Does it seem like science is catching up with science fiction? Sometimes it does. Especially when there is an announcement like this.
A Chinese company announced that it will launch an asteroid mining robot by November.
Origin Space is a private company based in Beijing. Although they refer to this as the "asteroid mining robot," it really is a pre-cursor mission for actual mining. In reality, NEO-1, it is said, will test technologies that target the eventual mining of asteroids.
According to several news sources, NEO-1 will be launched as a secondary payload on a Chinese Long March rocket. The small 30 kg spaceship will enter a sun-synchronous orbit around the earth at an altitude of 500 km. In an interview with IEEE Spectrum, Yu Tianhong, co-founder of Origin Space said, "The aim is to verify and demonstrate multiple functions such as spacecraft orbital maneuvers, simulated small celestial object capture, intelligent spacecraft identification and control."
It remains to be seen what progress the tiny NEO-1 will make and whether it will bring China closer to actually mining an asteroid. The whole endeavor of asteroid mining is fraught with problems and difficulties. Still, the spaceship could make some progress in testing technologies. Think of it as a prospector rather than a miner.
While asteroid mining is a mainstay in science fiction, in reality it is much more controversial. Not everyone is for it. A group of scientists says that most of the solar system should be left behind as a kind of "space wilderness".
<img load = "lazy" width = "558" height = "430" src = "https://www.universetoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/asteroid-mining.jpg" alt = "Asteroid Mining concepts have been around for a long time.This image is from a 1971 study of space mining sponsored by NASA.
However, unlocking potential resources and profits means companies like Origin Space won't just go away. Origin Space clearly believes there is a future in this. And you are not alone.
The US president recently signed an executive order to encourage resource extraction on the moon and asteroids. It made it legal for US citizens to own and sell resources from the moon, asteroids, and even Mars. The stage is now ready.
Asteroid mining has been very exciting in recent years. A company called Planetary Resources raised a ton of money – $ 50 million, according to some sources – to advance the search for minerals, metals, and even water on asteroids. Planetary Resources has attracted a number of notable investors, including film director James Cameron and Google's Eric Schmidt. Other smaller companies have also participated.
The hype machine put in gear and soon people like Ted Cruz were talking about billionaires in space, and Jeff Bezos envisioned a future where all industrial activity took place in space. The earth would finally be free of the burden. The future was bright.
The asteroid belt is 1.2 to 2.2 AU from Earth. But many iron-rich asteroids can be found closer to Earth. Photo credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech
But on the way to a future full of asteroid mining and an earth freed from industrial pressure, something funny happened: the idea largely collapsed. Planetary Resources has shut down, Jeff Bezos hasn't said much about it lately, and Ted Cruz … well, he's campaigning.
With this in mind, Origin Space and NEO-1 come.
As early as 2014, the Chinese government dealt with the idea of space mining and decided to open up the industry. This led to a bloom of private companies focusing on space resources developing rockets and small satellites. Origin Space was founded in 2017.
<img load = "lazy" width = "1024" height = "451" src = "https://www.universetoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/asterank-1024×451.jpg" alt = "A Screenshot from the Asterank website.
NEO-1 isn't Origin Space's only development. They are planning to launch a kind of "mini-Hubble" space telescope. Its job will be to observe and monitor asteroids and identify candidates for use. It's called Yuanwang-1 ("Look up-1") and is being built for Origin Space by DFH Satellite Co., Ltd, part of China's state-run aerospace industry.
Then there is NEO-2. It will be heading for the moon sometime between 2021 and 2022. NEO-2 will make a landing on the moon, according to Origin Space, but the exact details of the mission are still being developed. NASA recently announced that it would buy Moon Rocks and Regolith from private companies. Perhaps this is part of NEO-2's mission.
While asteroids may have trillions of dollars in resources or even more, the extreme difficulty of actually extracting them is a serious obstacle. And hype alone will not overcome this barrier. Take a look at what it takes to extract iron from iron ore here on earth.
Iron ore must be crushed or ground and separated from the rest of the rock to remove impurities. This requires a lot of specialized equipment and can sometimes rely on gravity for part of the separation, which could be interesting if the gravity is low. The resulting material is called iron fine.
This graphic shows some of the multilevel complexity of iron ore processing. Can all of this be done in space? Photo credit: Multotec Canada
Then the iron has to be processed into something. This also requires extensive infrastructure, a daunting perspective in space. Solar power is good for rovers and other things, but can it power a planet for iron processing and manufacturing? And of course there has to be a market for these goods.
But maybe Origin Space has the right idea with their little NEO-1. Perhaps it is best to start small rather than hyped proclamations and science fiction statements about our glorious future in space mining. Start by finding and identifying realistic asteroid targets. Work on it while the rest of the technologies and methods one day catch up if they ever do.
Believe it or not, humanity has a long history of extracting iron from space rocks. Iron-rich meteorites that fell to earth were one of our first sources of iron. These types of meteorites are called iron meteorites and are largely made up of an iron-nickel ore known as meteoric iron. Early peoples used it to make tools, cultural goods and, of course, weapons. One of the most famous examples of this is Tutankhamun's dagger.
Tutankhamun's meteorite iron dagger and decorative gold scabbard. Photo credit: According to source (WP: NFCC # 4), Fair Use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50732334. Copyright: Howard Carter, Daniela Comelli, Massimo D & # 39; orazio, Luigi Folco et al.
The ancient Chinese also used meteoric iron. Two axes from around 1000 BC Found in Honan Province in 1934. Both were made of meteoric iron.
Two Chinese early Chou bronze weapons with iron blades Above: ko 34.11, below: ch & # 39; i 34.10. Slightly reduced. Photo credit: Gettens et al., 1971.
In a way, it would be like closing a circle in getting iron out of space rocks.
Many new industries are fighting first. Early attempts can get out of hand and lead to questions and doubts. That's what happened to the first episode of the asteroid mining hype. (Cryptocurrency, anyone?) But the potential bounty is there and won't go away. Companies like Origin Space with their little gold prospector NEO-1 can't resist the temptation.
One day our future might look more like science fiction, with mining and manufacturing out of the world and workers hunting into space for their months on the asteroid mine. And an earth freed from industrial pressure. It wouldn't be that bad.
But there is still a long way to go.