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  • Writer's pictureolivershearman

Asteroids - small(ish) metallic space rocks

Updated: Jul 8

Asteroids, often referred to as "minor planets" or "planetoids," are captivating celestial objects that orbit the Sun. These rocky remnants from the early days of our solar system have played a crucial role in shaping its history and continue to capture the imagination of scientists and space enthusiasts alike. They provide us with great interesting possibilities and also present a devastating danger as well.


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Everyday, there are more and more Near Earth Asteroids known as Near Earth Objects (NEOs) discovered and if they are large enough they could present a danger to a population of a city, country or even the global population in the largest cases. While the vast majority of NEOs pose no immediate threat, their potential for impact makes them a subject of concern and study. The Chelyabinsk meteor, which exploded over Russia in 2013, highlighted the importance of tracking and understanding these objects.



Asteroids are the remnants of the primordial solar nebula from which the planets of our solar system formed. Billions of years ago, these rocky bodies never coalesced into full-fledged planets due to the gravitational influence of Jupiter. As a result, they remain as remnants, offering a glimpse into the early solar system's composition.


Asteroids come in various sizes, from a few meters to hundreds of kilometers in diameter. The largest asteroid in our solar system is Ceres, which is also classified as a dwarf planet. Asteroids exhibit a wide range of compositions, from metal-rich bodies like 16 Psyche to carbonaceous asteroids rich in water and organic molecules.


Some asteroids inhabit unique orbital locations within the solar system. Trojans, for instance, share an orbit with a larger planet, such as Jupiter or Neptune, staying ahead of or behind it. Centaurs, on the other hand, have unstable orbits, often transitioning between asteroid and comet-like behavior.


The majority of known asteroids reside in the asteroid belt, a region located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Contrary to popular belief, this region is not densely packed with asteroids; they are spread far apart, with vast distances between them. This makes space travel through the asteroid belt more feasible than the movies suggest.


Astronomers classify asteroids into different groups based on their compositions and spectral characteristics. The three main categories are C-type (carbonaceous), S-type (silicaceous), and M-type (metallic). These classifications provide insights into the building blocks of our solar system.


To protect our planet from potentially hazardous asteroids, scientists are exploring methods for asteroid deflection. Ideas range from kinetic impactors to gravity tractors, which would gently alter an asteroid's course over time. These strategies aim to mitigate the risk of a catastrophic impact event.


The abundance of valuable resources in asteroids, including metals like iron, nickel, and even water, has sparked interest in asteroid mining. Companies are exploring the possibility of harvesting these resources to support future space exploration missions and even sustain life in space. Asteroid mining is a particularly interesting endeavour for the future and it has many pros and cons to be considered.


Pros:


Abundant Resources:

Asteroids are believed to contain valuable resources such as metals, water, and rare minerals. Accessing these resources could provide a sustainable and virtually limitless source of raw materials for various industries, including manufacturing and space exploration.


Space Exploration Support:

Extracting resources from asteroids could potentially support future space exploration missions. Water, for example, could be used for life support systems or broken down into hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel, reducing the need to transport these essentials from Earth.


Economic Opportunities:

Successful asteroid mining ventures could open up new economic opportunities. Companies and nations investing in this industry could benefit from the extraction and utilization of precious metals and minerals found in asteroids.


Technological Advancements:

The development of technologies for asteroid mining could lead to breakthroughs in robotics, artificial intelligence, and space exploration. Innovations driven by the challenges of operating in space could have broader applications on Earth.


Cons:


Technical Challenges:

Asteroid mining involves significant technical challenges, including the development of spacecraft capable of reaching and mining asteroids, as well as the extraction and transportation of resources back to Earth or other locations. These challenges require substantial technological advancements.


Environmental and Ethical Concerns:

The environmental impact of asteroid mining and the ethical considerations surrounding the extraction of resources from space need careful consideration. Unregulated or irresponsible mining practices could lead to unintended consequences and long-term environmental damage.


Legal and Regulatory Issues:

The legal framework for asteroid mining is currently unclear. While international agreements exist to prevent the militarization of outer space, there is a need for clear regulations regarding ownership, mining rights, and environmental protection.


Economic Viability:

The economic viability of asteroid mining is a major question mark. Initial investments in technology and infrastructure could be substantial, and the return on investment may take years or even decades. The market for extracted resources also needs to be established.


Public Perception and Opposition:

Public perception and potential opposition to asteroid mining could be significant hurdles. Concerns about the commercialization of space, the potential for space debris, and the impact on scientific exploration might generate public resistance.


NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission made history by successfully touching the asteroid Bennu in 2020 and collecting a sample. This daring mission aims to return this precious sample to Earth, providing valuable insights into the composition of near-Earth asteroids. Similarly, Japan's Hayabusa 2 mission achieved the remarkable feat of collecting samples from the asteroid Ryugu. The spacecraft has since returned to Earth.


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Cheers and stay curious

Oliver - The Teaching Astrophysicist

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