Frontiers In Astronomy and Space Science have reported on exciting research and commercial opportunities involving the study of small asteroids temporarily captured by Earths gravity. The most promising of which is asteroid mining.
“These asteroids are delivered towards Earth from the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter via gravitational interactions with the Sun and planets in our solar system,” reports Dr Robert Jedicke, lead author, based at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu, USA.
Asteroids are a growing topic of interest amongst mainstream media. Many experts believe that asteroid mining could potentially catalyze a nearly unlimited new economy based on the infinite expanse of outer space. An economy that increases the likelihood of space colonization by establishing an extant infrastructure for construction and transportation.
In fact several spacecraft deployed by NASA and the Japanese Space Organization are currently on route to some of their first asteroid sampling targets. However, “Bennu” and “Ryugu” – names given to the prospects of interest are still a considerable distance away from Geocentric orbit, making the journey an expensive and risky undertaking.
Furthermore, as Dr Michael Granvik puts it “Missions typically return only tiny amounts of material to Earth.”
Whereas “Mini-moons are perfect targets for bringing back significant chunks of asteroid material, shielded by a spacecraft, which could then be studied in detail back on Earth.”
In order to reduce the amount of energy required to establish an economy in outer space many experts believe we should target those celestial bodies closest to our home planet first. In so doing we prevent much of the problems that have left our planets space organizations in a state of limbo for the past 40 years – Primarily the cost and danger of embarking on some of the longest journeys ever taken by humankind.
“We can launch short and therefore cheaper missions, using them as testbeds for larger space missions and providing an opportunity for the fledgling asteroid mining industry to test their technology.” says
For example, asteroid mining companies like Planetary Resources have already tested the ability to 3D Print parts for spacecraft with Asteroid rock. China also understands the appeal of asteroid mining, though there methods are certainly a little more… direct. Such as capturing a Near Earth asteroid and easing it down to the surface of Earth.
These mini-moons or “temporarily captured fly bys” are particularly appealing due to their small manageable size (1-2 meters) and proximity to us, making them perfect candidates for testing the feasibility of asteroid mining and therefor a vital entry point to the outer space economy.
The first object resembling a mini moon was discovered by the “All-sky Fireball System” a regional sector of the European Fireball Network based out of the Czech Republic. However, this one may be more accurately described as a meteor for it eventually plummeted down to the Earth in a firey mess.
Another mini moon was detected by the Catalina Sky Survey in September 2006 and marks the only completely authentic “temporary fly by” detected thus far. “2006 RH120” was roughly 1-2 meters in size.
Unfortunately, other mini moons have for the most part evaded detection.
“…their small diameters, proximity, and rapid motion make them challenging targets for existing ground-based optical, meteor, and radar surveys.” says the article
However, that could all change when the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) is complete construction in two years.
This new telescope is a game changer for asteroid mining for it will possess a sensitive enough array to verify the existence of mini moons and track their momentum around our planet.
“LSST is the dream instrument for discovering tiny, fast-moving asteroids and we expect it will regularly discover temporarily-captured objects within the next five years,” reports Jedicke lead author, based at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu, USA
He continues, “Once we start finding mini-moons at a greater rate they will be perfect targets for satellite missions.
With the LSST, size certainly matters!
“It has a gigantic mirror to collect light from faint objects and a camera with a tremendous field-of-view to cover the entire sky more than once a week.”
Jedicke concludes by sharing his aspirations for these asteroids: “I hope that humans will someday venture into the solar system to explore the planets, asteroids and comets — and I see mini-moons as the first stepping stones on that voyage.”
Elon Musk, silicon valley founder of electric car company Tesla and launch supplier Space-X has ambitious plans for the colonization of Mars, whereas Lockheed Martin and NASA are hot on his tail with similar intentions.
Musk has near future plans for his interplanetary transport vessel, as early as 2023. Perhaps Mini moons will play a role as primary test bed for more advance projects involving the mining of water from asteroids. Water can be turned in to hydrogen fuel via solar powered electrolysis or used in these new water-plasma powered propulsion systems to help visionaries like Elon power their spacecraft in the near future.
picture courtesy of Pixabay