Saturday, March 03, 2007

MINING MINERALS from the Asteroids

BACKGROUND:Mining asteroids will require a new breed of space faring robots  Recently, a skateboard-size robot, Sojourner, ventured on the surface of Mars to gain considerable useful data. Sojourner is a forerunner of NASA's futuristic robo-critters, including:
Perhaps something like this.

A four-legged robot, the size of a cigar box, might hop around an asteroid like a grasshopper.
Perhaps something like this.

A snake-like, robotic tube might drill thousands of feet throughout certain celestial bodies for comprehensive analysis.
Related image
Maybe like this.

might fly in the  atmospheres of Mars or perhaps some planetary moons.
Perhaps something like this.

A two-legged "walking" robot might be best able to traverse rough terrain commonly found on large rocky objects such as dwarf planets, planetary moons and large asteroids.

Initial Habitats will be compelled by circumstance to make extensive use of AI devices:
both in construction
and ongoing operations.
NANOBOTS TO THE RESEARCH. NASA's robotic program could produce a new breed of space travelers over the next few decades.  
Inside a habitat, perhaps a small spherical robot could float and fly around, perhaps with extensible arms, to allow busy humans to remotely and safely check 
   ●  back up sensors which monitor experiments throughout the vessel,
   ●  or a potentially dangerous situation (i.e., a radiation leak or airless environment).
   ●  use robotic arms to remotely accomplish simple tasks.

Nano-robots, "nanobots, is generic name for tiny Artificial Intelligence (AI) devices which might vary in size from millimeters to perhaps size of a cigar box.  Numerous nanobots aboard a habitat could form a "bot colony," to perform a designated function.  With a small degree of autonomy, such groups could be programmed to accomplish essential, though tedious, tasks throughout the ship.  Examples abound in
  ●  agriculture, where numerous plants must be monitored to optimize growth and production
  ●  leak checking the hulls, keep radiation out and essential atmospherics in.

However, their diminutive size does give nanobots an inherent disadvantage; they lose heat easily. Smaller spheres cool faster than larger ones because they have much more surface area to radiates more heat per volume. Being small, the nanobot cannot feasibly carry an on-board heat source. Furthermore, heat shields are also impractical, because the added weight would obviate any benefits gained from its small size.  Thus, the JPL team wants to develop nanobots with robust electronics to endure temperature extremes; deep space temperatures range from boiling hot to extreme cold, perhaps-300° F, far colder than Earth's South Pole.

One would hope to also test the feasibility of Nano-Swarms, a group of nanosats acting in an orchestrated, productive manner to accomplish some goal.


---Service transponder

---Measure surface (geodetics) LIDAR

---Analyze surface

---Analyze subsurface

Some have proposed a robotic subsurface explorer (SSX), a worm-like device, to drill into the Martian crust. A few inches in diameter by several 6 feet long, tt might drill a mile into the Martian crust to look for buried microbes in ground water. (Since most asteroids are less then a mile in diameter, this type of device would be an excellent subsurface analyzer.)
This device might connect to the surface via long wires and capillary tubes. 
   ●  Wires would transmit electric power from solar panels on the surface. (Most asteroids would need another power source, perhaps nuclear reactors.)
   ●  Tubes would contain liquefied carbon dioxide (CO2) condensed from the Martian atmosphere. They could pump subsurface grains (perhaps even microbes) back to the surface for further analysis. 

   ●  It would drill through the crust by repeatedly firing a tungsten "hammer" into the rock. 

Mining Cosmic Data
Many large asteroids could provide a superb vantage point for astronomical observatories. With no obscuring atmosphere, an asteroid based scope could collect many times more light from a distant object as possible on Terra or even a high powered, LEO satellite scope such as the famous Hubble Space Telescope (HST).

Seismically passive, any dwarf planet (perhaps, Ceres) would be a rock solid platform for mounting telescopes. Optical arrays of scopes could focus on a single object and coordinate signals via computer (interferometry). For extreme resolution, distances between component scopes must be accurate within a micrometer (impossible in the seismic active Terra, even less possible on a LEO satellite). Recall the telescopic resolution is proportional to its diameter; thus, an array of scopes has theoretical resolution many times that of a single scope (only one component of the overall array). Thus, Ceres gives a potential diameter of 945 kms (many thousand times better than HST, by far the most prolific cosmic image producer, thus far.)

While impressive, the above capabilities are really the tip of the iceberg. In additon to optical, airless asteroid surface would also enable accessible observations in other spectrums: cosmic-ray, gamma-ray, x-ray, and ultraviolet. Luna's permanently shadowed craters provide permanent low temperatures to enable continual infrared (IR) observations. Far away from most Radio Frequency (RF) transmissions, asteroid surface enables radio telescope observations. Lack of ionosphere further enhances this RF capability.

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Google "mining comets" only yields 225,000 results.
First ten:

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[6]; For volatile materials in extinct comets, heat can be used to melt and vaporize the matrix. [7]; A mine can be dug into the asteroid, and the material - 29k - Cached - Similar pages

Comet Mining -- An Overview
A relatively unexplored area of space development, comet mining, may play a central role in cracking open the space frontier. - 19k - Cached - Similar pages

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Review of two public lectures on human expansion into - 16k - Cached - Similar pages

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Asteroid mining 
In 2006, the Keck Observatory announced large numbers of Jupiter Trojan asteroids are likely extinct comets with mostly water ice. Similarly, Jupiter-family comets, and possibly near-Earth asteroids that are extinct comets, might also provide water. The process of in-situ resource utilization—using materials native to space for propellant, thermal management, tankage, radiation shielding, and other high-mass components of space infrastructure could greatly reduce cost.[16]  Ice availability would greatly aid "human expansion into the Solar System" (the ultimate goal for human space flight proposed by the 2009 "Augustine Commission" Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee).[17]

Asteroid selection[edit]

Near-Earth asteroids are considered likely candidates for early mining activity. Their low Δv makes them suitable for use in extracting construction materials for near-Earth space-based , greatly reducing the economic cost of transporting supplies into Earth orbit.[21]  EXAMPLE:  A potential target[22] for an early asteroid mining expedition is 4660 Nereus, expected to be mainly enstatite. This body has a very low Δv compared to lifting materials from the surface of the Moon. However it would require a much longer round-trip to return the material.
Main Types of Asteroids
   ●  C-type asteroids have a high abundance of water to be used in further exploration efforts. They also contain organic carbon and phosphorus, key fertilizer ingredients for agricultural purposes.[23]
   ●  S-type asteroids contain many metals: nickel, cobalt and even valuable metals such as gold, platinum and rhodium. A small 10-meter S-type might contain about 650,000 kg (1,433,000 lb) of metal with 50 kg (110 lb) of rare metals like platinum and gold.[23]
A class of easily recoverable objects (EROs) was identified by a group of researchers in 2013. Twelve asteroids make up the initial group which could be harvested with present-day, rocket technology.  They could  an enter an Earth-accessible orbit by changing their velocity by less than .5 kms per second (1,118.5 mph). These range in size from 2 to 20 meters (7 to 70 ft).[24]

Consider following deployment options:
   ●  Bring raw asteroidal material back to Earth for further processing.
   ●  Process it on-site to bring back only processed materials, and perhaps produce propellant for the return trip. In situ extraction of high-value minerals will reduce the energy requirements for transporting the materials, although the processing facilities must first go to the mining site.
   ●  Transport the asteroid to orbit around Luna, Terra or even Sol, co-located in Terra's solar orbit. Thus, asteroids would be safely processed in an optimal way by humans with much easier access to Mother Earth.

Those celestial objects suitable for mining range in shape, size and density.
   ●  Solid Asteroids.   The common concept of an asteroid is a large solid boulder floating in space.  There are many such asteroids.
   ●  Non-solid Asteroids.   A more accurate, asteroidal concept might be of a close formation of rocks, boulders and dust orbiting a much greater object (Sun, planet, moon, or a bigger asteroid).
   ●  Comets  Commonly thought to be distinct from asteroids, gaseous comets have been observed to become rocky asteroids when their ices deplete.  Also, many asteroids contain copious supplies of ices. Thus, the distinction between asteroids and comets is blurry, and it's very likely that many comets can be mined.

Mining operations require special equipment to extract and process ore.  Optimal operations would require securing machinery to a large solid asteroid body.  Once in place, the ore can be readily moved due to asteroid's tiny gravity. HOWEVER, we still need to develop methods to refine ore in zero gravity.
Mining operators might use a harpoon-like process to dock with solid bodies.  A projectile would penetrate the surface to anchor the mining vessel; then, an attached cable would winch the vessel closer to the surface.  This cable could perhaps serve as a physical tether to become a Space Elevator.

Due to typical asteroidal distance from Earth, inherent communications delay will easily exceed several minutes; thus, remote control by Earth bound operations will be impractical.  Therefore, any deep space mining equipment will either need considerable autonomy and/or a human presence Humans will likely be needed for troubleshooting problems and equipment maintenance. HOWEVER, we should recall  the successful robotic exploration of Mars functioned well in spite of comm delays; furthermore, AI devices don't require expensive life support systems.
Technology being developed by Planetary Resources to locate and harvest these asteroids has resulted in the plans for three different types of satellites:
  1. Arkyd Series 100 (The Leo Space telescope) is a less expensive instrument that will be used to find, analyze, and see what resources are available on nearby asteroids.
  2. Arkyd Series 200 (The Interceptor) Satellite that would actually land on the asteroid to get a closer analysis of the available resources
Technology being developed by Deep Space Industries to examine, sample, and harvest asteroids is divided into three families of spacecrafts:
  1.  are triplets of nearly identical spacecraft in CubeSat form launched to different asteroids to rendezvous and examine them.[31]
  2. DragonFlies also are launched in waves of three nearly identical spacecraft to gather small samples (5–10 kg) and return them to Earth for analysis
C-type asteroids's high abundance of water could produce fuel by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen; thus, making rocket fuel readily available; currently ,a significant factor for interplanetary missions. 
Extraction techniques

Surface Scraping On non-solid asteroids, material may be scraped off the surface using a scoop or auger, or for larger pieces, an "active grab."This approach will be feasible for many asteroids which are  Since many asteroids are essentially rubble piles,  .


Shaft mining[edit]

A mine can be dug into the asteroid, and the material extracted through the shaft. This requires precise knowledge to engineer accuracy of astro-location under the surface regolith and a transportation system to carry the desired ore to the processing facility.

Magnetic rakes[edit]

Asteroids with a high metal content may be covered in loose grains that can be gathered by means of a magnet.[21][34]


For asteroids such as carbonaceous chondrites that contain hydrated minerals, water and other volatiles can be extracted simply by heating. A water extraction test in 2016[35] by Honeybee Robotics used asteroid regolith simulant[36] developed by Deep Space Industries and the University of Central Florida to match the bulk mineralogy of a particular carbonaceous meteorite. Although the simulant was physically dry (i.e., it contained no water molecules adsorbed in the matrix of the rocky material), heating to about 510 °C released hydroxyl, which came out as substantial amounts of water vapor from the molecular structure of phyllosilicate clays and sulphur compounds. The vapor was condensed into liquid water filling the collection containers, demonstrating the feasibility of mining water from certain classes of physically dry asteroids.[citation needed]
For volatile materials in extinct comets, heat can be used to melt and vaporize the matrix.[21][37]

Extraction using the Mond process[edit]

The nickel and iron of an iron rich asteroid could be extracted by the Mond process. This involves passing carbon monoxide over the asteroid at a temperature between 50 and 60 °C, then nickel and iron can be removed from the gas again at higher temperatures, perhaps in an attached printer, and platinum, gold etc. left as a residue.[38]

Self-replicating machines[edit]

A 1980 NASA study entitled Advanced Automation for Space Missions proposed a complex automated factory on the Moon that would work over several years to build 80% of a copy of itself, the other 20% being imported from Earth since those more complex parts (like computer chips) would require a vastly larger supply chain to produce.[39] Exponential growth of factories over many years could refine large amounts of lunar (or asteroidal) regolith. Since 1980 there has been major progress in miniaturizationnanotechnologymaterials science, and additive manufacturing, so it may be possible to achieve 100% "closure" with a reasonably small mass of hardware, although these technology advancements are themselves enabled on Earth by expansion of the supply chain so it needs further study. A NASA study in 2012 proposed a "bootstrapping" approach to establish an in-space supply chain with 100% closure, suggesting it could be achieved in only two to four decades with low annual cost.[40] A study in 2016 again claimed it is possible to complete in just a few decades because of ongoing advances in robotics, and it argued it will provide benefits back to the Earth including economic growth, environmental protection, and provision of clean energy while also providing humanity protection against existential threats.[41]


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