Many scientists and privately funded space firms want to mine near-Earth asteroids with the dual aims of making the billions, if not trillions, of dollars worth of precious metals thought to exist in them and help open the final frontier of exploration and exploitation. But how do you jackhammer into such celestial rocks, dubbed “flying gold mines”, without gravity and in an environment that would pull you away with every drill thrust?
That question is tackled in a new paper by astrophysicists from the University of Vienna who suggest turning an asteroid into a space station and mining it from the inside out.
According to the Viennese scientists’ research, the best type of asteroid to build a space mining station inside would be made of solid stone and rotating between 1 and 3 times a minute. The idea, which is based on advanced gravity models applied to a hypothetical asteroid measuring between 1,640 feet by 1,280 feet, is that the spinning object would provide enough centrifugal force to let space miners set up shop inside the rock thus allowing them to chisel away at the asteroid from the center outward. In addition, the astrophysicists argue the asteroid’s rocky hull could also keep the mining station safe from intense cosmic radiation and other dangers of being out in space.
“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,” Thomas Maindl, one of the scientists who worked on the research, told New Scientist.
While asteroid mining’s scale, scope and degree of difficulty has been compared with that of deep-sea oil drilling, questions about the project’s feasibility remain. Some researchers claim not enough is known about the physical composition of asteroids to guarantee building a mining station inside a celestial rock that could possibly fragment, stop spinning as miners probe and dig, or even break apart.
Ultimately, the scientists acknowledge that while it would be mathematically possible, with the right asteroid, to put a cylindrical space mining station inside a rock, we’re still a long way off from such an abstract concept becoming an objective physical reality.
“The border between science and science fiction here is sort of blurry,” Maindl told New Scientist. “My gut feeling is that it will be at least 20 years before any asteroid mining happens, let alone something like this.”
Still, the possibility of mining flying gold mines is an enticing future.