The mining of asteroids is not a new concept. Since the modern age of spaceflight, there have been many theories, thoughts and experiments on how to accomplish resource collection from these astronomical bodies. In today’s world, as technology advances it seems that the prospect of this happening grows closer and closer to reality. Asteroid mining and resource collection from asteroids is theoretically a sound idea with many opportunities for useful exploitation of resources; practically however, technology has a long way to go before any worthwhile large resource extraction occurs.
If all the technology required has not been developed and tested how can it be known that asteroid mining is a viable process? It comes down to a few things, firstly it is already known which asteroids are suitable candidates for resource exploitation. By understanding what materials are available on the varying types, scientists can pick ones that would be most worthwhile to visit. As well, there are many practical uses for the minable resources, such as fuel and electricity, that would be extremely beneficial to spaceflight. As stated prior, the biggest hurdle inhibiting the advancement in this area of space exploration at the moment is that of technology and cost; however, if that hurdle can be conquered then the benefits of asteroid mining would be incredibly valuable to the progress of spaceflight in our solar system.
What Asteroids Are Suitable Candidates?
The suitability of an asteroid for resource harvesting can be narrowed down to two main variables: its accessibility and its resource makeup. Accessibility is determined by the asteroid’s location relative to earth and how much energy would need to be expended to reach it. The vast majority of asteroids in our Solar System are located in the asteroid belt which exists between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.23 The massive gravitational influence of Jupiter has essentially corralled these loose objects into similar orbits of the sun. The remainder of objects exist on random trajectories or smaller groups throughout the solar system and are scattered in much lower densities, none of them orbit the Earth.
The closest thing that we have to an Earth orbiting asteroid is a relatively new finding called a “Trojan Asteroid”. These Trojan asteroids may exist at one of the Lagrange points where gravitational forces between the Sun and the Earth balance out and hold objects like asteroids in place. In theory, the right trajectory would allow a spacecraft going as far as Lagrange point 4 (L4) to expend the same or less energy as it would to get to the Moon.1
At the moment, the only Earth Trojan asteroid confirmed to exist is 2010-TK7 and it resides at the L4 point.2 This is a relatively new area of study as 2010-TK7 was just discovered in 2010, and as of March 1st 2017 the Osiris-Rex spacecraft has begun searching the area on its fly-by to try and discover more.20