On October 5th, NASA will launch the ‘Psyche’ spacecraft aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket on a mission to explore the asteroid of the same name. The asteroid Psyche is believed to contain precious metals with a staggering estimated value of $27 quintillion. The Psyche spacecraft will travel a distance of 3.6 billion kilometers and is expected to reach the asteroid Psyche in 2029.
While the mission has captured attention due to the potential wealth associated with the asteroid, its primary objective is not mining but rather scientific exploration. NASA states that the mission aims to answer fundamental questions about Earth’s metal core and the formation of the solar system.
The prospect of asteroid mining has raised questions about India’s involvement in similar missions. According to Sreedhar Somanath, the Chairman of ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation), asteroid mining is not currently a part of ISRO’s plans. He highlighted the challenges involved, including the need for advanced space robotics, mission management, ground infrastructure expansion, trial missions for sample returns, and validation.
Despite these challenges, some near-Earth asteroids have piqued scientific interest, including Eros, Itokawa, Bennu, and Ryugu, which have been studied by various spacecraft missions. However, Dr. Chaitanya Giri, an astrochemist with experience on the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission, explains that rendezvousing with an asteroid is complex and requires advanced propulsion systems and trajectory planning.
Giri emphasizes the importance of initiating the concept of asteroid missions, suggesting that it need not be solely ISRO’s responsibility. He encourages the private sector and universities to get involved and start developing a talent pool for asteroid-related missions.
Asteroid mining is not limited to valuable metals like gold or platinum but extends to rare earth elements such as neodymium, dysprosium, europium, yttrium, terbium, holmium, erbium, and thulium. These elements are essential for various applications but are scarce on Earth.
While asteroid mining remains a futuristic endeavor, the idea of starting the groundwork now is gaining support. The challenges are substantial, but the potential benefits, both scientific and economic, make asteroid exploration an intriguing prospect for the future.