Las misiones de la NASA y la ESA sobre asteroides alimentan la perspectiva de la minería espacial

NASA and ESA asteroid missions fuel space mining outlook


29 | 11 | 2022


The impact of the DART probe allows a greater knowledge on how to approach and land on asteroids, rich in minerals.

In the picture

Image of the asteroid Dimorphos eleven seconds before the impact of the DART probe on September 27, 2022 [NASA].

NASA's mission statement DART (test for Double Asteroid Redirection) achieved its goal on September 26th after deflecting the orbit of the asteroid Dimorphos, through the impact of an unmanned spacecraft with kinetic energy. It is the first mission statement oriented development of planetary defense systems and represents a breakthrough for the future defense of the Earth from external threats.

DART clearly demonstrates that the technology is ready to develop more advanced asteroid operations systems. The European Space Agency's subsequent mission statement HERA will undoubtedly take this a step further. It will use two miniaturized satellites (Milani and Juventas) to evaluate the results of the impact in detail, studying for the first time the interior of an asteroid by radar, accumulating valuable experience in ultra-gravity leave and intersatellite link operations in deep space. It is planned fill in this study by 2026, by which time NASA expects to have a sufficiently developed and repeatable deflection technique for use in future asteroid-to-Earth collision hazards.

A precedent for the exploitation of space resources

The combined results of HERA and DART will provide valuable information for the development of technologies capable of landing on and extracting resources from asteroids and other celestial bodies such as the Moon. The lunar degree program took off in the middle of the last century, when the Outer Space Treaty was drafted to regulate the use and activities of space exploration, and the United States and the USSR competed to reach the Earth's satellite first. Unfortunately, this interest waned as the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union came to an end. The budget invested in research and development space was drastically reduced, reaching really low levels in 2021, with only 0.32% of the expense of the U.S. government dedicated to NASA (in 1966 it was 4.41%).

However, the growing commercial interest of private companies such as SpaceX or Blue Origin seems to have revived the space degree program , with an eye on a future economic return, from entrance in activities such as space tourism, satellite positioning or communication systems networks, but also in the longer term deadline in the field of mining. The high concentration of mineral resources on asteroids, on the Moon or on Mars can certainly open up an opportunity for enormous profits, although this will require significant investments.

For example, the high presence of Helium-3 on the Moon, confirmed by the Apollo missions, could be harnessed as clean nuclear energy source , normally obtained radioactively. The business Rolls Royce would be working on a nuclear reactor that in addition to serving as rocket propulsion would provide energy for drilling, processing and storage in lunar mining tasks.

The mission statement Osirix-Rex, also from NASA and launched in 2016, will return to Earth in 2023 with study samples of the asteroid Bennu. This is the third mission statement of the 'New Frontiers' program, aimed at the exploration and research of several planets of the solar system such as Jupiter, Venus or the dwarf planet Pluto. Undoubtedly, a greater knowledge of our system, including the direct study of their surfaces and how they were formed, will be a step core topic towards a greater understanding of space resources. These missions will have to go hand in hand with the research of new ways to land and work on asteroids, something that is not possible today. In any case, the long term lunar base deadline of the Artemis program will make it possible to study the surface of the Moon directly and permanently, collecting data highly valuable for mineral extraction and the creation of technologies capable of carrying out these activities.

Problems and challenges

The great potential benefits of space mining come with challenges of the same magnitude. The high cost of investing in all these missions would be increased even more if we were to add the fuel and machinery needed to transport the extracted material back to Earth. Some experts point out that one way to overcome this drawback would be to use most of the resources directly at the extraction site as energy source and as material for the manufacture of Structures necessary for the colonization of space. Thus, the water obtained from the Moon could be used to generate oxygen for astronauts, or for the creation of fuel for spacecraft, saving costs.

The outlook is attractive for private companies, but profits are still a long way off (in the case of Space X or Boeing there has been some profitability thanks to contracts with NASA). For example, one of the companies that attracted media attention for its purpose to create fuel stations in Earth's orbit using water from the Moon's poles, the American ShackeltonEnergyCompany, did not manage to raise the necessary investment to continue its activity. However, the involvement of private initiative has opened up a new horizon, making it possible to afford costs that until a few years ago were only possible for large states. This is a 'new space age'.

The emergence of the 'New Space' phenomenon as a new space-oriented private business sector opens up endless possibilities for cost reduction and expansion of Humanity's domain. The companies of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, among others, have their sights set on these aspects. Blue Origin's New Glenn rocket or the movement of the Hubble telescope to a more stable orbit (a partnership of NASA and SpaceX) are clear examples of the ambition and decision of these companies to expand our frontiers. Certainly the average of one rocket launch per week from Musk's business this year is nothing like decades past. Challenges such as the creation of rockets capable of carrying extremely heavy payloads, including the machinery needed to extract minerals on celestial bodies, as well as the tons of resources and fuel required for their transport, are trying to be overcome by new technologies. Among them we find NASA's Space Launch System or SpaceX's Falcon Heavy, which made a successful launch of two U.S. Space Force satellites into orbit at mission statement in November. The novelty of the Falcon Heavy is, in addition to the ability to land two rockets simultaneously (inherited from a previous mission statement), the enormous power it achieves, representing a further step in the strength and efficiency of transporting heavy loads and the use of reusable rockets.

It should be emphasized that, in some respects, the problem today is not primarily a lack of technical expertise, but rather an insufficient budget for development. Here precisely lies the position core topic of private companies, which are managing to reduce costs enormously, and which are working together with national agencies to facilitate the process. In this way, companies such as Elon Musk's would already have the technological capacity and financing to carry out these advances. His interest in establishing a colony on Mars by 2050 is undoubtedly an ambitious project , which for now is at a very distant point, with long-term goals deadline.

In the picture

Launch of the mission statement DART [NASA].

Moon dust and space debris

But what is the way forward? Despite this cost reduction, it is necessary to develop very advanced technologies to first study the composition of asteroids and other celestial bodies in depth, and second to collect valid samples for study. Once the exact composition has been determined, the next step would be to create machinery adapted to the conditions discovered. Each celestial body has certain characteristics, which present different challenges. The Moon has on its soil what is known as 'lunar dust', which can damage, if not treated correctly, the activities of work and extraction, by adhering with great force to the surfaces, potentially damaging them. In 2019 NASA introduced the Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative, with the aim of creating new technologies for the exploration of this surface. The topic of lunar dust would enter within the issues addressed, trying to find solutions such as spacesuits prepared for the exhibition to this dust, reducing adhesion and preventing it from interfering with activities. From 2023 the advances found will be put to test on the surface of our satellite. The results obtained will be used for future missions of the Artemis program, or even taken by private companies that will expand the commercialization of space.

However, the recent space boom has consequences. The truth is that, despite what is generally believed, the Earth's orbit leave (where most satellites are located) does not have unlimited space. Today, there are about 100,000 satellites in this orbit, and the issue continues to grow. If the rate of growth is maintained without creating a specific regulation to avoid collisions and creation of space debris, disasters could affect us very directly. Some 170 million fragments of space debris threaten satellites in orbit, and the 2009 incident, in which the U.S. satellite Iridium-33 collided with the Russian satellite Kosmos, could be repeated.

Furthermore, space has its own natural order, which could be negatively altered by humans. Loss of communication or navigation, added to an enormous environmental hazard, would be consequences of the overpopulation of satellites. Last October 24, NASA informed through statement that the International Space Station was forced to dodge a fragment of space debris. It was debris from the Russian satellite Cosmos 1408, destroyed by Russia by missile in 2021 during an anti-satellite technology test . The danger that this subject of activities in the orbit leave of the Earth is evident, as numerous fragments are dispersed, which are difficult to locate completely and accurately. In this case, and according to article VII of the Outer Space Treaty, Russia would be the manager of the possible damages that could be caused by the fragments of its satellite. However, the state manager would not be able to compensate for the damage caused by a collision of such magnitude in outer space. Thus, international law falls short in this area, and there is a growing urgency to develop a legal framework to coordinate activities in this area, aimed at avoiding possible catastrophes. This is something that remains in the hands of national space agencies.

In turn, the prospect of mining activity on the Moon will have to be accompanied by other regulations. NASA proposes to create 'exclusion zones', which would consist of limiting certain areas to which human activity (both by states and private companies) would not have access. However, there are those who believe that prohibiting such access to exploit part of the Moon is in direct violation of the existing Treaty. The article II expressly speaks of the prohibition to appropriate any part of the Moon: "shall not be subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, use or occupation, or in any other manner". Thus, by limiting the areas that can be exploited and those that cannot, the "freedom of access" also defended in the Treaty would already be abandoned. agreement However, should a consensus be reached in which, in order to avoid major catastrophes and conflicts, all countries would agree on the creation of these zones, it could be "for the benefit of all mankind". Undoubtedly, this is something that is still up in the air.

This inevitably leads us to the need to develop a specialized legal framework . It should be recalled that the only binding treaty dates back to 1967, a date when developments did not require a higher level of complexity. But nowadays, as a direct consequence of the increase in commercial interest, it is necessary to create a series of rules for the proper use and regulation of obtaining space resources. There are those who defend that minerals extracted in space should be resource of all mankind. The other debated option is to declare what is found 'nobody's business', automatically allowing the first to find it (either a state or a private business ) to use it, always within the 'benefit of all nations' and for 'peaceful purposes'. There are rules and regulations for the correct use of space, but they are far from acting beyond recommendations. Despite this, it is worth noting the interest in the creation of forums and agencies specialized in regulating space, such as COPUOS, a specialized committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, C by the United Nations General Assembly.

The necessary internationalization and cooperation

In the space sector, if Humanity wishes to move forward while avoiding possible catastrophes in the process, it is undoubtedly core topic cooperation between states, and between states and private companies. As we are seeing today, the private sector is necessary for any space activity that requires a high cost, increasing more and more the issue of joint missions. In addition, the internationalization is a factor core topic for the viability of these projects. A clear example has been the International Space Station, where the United States, Russia, ESA, Italy, Japan, Canada and Brazil are collaborating. Cooperation between state agencies and private companies, therefore, will be a crucial element in the success of all these advances. The project Lunar Gateway is a test that the future of space missions does not lie exclusively in the hands of a single state, but in the coordination of commercial and international partners. As stated in article I of the Outer Space Treaty, States "shall facilitate and encourage international cooperation".

This, added to the need for consensus for the development of a common legal framework , makes the future of off-planet Humanity, in the long term deadline, depend on well-defined limits set in a cooperative manner and, always, "for the good of all Humanity".