Is Japan Winning the Race to Mine Asteroids? (Part 1 of 2)

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Japan set a new record in space development by delivering two tiny hopping robotic probes to an asteroid named Ryugu. JAXA – Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency – announced the successful deployment on September 21, 2018.


The second-generation rocket Hayabusa2 was launched on December 3, 2014, and reached the near-Earth asteroid 162173 Ryugu on June 27, 2018. Its mission is to survey the space rock for a year and a half. In October 2018, a larger rover (a probe that can move) named MASCOT will deploy from Hayabusa2, followed by a third tiny hopping probe next year.

In December 2019, it will lift off and return home in December 2020 with a cargo of mineral samples.

JAXA tweeted victory at 7:47 am on Sep 22, 2018:

“We are sorry we have kept you waiting! MINERVA-II1 consists of two rovers, 1a & 1b. Both rovers are confirmed to have landed on the surface of Ryugu. They are in good condition and have transmitted photos & data. We also confirmed they are moving on the surface. #asteroidlanding”

The achievement here lies in landing a spacecraft on a moving object without destroying the expensive equipment. The average asteroid speed of 15 miles per second.

As part of the Japanese MINERVA-II1 program, the two small robots were dropped from Hayabusa2 about 200 feet above the surface. They were built to hop around the asteroid, taking pictures and logging data. The two probes are each about the size and shape of a cheese wheel or a round biscuit tin. They are already transmitting images and data back to Japan. At least one is confirmed as hopping around.

After delivery back to Earth, the samples collected will go to the lab for analysis. The official reason for this program is to learn more about the formation of the solar system.

At the end of October, the spacecraft is scheduled to use explosives to blast out a small crater on the asteroid to expose samples from under the surface that haven’t been exposed to space. Then the craft will land on the asteroid to collect the samples.

But do the Japanese have an ulterior motive for sending probes to asteroids to perform what amounts to a mineral assay (test for content, quality, and quantity)? Given the cost of their program – estimated in 2010 at 16.4 billion yen, equivalent to $146 million – we tend to think so.

Mining asteroids in space is one way to solve supply problems here on Earth that countries like Japan must be considering very seriously. After all, if the ore is rich with gold, platinum, titanium, or unobtainium (just kidding about the last one), the value after extraction could be worth the cost of spacefaring.

This is not new thinking according to The Conversation:

“Several privately funded space companies are locked in a race to claim the trillions of pounds worth of precious metals thought to exist in asteroids.”

There are lots of asteroids orbiting close enough to Earth to tempt mining ventures. In March 2016, a British startup called The Asteroid Mining Corporation entered the new industry. Their goals are plain and simple:

“We are a new aerospace start-up company that aims to open up the possibilities and potential of an off-Earth commercial market.

We aim to develop groundbreaking technologies that will enable the extraction, processing and use of materials derived from the many millions of asteroids known to exist near Earth and further afield.”

One challenge to business operations in outer space is how to make the rocketry part as dependable, long-lasting and low-cost as possible. Elon Musk showed the world with his Space X company’s Falcon Heavy rocket that re-usable boosters are not only feasible, but reality.

The Falcon Heavy has a much lower price tag than its competitors:

“The Falcon Heavy rocket, with reusable side boosters, costs $90 million.” That’s million with an m – keep that in mind as you read on.

Among those are NASA’s upcoming heavy-lift booster, the Space Launch System (SLS). Evidently, the national space program has been shamed into developing their own proprietary system to keep up with the rocketing (pun intended) space industries. They’ve been working on it since 2011 and are aiming for a 2020 launch.

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NASA wants to build a bigger rocket (which, of course, takes longer and costs more taxpayer money) so theirs will beat the Falcon Heavy by 6 tons of lift capacity – 70 tons required to attain low-Earth orbit versus 64 tons.

The exact cost of the NASA project won’t be known until completion. But an associated facility upgrade is costing us a hot $1 BILLION.

“To support the launch of the SLS, NASA is modifying a launch tower originally designed for another rocket. That tower has cost NASA nearly $1 billion, and it may require additional improvements in the future.”

NASA has an annual budget of $2.6 BILLION to build the better rocket. By the time it is ready, the SLS will already be outdated. Lori Garver served as a deputy administrator of NASA from 2009 to 2013. Her opinion of the SLS is quite scathing:

“The question is really, why would the government continue to spend billions of dollars a year of taxpayer money for a rocket that will be unnecessary and obsolete? If the US continues this travesty, it will siphon off even more funds NASA could otherwise use for science missions, transfer vehicles, or landers that actually get us somewhere.”

As federally funded NASA falls further behind in the race to mine space, the Japanese and private international corporations are setting new records.

The Japanese robotic asteroid sampling system is slated for a return to Earth in 2020. NASA has a comparable sample retrieval mission called OSIRIS-Rex with a return date in 2023.

Who will win the race to combine rocketry and mining technologies in order to bring new mineral riches to Earth? Japan? Space X? Or an often-overlooked country nestled in the heart of Europe?

The answer will be explored in Part 2!


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