In 2016, NASA launched its OSIRIS-REx mission to mine and take samples of an asteroid named Bennu which is assumed to contain 10% nickel and iron worth millions as per market valuations. Ever wondered why NASA and other space agencies are considering the prospect of mining an asteroid? The answer is quite straightforward. Assuming that the scientists can mine all the minerals found, the largest and the most valuable known asteroid is sought to have minerals worth $15 quintillion which is something incomprehensible.
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe was launched back in 2016 from Cape Canaveral in Florida. It has since traveled over 1.3 billion kilometers to reach the asteroid Bennu. It has circumnavigated the Sun and will use Earth’s gravitational assist as the slingshot to flyby near Bennu and then, eventually landing on the asteroid for merely few seconds. According to the mission, OSIRIS-REx will start surveying and capture images of asteroid Bennu when it reaches within the distance of 2 million km. It will complete its approach to the asteroid by December 2018 where it will study and make further surveys about the valuable asteroid.
After a year i.e. in July 2020, the spacecraft will descend on the surface of Bennu where it is programmed to stay for few seconds and then, retract from it after collecting few samples that will be examined by the scientists back on Earth. The probe will reach and descend on the asteroid for which, the trajectory was calculated based on the orbit of the asteroid with respect to Earth’s. The asteroid transits near Earth every six years.
The probe has been designed and equipped to collect samples of the asteroid’s surface which will help scientists determine its chemistry, shape and other aspects. The spacecraft has giant solar panels that generate power between 1,266 and 3,000 watts for that enables it to propagate and operate under the semi-autonomous state. A high gain antenna is used to send and receive data from Earth to the spacecraft and vice versa.
OSIRIS-REx has been designed with an articulated arm called ‘Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM)’ which literally means touch and go. The mechanism will release a burst of nitrogen gas that will stir up some surface material that will be collected as samples. There is a fancy name for soil sample collected i.e. Regolith. The mechanism is equipped to collect 60 to 2,000 grams of regolith in the batch of three samples. Once collected, these samples will be put into a capsule and then, the spacecraft will retract from the asteroid. On March 2021, the spacecraft will begin its journey to the Earth and will reach the near-Earth in September 2023. NASA has preprogrammed the spacecraft to send the samples in the capsule using a parachute which will be a controlled re-entry.
Harnessing water and minerals on asteroids
Asteroids are estimated to possess water and valuable minerals and much more. Space agencies and companies across the globe are developing techniques to mine asteroids for its valuable minerals. An estimated value of the most-valuable asteroid known worths around $15 quintillion which is 192,283 times the total gross domestic product of the world i.e. $80 trillion x the previous number for which, the numbers are literally unimaginable.
Asteroids harbor water and other resources that can be used as rocket fuel to power spacecraft replenishing for a long journey in the cosmos.