“The question is, ‘What is the most efficient way of colonizing the solar system?’” he said. “And the notion of doing that might be so-called ‘living off the land.’ Instead of bringing resources that we need to colonize Mars, asteroids, etc. all the way from the Earth, what if we were able to actually extract those essential materials that are needed locally?”
With a current cost of about $10,000 per pound to send something into orbit, the possibility of using materials found in space, as opposed to bringing all supplies from Earth, would be the most cost- and energy-effective option available.
This would fit into what Engineering Prof. Brian Gilchrist said is a “resurgence and entrepreneurial mindset of new things we can do in space that haven’t been considered at all.”
Gilchrist’s research focuses on space tethering, which involves connecting two spacecraft with a conductive cable. As the spacecraft orbit in Earth’s electromagnetic field, the cable becomes charged. Solar power is used to add or leak charge from this circuit, causing the two spacecraft to move up or down. This theoretical system would allow the satellites to gain momentum without a propellant, and could have practical applications for tugging asteroids around in the Moon’s orbit.
Apart from colonization of the solar system, another potential purpose for mining asteroids is bringing materials back to Earth for environmental and commercial purposes.
“I think one of the best products from (asteroid mining), whether you’re mining for precious metals that are rare on earth or water for propulsion, is that there’s the opportunity for us to stop destroying the Earth’s environment,” said Engineering senior Bradley Costa.
Costa is currently engaged in a co-op with Planetary Resources, a leading private-sector company that conducts research on asteroid mining.
Along with sustainability benefits, corralling an asteroid could result in long-term economic benefits.
“One study I read says that one asteroid about a mile in diameter has enough precious metal on it to help humanity with all its needs for 10,000 years or so,” said Gallimore.