How to get rich and save the world by the way

Science

By CAPosts 22 January, 2021 - 03:56am 81 views

Recreation of asteroid mining technology, according to one company in the industry.Deep Space Industries

In 1898, the evening edition of the New York Journal serialized a Garrett P. Serviss novel titled Edinson's Conquest of Mars . The novel narrates the adventures of a hypothetical expedition to Mars led by inventor Thomas Edinson, with the aim of preventing a second (the first was narrated in HG Wells's War of the Worlds ) Martian invasion. In one of the installments, when the intrepid explorers were returning home, they come across an asteroid made of gold and, of course, they do not hesitate to stop to collect some of the precious metal. At that time, businessman John D. Rockefeller became the richest man in history by being the first to extract and refine a natural resource, petroleum.

More than a hundred years have passed since the publication of this text and so which in its day was science fiction no longer seems so. Expeditions to Mars are an ever closer reality and it is possible, as the astronomer and popularizer Neil Degrasse Tyson thinks, that the first trillionaires in history are those who exploit, for the first time, another natural resource: asteroids .

We live in a society completely dependent on technology, but the reserves of materials necessary for the construction of batteries and electronic components such as cobalt, nickel, gold or platinum are becoming scarce. Also essential are the so-called rare earth elements . Despite their name, it is not uncommon to find them on our planet. The problem is that, except for rare mineral deposits, these are scattered throughout the earth's crust, so their extraction is not economically profitable.

This is where asteroids come into play. These objects, like comets, are the debris from the great work that led to the formation of the Solar System. Their sizes vary from a few meters to hundreds of kilometers, and most are crowded between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, in the so-called asteroid belt . However, a small group of them are relatively close to Earth.

Asteroids are made of the same material as terrestrial planets and contain a large amount of minerals and precious metals much more accessible than on Earth.

These asteroids are made of the same material as the terrestrial planets and contain a large amount of minerals and precious metals much more accessible than on Earth. This is because, during the formation of our planet, the temperature was high enough to melt its interior. In this fluid, the densest components such as iron, nickel or precious metals, sank towards the internal parts, in a process known as differentiation. In fact, the gold that we use to make jewelry was brought in by asteroids that bombarded the earth in its youth. A differentiation similar to that of the planets only happens in the largest asteroids, since the rest do not reach such high temperatures to melt. Therefore, although smaller, asteroids have many elements that are unattainable on our planet, unless Jules Verne's famous novel Journey to the Center of the Earth also ceases to be fiction one day.

It is estimated that A single 30-meter asteroid can contain $ 30 billion worth of precious metals and a 500-meter rock the equivalent of half of Earth's reserves. This means that asteroids with sizes of kilometers could exceed in value the trillions of dollars. Wow, asteroids are literally true gold mines. However, mining an asteroid is not the same as drilling a hole in the ground and waiting until the black gold appears and, unless you are Bruce Willis , it requires years of work by scientists and engineers and many millions of dollars. Is asteroid mining worth it then?

A single 30-meter asteroid is estimated to contain $ 30 billion worth of precious metals and a 500-meter rock the equivalent of half of Earth's reserves.

The answer to this question will depend on the asteroid chosen. We know of about 17,000 near-Earth asteroids, but only a small fraction of them are likely to be accessible and have the right composition to be profitable. In addition to the precious metals, it is desirable that the asteroid also have iron, aluminum or titanium which, although they are not valuable enough to take home, can be used to build the necessary infrastructure for the extraction and transport of other materials. In this sense, it is also important that the asteroid has water, since this can dissociate into hydrogen and oxygen and be used as fuel to carry the cargo back, which would reduce the initial weight of fuel. Taking into account the prices at which the shipments to space are - from 50,000 to 2.5 million dollars per kilo depending on whether the final destination is the space station or Mars, this is something to take into account although, well thought out , it is much cheaper for the asteroid to come to us

Fortunately for space miners, not so much for dinosaurs, some of the near-Earth asteroids cross our orbit. They are known as NEOs (Near Earth Objects) and are monitored as dangerous bodies. The most profitable thing to do when mining these objects would be to redirect them to a close orbit, for example, the lunar. This would also have the non-negligible benefit of preventing a possible impact with our planet. In 1980, NASA proposed an automated factory on the Moon, in which self-replicating 1-kilogram machines , running on solar energy, could refine in two and a half years, after 30 duplications, more than a billion kilograms of material from asteroid without any human intervention.

There are already several space mining companies. The first to be founded, Planetary Resources, has been operating since 2012 and has already launched several satellites to test several of its patents

There are already several space mining companies. The first to be founded, Planetary Resources , has been operating since 2012 and has already launched several satellites to test several of its patents for the purpose. At present, almost all resources are used in choosing the perfect asteroid. Other companies like Asteroid Mining Corporation or Although the Trans Astronautica Corporation is still far from its goal, it is already attracting millions of dollars from private investments interested in being on the front line of a possible future space business.

Although the first efforts are robotic, it is possible that, if the industry it is profitable, the intervention of human labor is necessary. Who knows, maybe we will start sending workers to the asteroid belt one day, making The Expanse stop being science fiction.

Patricia Sánchez Blázquez is a tenured professor at the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM)

Pablo G. Pérez González is a researcher at the Astrobiology Center, dependent on the Higher Council for Scientific Research and the National Institute of Aerospace Technology (CAB / CSIC-INTA)

Vacío Cosmico is a section in which our knowledge about the universe is presented in a qualitative and quantitative way. It is intended to explain the importance of understanding the cosmos not only from a scientific point of view but also from a philosophical, social and economic point of view. The name “cosmic vacuum” refers to the fact that the universe is and is, for the most part, empty, with less than 1 atom per cubic meter, despite the fact that in our environment, paradoxically, there are quintillion atoms per meter cubic, which invites us to reflect on our existence and the presence of life in the universe.

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