet. The idea of mining water makes future exploration a lot more welcoming in addition to finding out more about our solar system's history.

With the proper manufacturing facilities in space, the minerals uncovered from such objects can be used to build habitats, spaceships, and more.

This is important because it's incredibly expensive to bring construction materials out of Earth's strong gravity well to space. Human-crewed missions leaving on long-distance explorations of distant planets such as Mars or the water-rich world of Europa can be built on orbit near Earth using materials from asteroids (and lunar soils).

So, while mining remains in the science fiction stories, it won't be long before it becomes a reality outside of Earth's orbit. It's easy to imagine a mine supplying everything you need to build a habitat on the Moon (or another planet or asteroid), or being the source of materials for a series of ships bearing humans on trips to Mars and beyond. These are not wild stories — with the correct applications of technologies already in existence and the development of next-generation technologies, asteroid mines will be the cornerstone of future colonization and exploration trips throughout the solar system.

Meet Prospector 1

The first interplanetary mining mission planned for the near future is being planned and built by a company called Deep Space Industries. The probe is called ​Prospector-1, and it will fly to and meet up with a near-Earth asteroid sometime in 2017 if all goes well. By the beginning of the 2020s, it will start mining water from a water-rich asteroid and make it available for future space-based clients.

Prospector-1 is a small spacecraft (50 kg when fueled). It is designed to maximize performance in space at a reasonable cost. It has radiation-tolerant payloads and avionics, it also uses a water propulsion system called "Comet" to get around.

When it arrives at its target asteroid, the spacecraft will first map the surface and subsurface of the asteroid, taking visual and infrared imagery. It will chart overall water content, among a number of other tasks. When this initial science campaign is complete, Prospector-1 will use its water thrusters to try a touchdown on the asteroid. That will help it measure the target's geophysical and geotechnical characteristics.

Prospector 1's Technology and the Future of Exploration

Actually, while the water mapping is important, Prospector-1's technology is a huge part of the mission. Long-term space exploration and colonization will require affordable, long-lasting equipment that will be used for a variety of tasks. Like other spacecraft that have mapped the planets, this one will perform the explorations that humans can't yet do: checking out the mineralogy and other aspects of a target.

It will be the first commercial interplanetary mission built by private industry to serve other parts of the space exploration industry in the future.

The target asteroid for Prospector-1 hasn't been chosen yet. But, mission planners already have a list of possible places where the first interplanetary mines will be placed. Of course, the first mining operations will be robotic. But, once those are underway, it's not hard to imagine a human-piloted mining craft heading out to search for treasures among the rocky debris of the solar system.