NASA announced yesterday that it will be launching a spacecraft in 2016 with the intent of laying the groundwork for future expeditions to mine asteroids.
The space agency added that the mission – dubbed the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security and Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS- REx) – is scheduled to visit the asteroid Bennu and enable scientists to better study the origins of the universe by taking a sample of the 1,600-foot wide asteroid.
After traveling through the solar system for two years, the spacecraft is scheduled to arrive at Bennu in October 2018. It will study the asteroid for a year before returning to Earth with a sample from its surface. Because asteroids are “relics from our solar system’s formation,” the surface sample could tell scientists new details on how the planets formed and the origins of life, NASA said.
Scientists are able to determine an asteroid’s approximate composition by analyzing the light that it reflects. Using spectrometers, the OSIRIS-REx will be able to measure the intensity of light reflecting off Bennu at different frequencies and determine the asteroid’s chemical make-up.
NASA researchers said they are particularly interested in looking for organic compounds because of their importance to life as we know it. The presence of organic compounds will provide some new clues to how life emerged in the early solar system.
In addition to studying Bennu’s composition, OSIRIS- REx will also be charged with the task of determining the effect of sunlight on Bennu’s orbit. Called the Yarkovsky effect, sunlight can push an asteroid’s orbit when its surface absorbs sunlight, rotates and then radiates heat back out into space. These tiny pushes can significantly affect an asteroid’s orbit over time – potentially sending it hurtling toward Earth.
OSIRIS-REx also has a potential commercial purpose: collecting data for later use in space mining operations. Asteroids contain all kinds of useful minerals and precious metals and even the smallest asteroids could have resources worth millions of dollars. So called ‘S-type’ asteroids are of particular commercial interest because they contain significant amounts of iron, nickel and cobalt.
“A small, 10-yard S-type asteroid contains about 1,433,000 pounds of metal, with about 110 pounds in the form of rare metals like platinum and gold,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for the OSIRIS-REx mission.
“The mission will be a proof-of-concept – can you go to an asteroid, get material, and bring it back to Earth,” he added. “Next, people will have to industrialize it so that the economy works out, so for the recoverable value in any given asteroid, you’re spending half that to bring it back.”
Lauretta also noted that even though the spacecraft’s mission is primarily scientific, it basically holds the same types of instruments that would be needed for a commercial mining operation.
“The only thing you might want to add is the ability to do a quick chemical analysis of material on board the spacecraft, so you can say, ‘The platinum concentration is X,’ for example,” Lauretta said. “We couldn’t afford it – that’s a pretty sporty option. Other than that, for anyone who’s thinking about an asteroid mission, this is the set of instruments that you want to fly.”