A company in the US, Planetary Resources has started making efforts to mine asteroids or large meteorites in space. I believe Indian companies, especially mining companies which are having a hard time getting government clearances must look at space mining quite seriously. This would be a chance to save the environments in the locations that these mines are located on Earth without moving people out and also will push mineral exploration into space. Also, by the time that they get clearances to mine in India, they could probably build, launch, mine and return back to Earth with minerals and possibly sell them on Earth. This is a good possible study for the MBA types to find out which is cheaper – waiting and getting clearances or launching two spacecrafts into orbit for the purpose of asteroid/meteorite mining.
Wikipedia’s article on Asteroid mining has this to say on the possibilites of minerals present on asteroids and meteorites:
These include gold, iridium, silver, osmium, palladium, platinum, rhenium, rhodium,ruthenium and tungsten for transport back to Earth; iron, cobalt, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, aluminium, and titanium for construction; water and oxygen to sustain astronauts; as well as hydrogen, ammonia, and oxygen for use as rocket propellant.
Given this range of options, I thought I should also design a bare bones, un-researched article on one asteroid mining scenario.
My concept works on two spacecraft scenario. One is a longer lasting Tug-craft. The second is a frequent Earth returning Mine-craft.
Earth based asteroid monitoring systems will be used for the twin purposes of keeping an eye on incoming asteroids that could hit Earth called Near Earth Objects as well as potential targets for a tug-craft in orbit. Looking at timelines of spacecraft that cater to the International Space Station or that go to the Moon, we currently can get a spacecraft into Low Earth Orbit and then from there to a specified target (between the ISS to the Moon) in 1 to 5 days. We can also decently estimate their trajectories and velocities to get a handle on where we should send our tug-craft to intercept the asteroids/meteorites and also whether we can send them to intercept points in the time available to us.
For the purposes of this idea, let’s consider that an asteroid passes near the Moon. A tug-craft could either be launched from Earth or a spacecraft already in orbit can be redirected to the target. Let’s say that the tug-craft reaches the intercept point in 5 days. As the asteroid approaches, the tug-craft makes adjustments to it’s orbit, makes more precise calculation of the incoming asteroid’s velocity with respect to itself and begins mapping the mineralogical possibilities that the asteroid/meteorite offers. The tug-craft then uses tugs (metallic or composite rope like structures) to drill and latch onto and slowdown the speeding asteroid using its on-board thruster. It also uses on-board remote sensing instruments and spectrometers to estimated the mineralogical content and location on the asteroid. In my example, I provide for three tugs to pull the asteroid into a mining-parking orbit with the tug-craft dictating the orbit.
This itself would require a minimum of two test flights and a few more flights to improve and perfect asteroid catching techniques. It would be something akin to catching a bullet. It would require continuous improvements or kaizen method to get better and more cost effective in the longer run. But there will be millions of objects to test it on even in the Near Earth space.
The mine-craft’s work is a bit more straight forward, given that the target’s location is known. It only uses data from the tug-craft to understand location of the deposits and begins to mine the asteroid. The raw minerals are collected and returned to Earth. Earth-based mining techniques may not work in space and may require re-working the mining design. The recent launch of expandable spacecrafts would come in handy to increase the amount of material the spacecrafts can bring back to Earth.
The only part of this that we have not worked out fully with is tugging the asteroid and mining the asteroid. Test flights would be needed to test out both systems in parts of space where it keeps away from Earth during such tests. I think these systems could be ready to for deployment after research in the next 5-10 years.