We know the age of private space travel is here, but what about the wider commercial space industry? “Space mining” has been talked-up in recent years, but the hype-cycle has peaked with the realization that the technology to fetch rare-Earth metals from distant asteroids is some way off.
That’s not stopped NASA’s plans to launch, in 2022, its “Psyche” mission to a large metallic asteroid called 16 Psyche that’s thought to be largely metallic—and so ideal for space mining.
However, the NASA plans to merely orbit and document 16 Psyche, and in any case won’t reach the asteroid—situated in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter—until 2026.
Now researchers have uncovered two metal-rich near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) that could one day be mined for iron, nickel and cobalt could for use on Earth or in space.
They’re reckoned to be 85% metal and one is thought to contain enough iron, nickel and cobalt to exceed Earth’s reserves.
The researchers used the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility on the island of Hawaii.
The largest metal-rich body in the solar system, Psyche is about 230 million miles/370 million kilometers from Earth and about 140 miles/226 kilometers wide. Possibly made of iron and nickel, it’s thought to be the leftover core of a planet that failed during its formation.
In comparison, , 1986 DA and 2016 ED85 are tiny—just a few miles wide, yet thought to be the result of the cores of developing planets like 16 Psyche being destroyed early in the Solar System’s history. Crucially, they’re far closer to Earth than Psyche, so would be better targets for mining.
“Our analysis shows that both NEAs have surfaces with 85% metal such as iron and nickel and 15% silicate material, which is basically rock,” said lead author Juan Sanchez, who is based at the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona. “These asteroids are similar to some stony-iron meteorites such as mesosiderites found on Earth … it is rewarding that we have discovered these “mini Psyches” so close to the Earth.”
So could we mine these “mini Psyches?” The paper explored the mining potential of 1986 DA and found that it’s 85% metal—and that its iron, nickel and cobalt could exceed the global reserves of these metals.
It’s also possible that the researchers have stumbled on to a seam of metal-rich asteroids. By studying the orbits of 1986 DA and 2016 ED85 they identified four possible asteroid families in the main asteroid belt—home to 16 Psyche.
“We believe that these two “mini Psyches” are probably fragments from a large metallic asteroid in the main belt, but not 16 Psyche itself,” said David Cantillo, an undergraduate student in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Arizona. “It’s possible that some of the iron and stony-iron meteorites found on Earth could have also come from that region in the Solar System, too.”
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.