Chinese Speculate about Mining Asteroids

Earth may be a finite source of minerals, but there's always outer space. That's one of the thoughts behind a project Chinese scientists have recently proposed. A paper published in the Chinese Journal of Astronomy and Astrophysics hypothesizes that an asteroid could be temporarily captured in Earth's orbit, making it possible to mine it for valuable minerals.

The paper is based on the observation that Jupiter occasionally has trapped passing objects in its orbit temporarily, only to release them again on a new course. The scientists have targeted a 10-meter asteroid as a possible test candidate and speculate that a slight increase in its velocity would cause it to temporarily enter Earth's orbit at a distance about twice the distance of the moon.

There are no plans to mine the small test asteroid, but the scientists do propose studying it once captured. Once the technique of pulling objects into Earth's orbit is mastered, then the idea of asteroid mining could fully be considered. Asteroid mining isn't a new idea. You can read more about it here. You can also see more coverage of these scientists' work in Popular Science and Technology Review.

Do you think we'll be mining asteroids for minerals in 10 years?

Diagram: Hexi Baoyin, Yang Chen, Jungeng Li; Illustration: composite of NASA photos, istockphoto


Rich Byrnes's picture

I imagine the cost to actually set-up mining equipment and transport minerals back to earth from an asteroid would be prohibitive. Even the simplest PHA on the process would ask “what if the asteroid experienced orbital decay and slammed into the earth”? I would also guess the captured asteroid’s velocity would have to be constantly adjusted as its Mass is being reduced due to the mining activity, to conserve angular momentum, otherwise we may lose the asteroids orbit. Interesting concept, probably not with in ten years, and probably not business viable until all methods to extract minerals and recycle minerals from earth have nearly exhausted themselves. Can you imagine thousands of asteroids being pulled into earth’s orbit, so that the hundreds of companies and countries competing with each other can service their business or national interest? Now that makes for a good Sci-Fi movie.