The lure of space rock mining has led scientists and sci-fi advocates alike to ponder the big questions about the universe, such as, how the heck do you jackhammer into an asteroid without any gravity?
That question is tackled in a new paper by researchers from the University of Vienna who suggest that rather than drilling outside-in, asteroid mining might work best the other way around.
To many, the future of humanity lies outside Earth’s atmosphere, as a growing population combined with limited planetary resources implies a need for either colonizing another planet or bringing back home the riches that the universe has to offer. And while the big dreamers are still keen on making Mars our secondary digs, the other option poses a wealth of possibilities, especially when there are veritable candy stores of precious metals just whizzing around the solar system waiting to be exploited.
Getting to an asteroid is one thing (Japan’s space program made the first ever asteroid landing last year) but staying there while exerting force enough to mine the thing is less easy, as the microgravity environment would pull you away with every drill thrust. Using advanced gravity models applied to a hypothetical asteroid measuring between 500 x 390 metres, the new study’s authors argue for using the object’s own centrifugal force to the miner’s benefit, by setting up shop inside the rock.
Below: How Asteroid Mining Will Save Earth
“Existing studies focus on creating the necessary artificial gravity by rotating structures that are built inside the asteroid. Here, we assume the entire mined asteroid to rotate at a sufficient rate for artificial gravity and investigate its use for housing a habitat inside,” write the researcher whose paper is published in the preprint server ArXiv in December.
What’s more, setting up a space station inside an asteroid cavern would help shield the mining team from harmful cosmic radiation, the authors suggest.
“If we find an asteroid that’s stable enough, we might not need these aluminium walls or anything, you might just be able to use the entire asteroid as a space station,” study co-author and astrophysicist Thomas Maindl at the University of Vienna, speaking to the New Scientist.
“The border between science and science fiction here is sort of blurry,” Maindl says. “My gut feeling is that it will be at least 20 years before any asteroid mining happens, let alone something like this.”