Science & Technology

Asteroid miners might need a few good applied astronomers to show them the way

AUSTIN, Texas — Mining asteroids for water and different assets might sometime grow to be a trillion-dollar enterprise, however not with out astronomers to level the way.

No less than that’s the view of Martin Elvis, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Heart for Astrophysics, who’s been taking a shut have a look at the science behind asteroid mining.

If the business ever takes off the way ventures corresponding to Redmond, Wash.-based Planetary Resources and California-based Deep Space Industries hope, “that opens up new employment alternatives for astronomers,” Elvis mentioned immediately in Austin at the annual assembly of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In area, the water in asteroids could be extra valuable than gold — largely as a result of it prices hundreds of {dollars} per pound to launch provides from Earth. That water might be used to produce oxygen and consuming water for astronauts, plus the propellants for refueling rockets.

Different supplies might come in useful to be used as in-space constructing supplies. However not all asteroids are created equal: Most area rocks shall be nugatory, Elvis mentioned.

“To search out the few p.c of invaluable asteroids, we are able to ask astronomers, utilizing ground-based or mountaintop telescopes, and significantly slender down the search,” he mentioned. “We are able to save 90 p.c of the price of expeditions out to explicit asteroids.”

Offering that steering would require a “new band of applied astronomers” who’re educated to determine the finest prospects for mining, Elvis mentioned. He mentioned a few of his colleagues in academia have already arrange a stealthy startup geared toward buying astronomical information and promoting it to asteroid miners — however he declined to present additional specifics.

Asteroid mining is greater than a blue-sky thought: Planetary Sources is testing a prototype space telescope that was launched into Earth orbit final month, and the firm has mentioned it might begin utilizing extra superior telescopes to scout for asteroids inside the subsequent couple of years.

Deep Area Industries, in the meantime, is working with Luxembourg’s authorities to get its Prospector-X prototype spacecraft off the floor, and final yr it acquired two NASA expertise improvement grants.

Each corporations have introduced plans to begin mining asteroids in the 2020s.

The truth that the corporations have devoted hundreds of thousands of {dollars} to in-house spacecraft improvement might counsel that they’ll draw upon in-house astronomical experience as nicely. However Elvis mentioned Planetary Sources and Deep Area Industries are presently targeted on the engineering challenges moderately than the scientific duties that can comply with.

“Proper now, my impression is that each corporations are considerably underestimating their wants for astronomers,” he mentioned.

Elvis voiced confidence that there’ll be sufficient astronomers fascinated with asteroid looking to fill the need.

“Often, over the 30 years I’ve been at the Harvard-Smithsonian Heart for Astrophysics, I’ve had a Harvard undergraduate come to me and do a undertaking on supermassive black holes, which is my regular beat,” he mentioned. “As quickly as I began promoting engaged on little rocks close by, I’ve had them banging on my door each semester, wanting to work on it.”

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