In today’s Finshots, we talk about NASA’s mission to intercept asteroids and how it could possibly open the doors for a lucrative new industry

The Story

We just crashed a $330 million spacecraft into an asteroid yesterday!

By we, I mean NASA, the US-based National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Now if you’re wondering why we did this, think of a doomsday scenario — a giant asteroid hurling towards earth. Like the one that wiped dinosaurs from the face of our planet.

We don’t actually have a real line of defence against such an eventuality.

But the good folks at NASA have been trying to do something about this. Their plan involves sending an object into space, getting it to collide with an asteroid and changing its orbit. And guess what, they actually did this yesterday.

They picked out an asteroid located at a safe distance of about 11 million kms away. Ran all the calculations and then sent a $330 million unmanned spacecraft to collide at a precise point.

The mission was called DART or Double Asteroid Redirection Test and it hit the bulls-eye.

Now all we have to do is wait and hope that the impact actually changes the path of the asteroid.

But NASA’s DART mission could also kickstart something much bigger. Something that sounds like it’s straight out of a science fiction movie.

Asteroid mining!

Okay, here’s the thing about asteroids. Most people think they’re just dumb pieces of rock and ice riding through space. But that’s not entirely true. Beneath an asteroid’s surface you can find a treasure trove of metals— Gold, palladium, platinum, nickel, iron etc. We use them in semiconductors, electric vehicles, and chemical applications.

And guess what?

The asteroid belt, home to over 1 million asteroids could contain precious metals worth a whopping $700 quintillion. That is 7 followed by 18 zeros!

Now you’re probably thinking that’s a bit of a stretch. And we agree. But there is one distinct advantage in trying to mine an asteroid as opposed to mining the planet we currently inhabit. These metals are buried deep inside the earth’s crust — nearly 3000 km below the surface. But we can’t dig this deep. We’ve only ever gone as far as 12 km.

But with asteroids, that isn’t an issue. They have been colliding with other objects for aeons now and these collisions have all but chipped away the outer layers. So you could find metals closer to the surface.

There’s also the fact that asteroids can be water rich.

So imagine we embark on an interplanetary mission to Mars. The rockets will need to refuel along the way. But carrying all this fuel may not be sustainable. However if we used water mined from asteroids, we could in principle split them into hydrogen and oxygen and repurpose it as fuel. These asteroids could be our interplanetary fueling stations.

Also, note that water is a precious commodity in space. It costs anywhere between $9,000 and $43,000 to send a water bottle into space. But if we could extract water from nearby asteroids, life would become a lot easier.

Okay, all this sounds wonderful. But how will we tame an asteroid moving through space at such ridiculous speeds?

Well, that’s where the DART mission comes in. If you could nudge an asteroid out of its current path and put it into something called cislunar space — the space between earth and the moon, we could keep the asteroid in a stable orbit around the moon.

Or if you want a slightly more technical explanation, there’s something called a Lagrange Point. In this case, it’s a point in space where the gravitational forces of the Earth and Moon seemingly cancel each other out. So if you drop anything (like an asteroid) into that point, it should just stay put. And if it stays put, you could start exploring the asteroid.

Now obviously it’s a lot more complicated than this. For starters, imagine nudging an asteroid and missing the Lagrange Point. We could set it up to collide with earth, if we are off by a smidge. Next, we don’t even know what asteroids are worth mining. A good chunk of them will likely be worthless. So unless we have some way of consistently mapping asteroids with precious metals, all this is just poppy talk.

And finally, this could be really expensive. If at the end of it all, we figure that the benefits don’t make up for the costs, asteroid mining could become economically unviable.

So yeah, it’s interesting that the DART mission is propelling us into the future. But we are still a fair bit away from asteroid mining it seems.

Until then...

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PS: If you Google DART Mission, you’ll see an animation of a spaceship crashing into your screen. Then the search page tilts. Quite cool, no?

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