On October 5, the US space agency will shoot off the ‘Psyche’ spacecraft onboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket to check out an asteroid of the same name. Psyche will travel 3.6 billion km to reach the asteroid Psyche, which is believed to contain precious metals of unspeakable value.
After reaching the Psyche asteroid in 2029, the spacecraft will spend approximately 26 months orbiting the asteroid. The mission has kindled interest only because of the enormous wealth that beckons, something like $ 27 quintillion.
The Psyche mission, however, is not to bring anything back but to check out the asteroid. “The mission will help answer fundamental questions about Earth’s own metal core and the formation of our solar system,” says NASA.
Naturally, the question is—what about India? Can’t we shovel something from the asteroid, bring it home, and turn rich overnight?
The short answer is ‘no’. Indeed, when Dr A S Kiran Kumar was the Chairman of the Indian space agency, ISRO, there were talks about an asteroid mission – again, just a probe and not mining – but those ideas seemed to have faded away.
“It is far away,” ISRO’s Chairman, Sreedhar Somanath, told businessline when asked where asteroid mining was in ISRO’s scheme of things.
“It needs space robotics of high level, mission management and ground infrastructure expansion, many trial missions for sample returns, for validation,” he said.
However, there is no bar on dreaming. The many ‘near-earth asteroids’ that sometimes travel between the Earth and the moon are of interest. Some near-earth asteroids are: Eros (visited by NASA’s Shoemaker spacecraft in 1990s), Itokawa (studied by Japan’s Hayabusa spacecraft in mid-2000s), Bennu (from which NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission returned with a sample in 2020), Ryugy (studied by Japan’s Hayabusa-2).
If we can land on the moon, we can land on an asteroid, right? Not so simple, says Dr Chaitanya Giri, an astrochemist who teaches at the FLAME University, Pune and who has worked on European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
A rendezvous with an asteroid calls for many things to fall in place, the first of which is a good ion propulsion engine and careful trajectory study.
Furthermore, “rendezvous is one thing, sample return is another and commercial mining is yet another,” notes Giri.
But Giri, while recognising that asteroid mining is far out into the future, is all for making a beginning now. “We must start developing a concept paper,” he said, stressing that not all missions need to be spearheaded by ISRO, though ISRO would necessarily be a stakeholder I all the missions. “The private sector and the universities should begin work on this,” he said, emphasising that developing a talent pool—which is absent today for asteroids—is a pre-requisite.
Asteroid mining is not about gold or platinum, as is often understood. To go and get such materials from any asteroid would be silly economics. However, many rare earths are available on the Earth in minimal quantities, but are useful. Neodymium, dysprosium, europium, yttrium, terbium, holium, erbium, thulium are some examples. Each one of them is useful but hardly available on the earth.
The private sector can start looking at this, says Giri, though noting that a few West-based start-ups – like Planetary Resources – have gone bust.