Can asteroids be mined? NASA plans to find out

Credit: NASA

Many resources on Earth are limited. So what do we do in the future when we run out? What if we could visit asteroids in the solar system and mine those for more materials? NASA hopes that its 2016 asteroid mission will be a step in that direction.

Asteroids are the hundreds of thousands leftovers from the formation of our solar system. They're made up of a variety of metal, rock, dust, and ice. Learning to mine these materials could be a valuable way to gain new resources on Earth, and it could also be critical for the exploration of deep space.

Types of Asteroids

Astronomers have classified asteroids into three general types. One type of asteroid, the C-type, has a high amount of water — that's not something we currently need on Earth, but could be vital for future space colonies. Water is expensive to send into space, but if we could find sources of it already out there on asteroids, that solves the problem. It is also believed that C-type asteroids contain organic-based materials like carbon and phosphorous that can be used as fertilizer for farming. C-type asteroids are the most common: over 75 percent of asteroids in the solar system fall under this classification.

The most second common type of asteroid in our solar system is the S-type. These asteroids don't contain water and are mostly rocky and metallic. They can contain materials like iron, nickel and cobalt, but scientists believe they could also have smaller amounts of more precious metals like gold, platinum and rhodium.

Finally, there are the M-class asteroids. These are rare, but contain ten times the amount of metal as an S-type.

The NASA Mission

In 2016, NASA plans to launch OSIRIS-REx. This mission will send a spacecraft to Bennu, an asteroid that was discovered in 1999. The goal of the mission is to thoroughly study the asteroid using on-board equipment, but it will also collect samples to be returned to Earth for further study. NASA hopes that studying Bennu will not only help us understand the composition of asteroids, but also teach us more about how they move through the solar system, so that potential impacts on Earth can be better predicted.

The OSIRIS-REx will arrive at Bennu in 2018 with three spectrometers. The OSIRIS-REx Infrared Spectrometer (OVIRS) will look at both visible and infrared light on the asteroid. It will also be able to look for organic materials: these are the materials that scientists are hoping to get samples of. The OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer (OTES) will dig deeper into the infrared spectrum to look for minerals, as well as measure the asteroid's temperature. The Regolith X-ray Imaging Spectrometer will use X-rays to examine the side of the asteroid facing the sun. This will allow scientists to map out where elements may exist on the surface of Bennu. All of these spectrometers will work together to learn more about the asteroid's path and how the sun affects it. Finally, there will be cameras on-board to take high resolution images and help create a 3D map of the asteroid's surface.

This mission will essentially be the first asteroid mining mission, as samples of Bennu will be collected and brought back to Earth. Scientists believe that this will also be the first step in learning more about asteroids so that we can consider future commercial mining missions.

Via NASA

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