But Galache says there aren’t enough telescopes available to do searches at the right time. Several entities have early-stage plans to view and classify asteroids using telescopes, including the companies Deep Space Resources and Planetary Resources, and the non-profit B612 Foundation — but these aren’t ready yet.
“NEOs are usually discovered when they are at their brightest, so our best chance of studying them is by immediately following up detections with further observations to characterize their shape and spectral properties,” he said. “That needs good quality, relatively large, dedicated telescopes that are available at short notice. We don’t have reliable access to these facilities right now.”
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Even with the right telescopes, other considerations are necessary to make asteroid mining a reality. Some of the other problems Galache’s group identified include understanding more about how regolith (soil) behaves in the low gravity of an asteroid, creating better regolith simulants on Earth to design mining equipment, and learning about the abundance of elements on different types of asteroids in our solar system. More observation is needed because past missions to asteroids have shown that each of the ones analyzed have looked so different.
For example, NEAR Shoemaker’s observations of the asteroid Eros showed a fine layer of dust on the surface. By contrast, Hayabusa’s observations of Itokawa revealed blocks that are tens of inches in diameter. The recent Rosetta mission, which studied Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, also found that the surface of the comet is denser than its insides, but it’s unclear if asteroids possess the same properties.
While asteroid mining is decades away, there are a couple of spacecraft on their way to asteroids to do more up-close observations and bring samples back to Earth. NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission is on its way to asteroid Bennu and will arrive in 2018. Meanwhile, Japan’s Hayabusa 2 will reach asteroid Ryugu in 2020.
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