Primeval 17 – Asteroid Mining

 

The length of time taken for the K-Pg Extinction to occur is a controversial issue, because some theories about the extinction’s causes require a rapid extinction over a relatively short period of a few thousand years, while others require longer periods. The issue is difficult to resolve because of the Signor–Lipps effect; that is, the fossil record is so incomplete that most extinct species probably died out long after the most recent fossil that has been found.(1)Philip W. Signor III and Jere H. Lipps (1982) “Sampling bias, gradual extinction patterns, and catastrophes in the fossil record” Geological Society of America, Special Papers, Volume 190, Pages 291-296

Dinosaur Fossil Excavation

Dinosaur Fossil Excavation

Naturally what we know about the dinosaurs and other extinct creatures reflects only what we have found. Our compendium of dinosaur species is rooted in what paleontologists sift from the few fossil beds we know of. Fossils themselves are fortunate accidents, hardly the inevitable fate of bones. Paleontologists like Zhao Xijin of the China Academy of Sciences put the chances of a dinosaur bone becoming a fossil at one in a million.(2)David Stanway (2008-12-30) “Dinosaur Bones Find is World’s Biggest, says China” The Guardian The vast majority of yesterday’s skeletons are lost forever, gnawed on by scavengers, broken by the elements, dissolved by soil that’s too acidic, or buried somewhere far from the bulldozers of human beings. It is accepted that our fossil collection represents a small fraction of the species that existed.

What is generally accepted is that by the time of the K-Pg Extinction impacts most of the larger dinosaurs were already extinct. The extinction is believed to have taken place in the 30,000 years leading up to the impacts. Then at least two asteroids impact the Earth in close succession creating the Chicxulub and Boltysh craters. The other two impacts are not widely accepted as the craters are underwater, although there is growing interest in them, and they may be widely accepted in the next decade or two. At least one of the asteroids was rich in Iridium.

New Horizons Probe

New Horizons Probe

Iridium is one of the rarest elements in Earth’s crust; a very hard, brittle, silvery-white transition metal of the platinum family. Iridium is the densest element based on calculations involving the space lattices of the elements, and is the most corrosion-resistant metal, even at temperatures as high as 2000 °C. The demand for iridium surged in the 2000s, mostly because of electronics-related applications. Devices that must withstand extremely high temperatures are often made from iridium, and its corrosion and heat resistance makes iridium an important alloying agent. Certain long-life aircraft engine parts are made of an iridium alloy, and an iridium–titanium alloy is used for deep-water pipes because of its corrosion resistance.(3)J. Emsley (2003) “Iridium” Nature’s Building Blocks: An A–Z Guide to the Elements, Pages 201–204 The radioisotope iridium-192 is one of the two most important sources of energy for use in industrial gamma-radiography for non-destructive testing of metals.(4)Chuck Hellier (2001) Handbook of Nondestructive Evaluation Iridium has been used in the radioisotope thermoelectric generators of unmanned spacecraft such as the Voyager, Viking, Pioneer, Cassini, Galileo, and New Horizons. Iridium was chosen to encapsulate the plutonium-238 fuel in nuclear generators because it can withstand the operating temperatures of up to 2000 °C and for its great strength.(5)L. B. Hunt (1987) “A History of Iridium” Platinum Metals Review, Volume 31, Number 1, Pages 32–41 Another use concerns X-ray optics, especially X-ray telescopes;(6)E. Ziegler (2001) “High-efficiency tunable X-ray focusing optics using mirrors and laterally-graded multilayers” Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research Section A: Accelerators, Spectrometers, Detectors and Associated Equipment. Pages 467–468 and 954–957 the mirrors of the Chandra X-ray Observatory are coated with a layer of iridium 60 nm thick. Iridium proved to be the best choice for reflecting X-rays after nickel, gold, and platinum were also tested. The iridium layer, which had to be smooth to within a few atoms, was applied by depositing iridium vapour under high vacuum on a base layer of chromium.(7)Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (December 11, 1995) “Face-to-Face with Jerry Johnston, CXC Program Manager & Bob Hahn, Chief Engineer at Optical Coating Laboratories, Inc., Santa Rosa, CA” Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; Chandra X-ray Center

Deep Space Industries Promotional Poster

Deep Space Industries Promotional Image

The rarity of rare earth metals including iridium, osmium, and other platinum group metals has prompted industry to look off world for new sources. On April 24, 2012 a plan was announced by billionaire entrepreneurs to mine asteroids for their resources. The company is called Planetary Resources, and its founders include aerospace entrepreneurs Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis. Advisers include film director and explorer James Cameron and investors include Google’s chief executive Larry Page and its executive chairman Eric Schmidt. They also plan to create a fuel depot in space by 2020 by using water from asteroids, which could be broken down in space to liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen for rocket fuel. From there, it could be shipped to Earth orbit for refuelling commercial satellites or spacecraft.(8)BBC News (April 24, 2012) “Plans for asteroid mining emerge” BBC News

Another similar venture, called Deep Space Industries, was started by David Gump, who had founded other space companies.(9)Taylor Soper (January 22, 2013) “Deep Space Industries entering asteroid-mining world, creates competition for Planetary Resources”. GeekWire: Dispatches from the Digital Frontier. The company proposed to begin prospecting for asteroids suitable for mining by 2015 and by 2016 return asteroid samples to Earth.(10) Deep Space Industries (January 22, 2013) “Commercial Asteroid Hunters announce plans for new Robotic Exploration Fleet” Deep Space Industries By 2023 Deep Space Industries plans to begin mining asteroids.(11)Mike Wall (January 22, 2013) “Asteroid-Mining Project Aims for Deep-Space Colonies” Space.com NASA has awarded the company two contracts for analysis and advice on the space agency’s Asteroid Redirect Mission in June 2014.(12)NASA (June 19, 2014) “NASA Selects Studies for the Asteroid Redirect Mission” National Aeronautics and Space Administration

CBM8RK A manned Asteroid Lander on the surface of an asteroid.

A manned Asteroid Lander on the surface of an asteroid.

At ISDC-San Diego 2013, Kepler Energy and Space Engineering (KESE,llc) also announced it was going to mine asteroids, using a simpler, more straightforward approach: KESE plans to use almost exclusively existing guidance, navigation and anchoring technologies from successful missions like the Rosetta/Philae, Dawn, and Hyabusa’s Muses-C and current NASA Technology Transfer tooling to build and send a 4-module Automated Mining System (AMS) to a small asteroid with a simple digging tool to collect around 40 tons of asteroid regolith and bring each of the four return modules back to low Earth orbit (LEO) by the end of the decade. Small asteroids are expected to be loose piles of rubble, therefore providing for easy extraction.

NASA is currently working on the Asteroid Redirect Mission (or Asteroid Initiative), an uncrewed robotic mission, to “retrieve” a near-Earth asteroid with a size of about 8.2 metres (27 ft) and a mass of around 500 tons, comparable in mass to the International Space Station. The asteroid would be moved into a high lunar orbit or orbit around EML2 (halo orbit) for research and exploration purposes.(13)Mike Wall (April 5, 2013) “NASA to Get $100 Million for Asteroid-Capture Mission, Senator Says” Space.com Under consideration for moving the asteroid are grabbing the asteroid and using solar electric propulsion to directly move it, as well as gravity tractor technology, which has yet to be developed.

DSI Asteroid Capture Concept

DSI Asteroid Capture Concept

In 2014 U.S. Congressmen Bill Posey (R-FL) and Derek Kilmer (D-WA) introduced the American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities in Deep Space (ASTEROIDS) Act, which is attempting to establish and protect property rights for commercial space exploration and utilization of asteroid resources.(14)H.R.5063 – ASTEROIDS Act113th Congress (2013-2014) This bill in currently under consideration in the House of Representatives.

In 2011 Hexi Baoyin and associated members of the Tsinghua University in Beijing proposed a simple way to move an asteroid into Earth orbit. They say it’s relatively straightforward to nudge a small asteroid in our direction. They’ve even discovered a number of candidates nearby that they’d like to bring into orbit. A particularly good candidate is a 10-meter object called 2008EA9 which will pass within a million kilometers or so of Earth in 2049. 2008EA9 has a very similar orbital velocity as Earth’s. Baoyin and his associates calculate that it could be nudged into Earth orbit by changing its velocity by 410 meters per second. This nudge should place the asteroid in an orbit at about twice the distance of the Moon. From there it can be studied and mined.(15)MIT (August 29, 2011) “A Plan To Place An Asteroid In Earth Orbit” MIT Technology Review

References   [ + ]

1. Philip W. Signor III and Jere H. Lipps (1982) “Sampling bias, gradual extinction patterns, and catastrophes in the fossil record” Geological Society of America, Special Papers, Volume 190, Pages 291-296
2. David Stanway (2008-12-30) “Dinosaur Bones Find is World’s Biggest, says China” The Guardian
3. J. Emsley (2003) “Iridium” Nature’s Building Blocks: An A–Z Guide to the Elements, Pages 201–204
4. Chuck Hellier (2001) Handbook of Nondestructive Evaluation
5. L. B. Hunt (1987) “A History of Iridium” Platinum Metals Review, Volume 31, Number 1, Pages 32–41
6. E. Ziegler (2001) “High-efficiency tunable X-ray focusing optics using mirrors and laterally-graded multilayers” Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research Section A: Accelerators, Spectrometers, Detectors and Associated Equipment. Pages 467–468 and 954–957
7. Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (December 11, 1995) “Face-to-Face with Jerry Johnston, CXC Program Manager & Bob Hahn, Chief Engineer at Optical Coating Laboratories, Inc., Santa Rosa, CA” Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; Chandra X-ray Center
8. BBC News (April 24, 2012) “Plans for asteroid mining emerge” BBC News
9. Taylor Soper (January 22, 2013) “Deep Space Industries entering asteroid-mining world, creates competition for Planetary Resources”. GeekWire: Dispatches from the Digital Frontier.
10. Deep Space Industries (January 22, 2013) “Commercial Asteroid Hunters announce plans for new Robotic Exploration Fleet” Deep Space Industries
11. Mike Wall (January 22, 2013) “Asteroid-Mining Project Aims for Deep-Space Colonies” Space.com
12. NASA (June 19, 2014) “NASA Selects Studies for the Asteroid Redirect Mission” National Aeronautics and Space Administration
13. Mike Wall (April 5, 2013) “NASA to Get $100 Million for Asteroid-Capture Mission, Senator Says” Space.com
14. H.R.5063 – ASTEROIDS Act113th Congress (2013-2014)
15. MIT (August 29, 2011) “A Plan To Place An Asteroid In Earth Orbit” MIT Technology Review