Noted English thinker Thomas Malthus famously commented that, ‘ As population would increase geometrically, doubling every 25 years, food production would only grow arithmetically, which would result in famine and starvation, unless births were controlled.’ Though the statement is 220 years old, it still holds credence! But what if we could actually acquire critical resources like water and energy, basic necessities for producing food, without burdening the earth? What if we could procure these items from an entity that’s not based anywhere on earth?
Scientists and researchers around the world are now working towards mining water and energy resources on asteroids and other celestial bodies. Can the object of our potential destruction become the object of our salvation? Researchers at the US- based National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) are brainstorming on the latter and are pursuing these entities to ensure mankind’s survival. But first what is Asteroid Mining (AM)?
As per NASA, AM is a process under which asteroids and other celestial bodies are mined for extracting crucial resources to boost humanity’s space faring capacities and resource necessities on earth. The process has considerable potential due to the following considerations;
1. Asteroid mining can lead to an increase in the level of water. The carbonaceous asteroid class contains clay minerals that in turn contain water that can be extracted once mined. The derived water upon exposure to electrolysis can be split into H2 and O2, crucial rocket fuel components. Carbonaceous means the entity contains Carbon, the 4th most abundant element in the universe, the building block of life itself! The process, if initiated, can certainly reduce the burden on earth’s water resources.
2. Interstellar may not be limited to a fantasy anymore if asteroid mining is pursued. Since the process will generate water resources, crucial for human & machine survival, interplanetary missions may one day become commercially, technologically and scientifically viable for a variety of purposes. Imagine having breakfast on Earth, lunch on Jupiter and dinner on Pluto or beyond or for that matter holidaying on Uranus & holding a peace summit with Aliens near Saturn? Sounds too far-fetched, yes but is it possible, the answer is still a resounding YES!
3. Asteroids can also be used as off-earth spots to set up solar panels. These panels can beam down accumulated solar energy via microwaves. Apart from reducing burden on earth’s resources, such a method can further bring down the carbon footprint of conventional fuels drastically. Though the process sounds too fictionalised, it is completely doable. Maybe not right now, but within the next 1-2 century, the process is doable. A few companies are already in the process of undertaking this fantastical endeavor.
However, asteroid mining poses certain challenges that need to be thought out. Some of them are mentioned below;
1. Getting prospective corporations and companies to buy asteroid water may be easier said than done. A business model will need to be formulated. This is an area that governments across the world can collectively invest in because at least space doesn’t belong to any one nation & can arguably be called ‘Collective Heritage of Mankind’. By investing collective money, efforts, time and personnel, the world can surely benefit from this shared exercise.
2. Developing technology to extract resources from asteroids for commercial & scientific purposes may require considerable initial capital investment from government and private agencies worldwide. Considerable human personnel too would need to be selected, trained and sent on missions that involve a considerable risk to life. AM is not a foolproof process. It’s quite dangerous and frankly a mad venture going by conventional norms of sanity. But then any significantly advanced technology or entity has been subject to ridicule, opposition and finally acceptance. AM too cannot escape this process
3. The possibility of human personnel being infected with an invasive alien species while on extraction missions can be disastrous for the mission as a whole. Security details coupled with extensive decontamination checks would need to be periodically scheduled to prevent a possible outbreak. Nobody would want alien predators to roam earth but at the same time the possibility of meeting a peace loving species in the vast universe too is a strong possibility holding immense life altering value
AM is a complex process but going by the current trends in Science & Technology, it’s an endeavor that is sure to propel humanity into the next stage of the evolutionary process. How that’ll happen is open to active enquiry which is very much desirable!