Falcon Heavy is the flagship rocket from SpaceX that is sending Elon Musk’s cherry red Tesla Model 3 to Mars. Falcon Heavy is not just the most powerful rocket by SpaceX, but it is also the most powerful rocket in production right now, which also is reusable and is designed to carry people. That is, once it has deployed its payload into the orbit, Falcon Heavy can land back on its designated landing pads and can be used once again.
NASA is currently developing the Space Launch System (SLS), which is set to be more powerful than Falcon Heavy and just as capable of ferrying passengers. Current estimates suggest that it will be ready in 2022, but delays are common where massive rockets are concerned.
What is interesting is how Falcon heavy can be used to mine asteroids in future. If you are unaware of the asteroid mining business, then here’s a basic guide.
What is asteroid mining?
Asteroid mining is the exploitation of raw materials from asteroid and other minor planets. These include the asteroids in the asteroid belt and the ones that fly past earth – often called near earth objects.
The idea came from a 1981 story, called “Edison’s Conquest of Mars” written by Garret Serviss that describes how space explorers on their way to Mars discover an asteroid outpost that is rich in minerals. Then again, in Seattle World’s Fair in 1962, US Vice President Lyndon Johnson brought up the perspective of Asteroid mining. Again in 1981, an article in Canada’s Globe and Mail as well as in 1984, NASA’s moon base concept brought forward the concept of asteroid mining.
There are different kinds of the asteroid. Mostly, they can be classified as type C, type M and Type S asteroids. Type C asteroids are small and contain an abundance of water and organic elements such as carbon and phosphorus.
Type S carries little water. They are larger than Type C asteroids. These contain numerous metals such as iron, cobalt, nickel and even more valuable items such as gold, platinum and rhodium.
Type S is the largest asteroids and can contain more than 10 times the metal than the S types.
The types of metals that can be mined from asteroids include gold, iridium, silver, osmium, palladium, platinum, rhenium, rhodium, ruthenium, and tungsten. These are the elements that can be used in the earth. We can also get iron, cobalt, manganese, nickel, molybdenum, nickel, aluminium, and titanium for construction. Besides, we can also get water, oxygen, hydrogen and ammonia. These are essential in keeping astronauts alive in deep space as well as power rockets.
A small, 10 meters across S type asteroid can contain 650,000 kg of metals with 50kg of rare metals. Some as large as Ceres can have billions of tones of metals. Almost 13,000 asteroids pass earth yearly. Trillions are there in Kuiper Belt and Oort cloud.
We already have the legal framework laid down by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. With the signature of nearly 100 nations, the Outer Space Treaty was established on October 10, 1967. Obama also legalized commercial space exploration and utilization of resources from asteroids.
An M type asteroid which is a mile across can have 20 trillion USD worth of metals and nonmetals. As of now, three private companies – Planetary Resources, Deep Space Industries and Kepler Energy and Space Engineering are interested in mining asteroids. NASA and ESA, along with other private companies are in the forefront of the asteroid mining business.
The potential value of the minerals in these asteroids is staggering.
The iron found in the asteroid 16 Psyche alone is worth an estimated $10 quintillion, and according to NASA, if we could extract all of the minerals in the asteroids between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, the total value would be enough to give every person on Earth about $100 billion. Asteroid mining has the potential to not only make millionaires or even billionaires out of successful miners, it could also facilitate humanity’s colonization of the cosmos.
The first step — landing on an asteroid — requires a craft that is powerful enough to switch between low-Earth orbit and orbit around the asteroid. According to Martin Elvis, an astronomer from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Falcon Heavy could be that craft. If Elvis is right and Falcon Heavy can help us tap into these off-world resources, SpaceX’s $90 million per launch cost will seem like peanuts to the modern miners with their eyes on asteroids.
He told an audience at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Austin, Texas, that he believes Falcon Heavy has the potential to make asteroid mining a reality by increasing the number of asteroids we could potentially land on by a factor of 15. “Instead of a few hundred, we may have thousands of ore-bearing asteroids available,” said Elvis, according to Gizmodo.