2/2013

Gold rush to space

Mikko Kaasalainen

Space mining may sound like an outlandish plan put together by Uncle Scrooge and Gyro Gearloose, but it is closer than you think. Asteroids are veritable treasure troves of precious metals.

Thousands of asteroids revolve around the Sun relatively close to the Earth’s orbit. They range from a few dozen metres to several kilometres in diameter and contain an abundance of minerals. Many of them are rich in gold, platinum and other rare metals.  

A single asteroid measuring a few hundred metres across may hold more than 100 billion euros worth of ore. The prospect of space mining is exciting news for the mining industry. Setting up a mining operation on an asteroid would cost a few billion euros, and with technology advancing eventually even less. The potential payoffs are huge.       

However, asteroid mining is still in its infancy and many important questions remain unanswered: How do we scan the solar system for promising asteroids? How do we determine which ones are worth exploiting? How do we bring the minerals back to Earth? These challenges are discussed in the first book ever written about asteroid mining, co-authored by Professor Mikko Kaasalainen from the Department of Mathematics at Tampere University of Technology.   

Mathematics uncovers celestial secrets

A thorough understanding of inverse problems is essential for finding suitable mining candidates among asteroids. Kaasalainen is the world’s foremost authority on the subject.  

“Even the most powerful Earth-bound telescopes tend to see asteroids only as tiny specks of light. However, a careful analysis of fluctuations in this reflected light at multiple wavelengths and other data allows us to build models of the size, shape, rotation, surface features and other properties of asteroids,” he says.

The technologies developed by Kaasalainen and his research group have already been used to reconstruct hundreds of asteroids, which is the majority of all mapped targets. They have also provided new insights into the structure and properties of asteroids.  

Peek inside an asteroid

Once an asteroid has been detected and its outer surface analysed, the next step is to take a look inside. Kaasalainen and Research Fellow Sampsa Pursiainen (TUT and Aalto University) have demonstrated that it is possible to determine the internal structure of an asteroid that is less than one kilometre in diameter by employing advanced mathematics methods, in-situ sensors and orbiting probes that send radio waves through the asteroid.

“However, research is hindered by the vast number of asteroids and limited access to observing equipment, such as powerful telescopes. Industrial-scale exploration of asteroids would speed up the process,” says Kaasalainen. 

Asteroid exploration is a new area of research that ventures into unknown territories and fuels the imagination. Not even the sky is the limit.

 

From science fiction to reality

Near-Earth asteroids are the most likely targets for early space mining expeditions.

“Curiosity and commercial potential are the driving forces behind the exploration and exploitation of asteroids. Space mining will ultimately turn into a profitable business,” predicts Kaasalainen. 

“Although the current challenges are different, working through them takes similar dedication and resourcefulness as the first lunar missions. If we can develop viable means for extracting minerals from asteroids, private companies will step up to build the necessary technologies and equipment and provide a massive boost to space research in the process. Compared to purely government-driven research, private-sector involvement will make space exploration cheaper and more efficient.”

The commercial potential of space has not gone unnoticed. Bolstered by several investors, two US-based companies jumped into the asteroid mining business last year. One privately owned company has already launched spacecrafts into orbit around the Earth and to the International Space Station.   

“Asteroid exploration is a new area of research that ventures into unknown territories and fuels the imagination. Not even the sky is the limit,” says Kaasalainen.

Dozens of professionals in different fields joined forces to co-author the book titled “Asteroids: Prospective Energy and Material Resources”. Thousands more are needed before the dream becomes true.

 

Text: Mikko Kaasalainen and Tuuli Laukkanen
Photo: Virpi Andersin

 

 
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