Visiting (and eventually mining) asteroids is viewed by space development advocates as an imperative stepping stone to making our way out into the solar system. One group of President Obama’s advisors, the Augustine Commission, counseled that a manned asteroid mission might bring the highest payoff per dollar spent in terms of science and essential skills for space exploration. A study was also commissioned to check the feasibility of bringing a small asteroid—on the order of 10,000kg—back to the International Space Station. It reported no showstoppers.
The title is misleading in one fact – the asteroid will not be brought to earth orbit. It will be brought to lunar orbit where it can be mined.
The report is quite fun to read. Using a single Atlas 5 level launch vehicle or a couple of Delta IVs, the entire launch system could be put into Earth orbit. It would use a solar-electric propulsion system to move out past the moon’s orbit to the asteroid, examine and capture it, and then move the whole package into lunar orbit.
It would take about 10 years to complete the whole trip. At a cost of $2.6 billion.
The asteroid – which is mostly iron, nickel, water and a few other precious metals – can then be mined for material. Material that can be used to create more asteroid catchers.
To lift 500 tons of material into the same orbit would cost about $20 billion. This would produce the same material for $2.6 billion. About an 8-fold reduction in trying to move things to the moon from Earth.
Further work could result in a 20-fold reduction.
And that’s not all.
Because once mining is set up around the moon, all sorts of possibilities come into existence. It becomes cheaper to produce material for space from here rather than the Earth.
NASA is already looking at putting a manned outpost on the far side of the moon. The moon has some worthwhile things to mine, such as nuclear fuels like Helium-3, as well as rare earth metals . What it does not have is a lot of iron and nickel for building things.
Combine both – mining on the moon for fuel and high tech materials, and asteroid mining for building materials/water – and we might have almost everything to expand to Mars and outward.
Using a nuclear reactor, ion engines could get us from the moon to Mars in perhaps 39 days, instead of the year or so by normal means from Earth. In fact, these engines could get us beyond Mars, perhaps taking only 3 years to get to Jupiter.
And since the nuclear power is produced from the moon, there is little worry of an accident releasing radioactivity into the Earth’s atmosphere.
Having a manned mining presence near the moon would serve as a tremendously cheap way to get to Mars, instead of trying to do it all from Earth. We have the technology today to do this.
The cost to get started is minimal. Do we have the will?