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NASA Space Science

The Best Near-Term Future of Space Exploration? 444

An anonymous reader writes "Much fanfare has been made about manned missions to moons and planets, but little has been done about travel to the asteroids — until now. NASA is working on plans for a trip to the asteroids by 2025. This type of mission has great potential for positive economic return based on the fact that no effort has to be spent on getting in and out of a distant planet's gravity well. Yes, we should go to the planets, but we should master mining the asteroid belt for resources first because it is easiest. What do you think?"
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The Best Near-Term Future of Space Exploration?

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  • Welcome to Earth (Score:2, Insightful)

    by orangepeel ( 114557 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @08:25PM (#33421790)
    I'm disappointed it's a negative reaction that actually prompted me to log in for the first time in a over a year, but this story is crazy. The whole idea is crazy. Not because of technological limitations, but because we don't have a prayer of paying for it.

    A few days ago, copponex wrote []:

    "America is basically like a 7-11 that's about to go under. The shelves are barely stocked, the sign has been broken for months, and nobody really gives a shit because they've been watching the boss raid the cash drawer for years."

    I want to believe NASA could pull this off -- and by 2025 -- but I think it's tragically unrealistic from a financial perspective.
  • Re:Why mining? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Grishnakh ( 216268 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @08:32PM (#33421846)

    Every metal that we currently mine in the earth's crust. They're all plentiful in asteroids, and rare on Earth. In fact, everything that we currently mine (copper, iron, zinc, platinum, gold, etc.) came from asteroid impacts. During the early formation of the planet, when it was still mostly liquid, all those elements moved to the core, leaving only things like calcium and silicon and carbon in the Earth's crust when it cooled. All the useful elements came from asteroid impacts after that.

    The amount of wealth in metals in the asteroids is nearly unimaginable. A single small asteroid could be worth trillions of dollars.

  • by icegreentea ( 974342 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @08:43PM (#33421934)
    Why do you think that? I'm curious. Why not Mars orbit? It's not like the belt is actually that dense. I mean, you could blindly aim a spaceship through the belt, and as long as it can take collisions with pebble size objects, it'll almost certainly make it through unscathed. Most of its mass lies in few bodies. Putting a settlement on/around one of those would be just like putting one on any non-earth moon.

    My thinking is that the best place to set up self sufficient colonies independent of Earth is to start in a location where they can be dependent on Earth. Bootstrapping and all. Once you build an self sufficient earth orbit, or lunar settlement, then you can get the hell out of there and do whatever, as long as your power and transport can scale.
  • Re:Belters! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by couchslug ( 175151 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @08:49PM (#33421986)

    There is no urgency to manned missions. We already mechanize as much mining on Earth as possible, to cut costs which include expensive miners (who get killed, maimed, and expensively buried for month).

    If we want to mine space resources, don't bring people, make remote systems so good we won't need humans onsite.

  • What's the point (Score:4, Insightful)

    by phrostie ( 121428 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @09:10PM (#33422138)

    I know this is going to sound like a troll, but what's the point.
    nasa has become nothing but a pet poodle that each new administration scraps the work of the previous one and wastes all the funding that went into it for some new vision.

    I used to love space and nasa, but now days i just get annoyed.

    I'm starting to agree with putting space in the private sector but not for the reasons the current admin' says.
    i want space exploration out of the hands of the politicians.

    exit soap box.

  • Re:Belters! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @09:14PM (#33422160) Homepage

    A good-sized nickel-iron NEO, on the other hand, could be an excellent prospecting opportunity -- depending on how big it is, it could supply enough iron to sate Earth's steel demand for a century or more -- or it could be used as a resource cache to bootstrap space-borne manufacturing.

    OK, serious question here, because I'm baffled.

    How do we return any actual meaningful mass from an asteroid? How do we push it home? What it the source of the push?

    Do we send up rockets that are carrying rockets that then bring it home? ('Yo, Dawg, I hear you like rockets ... ;-)

    I assume it's cheaper because it's closer than Mars ... but, it would have to be a really good payout for the economics to make any sense, no? That's one hell of a lot of energy to move that much mass around space.

  • Re:Why mining? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Grishnakh ( 216268 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @09:21PM (#33422212)

    Doesn't matter. They were a whole series of missions, not just one mission, and they were done with technology far behind today's (especially computer technology). After what we've learned there, and with modern technology, we should be able to pull off a single asteroid mission for a similar cost. The big unknowns are 1) how to deal with sending people that far away, especially in regards to radiation, though keeping the trip short should alleviate that concern, and 2) how to actually extract minerals from the asteroid and bring them back to earth in quantities sufficient to make it viable. Should we capture the asteroid (assuming a fairly small asteroid here) and bring it to earth orbit, or mine it where it is (allowing us to work with much larger asteroids)?

    Obviously, the first mission probably won't be profitable, but we just have to figure out how to scale it up.

  • Re:What happened? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by xMilkmanDanx ( 866344 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @09:24PM (#33422240) Homepage
    I remember someone predicting that when Bush announced his planned trips to mars and the moon, it was really a politically astute way of dumping the space program without looking like he was dumping the space program. There was no provision for how to pay for these new missions and by the time actual funding was going to be needed, it would be somebody else's problem (without even having to paint the shuttles pink). Otherwise, the very real problems of what to do with the short term needs at NASA were going to be center stage and have to be dealt with in his administration. The lack of a shuttle replacement, problems with the existing shuttle's safety/reliability, how to maintain the ISS, etc.
  • Re:What happened? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Game_Ender ( 815505 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @09:31PM (#33422286)
    You, me, and pretty much every other engineer in existence shares this feeling. At its peak during Apollo NASA funding was 8 times the current $17 billion rate and I think it was worth it. You want more scientists and engineers here in the US, land a man on Mars. By the time we do it, I am pretty sure the world wide audience will be billions of people, easily toping the 15% who watched the Apollo landings.
  • by maxume ( 22995 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @10:06PM (#33422496)

    That's not really what I was getting at. If individual asteroids contain significant percentages of the total mined gold supply (a couple trillion), any successful asteroid mining is going to have a huge impact on the percieved value of all those metals (and just imagine a couple of capitalists in a friendly competition to bring back 50 times the amount of gold that is currently mined in a year, that would just barely show up over the decades it took to do it...).

  • by blackraven14250 ( 902843 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @10:24PM (#33422616)
    Yes, but the worth of the asteroid's metals isn't measured in "future potential price". It's measured in "How valuable is it right now".
  • by blackraven14250 ( 902843 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @10:43PM (#33422744)
    You can say that there's billions of gallons of oil deposits, worth trillions of dollars, that are currently inaccessible due to technological limitations. That doesn't mean that it's worthless, it just means it's inaccessible.
  • Re:Why mining? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by LongearedBat ( 1665481 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @11:55PM (#33423176)
    What if the mining vessel either stops at Earth's orbit, deposits the ore, then returns? Or even better...
    What if mining vessels don't even bother returning, and send chunks of ore in the direction of Earth with small directional rockets? Then we could steer the chunks into orbit.
    Spare parts could be manufactured in orbit and sent back to the mining vessels (such as the small directional rockets, though their fuel could be collected from asteroids).
    Ore that we want on Earth, could then be selectively sent down (somehow).

    The cost of launching one vessel into space might then be mitigated by it being reused for a long time, for much more than a single load of ore.
    Besides, when scarcity on Earth becomes severe, the cost of space mining might become alot more viable. And when I say "cost" I don't mean only financial cost.
  • Re:What happened? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by symbolset ( 646467 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @12:03AM (#33423220) Journal

    If you had such a huge responsibility and needed to make plans that took decades to complete you would be frustrated by being reorganized and reprioritized each time we changed presidential administrations. And that's just the president. Their funding comes through the Congress, which to them must seem like being funded by a squabbling raucous gang of greedy fourth graders.

    They now face the prospect that whatever they do they can't plan missions that lift off later than 2017 with any degree of confidence, and even 2013 with as much confidence as they would like. It's sad that America's space effort depends on this nonsense, but there it is.

  • by CrimsonAvenger ( 580665 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @12:07AM (#33423238)

    More or less, sure. Depending on the density, you could harpoon the asteroid with a retro-rocket and direct it back toward Earth for reentry. With low velocities, it could slam down in a desert area for safety. This would enable miners to excavate its resources with standard mining know-how that we have in place today.

    Hmm, let's look at some numbers. In general, if it's coming in from outside our gravity well, it'll be hitting atmosphere at escape speed or a bit over. Or a whole lot over. But let's go with escape speed.

    Let's assume we're talking a billion ton asteroid, just for round numbers.

    So, escape speed, billion tons...impact energy is on the order of 40 gigatons of TNT.

    So, which desert area will we use for safety?

  • by Jane Q. Public ( 1010737 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @12:20AM (#33423312)

    If your goal is to set up self-sufficient colonies independent of Earth, the asteroid belt is the best place to do it. But I don't think it will be economically rewarding without our lifetime.

    Ummm... no.

    We have yet to solve the medical problems imposed by microgravity. Until we do, the only viable sites for colonies in the near future are the Moon and Mars.

  • by tchdab1 ( 164848 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @12:56AM (#33423482) Homepage

    Why? Because it's more exciting to launch a multi-billion dollar vehicle out billions of miles and engineer the safe return of some metallic dirt, than to drive over to similar dirt here on Earth and pick it up.

  • by TqUhpiQaw ( 859283 ) <spamme@psycERDOS ... g minus math_god> on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @04:10AM (#33424074) Homepage

    Why foam it if you can turn it into a million crowbars to drop on your enemies? Now THAT makes economic sense.

  • by TFAFalcon ( 1839122 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @05:12AM (#33424250)

    Why even hitch a ride? If you get to a point in an asteroids orbit, with your craft moving at the same speed/direction as the asteroid, why do you even need to land? Won't gravity have the same effect on your craft as it would on the asteroid, meaning that your craft is ALREADY in orbit.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @08:40AM (#33425332)

    I can see where you are coming from but unfortunately private funding won't work for space exploration either. The problem is that space exploration still doesn't pay for itself and it is questionable if it would ever pay for itself. Even this very topic is just this same question reworded: how to make space exploration worthwhile? Perhaps there is still not one big enough corporation in the world that has that much money to burn seriously trying to make high profits from outer space. So far, it is all feeble and based on business model "take money from rich SciFi fans" or "lift little chunks of future space junk into low orbit". Ask yourself "What real needs are/would be better satisfied by space exploration then by other alternatives?"

Marvelous! The super-user's going to boot me! What a finely tuned response to the situation!