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Reza Emami, Luleå University of Technology Photo: Tor Lundberg Tuorda
Reza Emami, Professor and chairholder of Onboard Space Systems at Luleå University of Technology. Photo: Tor Lundberg Tuorda View original picture , opens in new tab/window

Future mineral mining in space

Published: 17 November 2016

Asteroids used for mining and building infrastructure for humans going deeper into space. That could be the future, according to research at Luleå University of Technology. – Asteroid mining is no longer science fiction, but a prospect of incredible opportunities, says Reza Emami, Professor of Onboard Space Systems.

– Asteroid mining can not only expand the Earth’s resource base of some very precious materials, but also open the gates to new technologies for in-situ resource utilization in space, resulting in cost-effective, large-scale space structures and reliable human life support systems, says Reza Emami.

Asteroid mining is the science and technology of extracting raw materials, minerals and volatiles, from small bodies in our Solar System, especially those near Earth. The resources of some crucial minerals on Earth are limited and we are exhausting them at a very rapid pace. As we burn out our resources on Earth, a wealth of resources, such as platinum, gold, silver and tungsten, are floating around us on other solar system bodies which can be brought back to Earth. Also, other metals and minerals on asteroids can actually be used in space for human deep space missions. If humans are to further explore space, we need to build space habitats for astronauts and scientists to live in.

– Making such structures from terrestrial materials is not viable, due to the high costs of lunching them to space. Hence, we need to obtain the materials from space. For the same reason, we need to access resources of water and oxygen in space. And also, we need to be able to produce fuel in space instead of bringing it from Earth, says Reza Emami.

Space crafts in collaboration

Reza Emami’s objective is to design and develop autonomous, multi-spacecraft missions for asteroid exploration and redirection. The research focus hence is twofold. First, in order to find out more about the asteroids, the researchers need to design and execute several missions to reach specific asteroids and study them and their orbital motion from close. This includes the development of a fault-tolerant, dynamically distributed architecture for a heterogeneous team of autonomous agents, for example satellites, rovers and probes, to perform complex tasks collectively, such as asteroid sampling and redirection.

– An effective approach to enhance the chance of successful missions is the utilization of multiple spacecraft that are capable of working together as a team autonomously with minimum intervention of human operators from a mothership or from Earth.

Secondly, since nearly all small bodies in our solar system move in hard-to-reach and unstable orbits, the only viable approach to closely exploring them and ultimately obtaining our future resources from them – is to first bring them closer to Earth in reachable, stable orbits.

– For this, we need detailed designs of various asteroid redirection techniques using multiple spacecraft. Since focus of the field is on small-size asteroids with a diameter between 10 and 150 meters, there is no potential danger to Earth by bringing them in orbits closer to our planet. The asteroids are not characterized as potentially hazardous celestial objects, says Reza Emami.

Ethical considerations

Asteroid exploration and mining have recently been areas of interest both in private and public space sectors.

– Extracting resources from asteroids for the prospect of humanity is similar to terrestrial mining. It may also help us maintain the planet we live on a bit more intact, says Reza Emami.

– Of course, proper rules and regulations must be developed in time to ensure fair utilization and distribution of such resources as well as respect and fair treatment of the Universe as a lively and unique being.

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