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Asteroid Psyche

Oct 21, 2019
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So I was thinking if I had a few Starships and a couple billion dollars what space mission I would design? What I came up with is the asteroid Psyche. It's a huge metal asteroid. Even though it's much smaller than Ceres it has a similar gravity due to it density. The asteroid puts the phrase "It's a gold mine" to shame. Seems to me that it should be target number 1 for manned missions to the asteroid belt? Anyone else think this is a good idea? With capable spacecraft coming online soon it seems within the realm of discussion.
 

MMohammed

Assistant Community Manager
Staff member
Oct 10, 2019
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Ooh you could certainly write a compelling proposal to take on this mission. 'We need them shiny metals in space, folks!'
 
Whilst Psyche seems an attractive target because of its composition, it is in the Asteroid Belt and so very costly on transportation.

Fortunately there should be less attractive (composition) but much much nearer, for example Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs).

But nice try!

Cat :)
 
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Dec 29, 2019
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Lots of gold, and platinum group metals will be found in metallic asteroids - but only well mixed in nickel-iron at low concentrations. As a source of nickel-iron it is a great opportunity but unless the plan is to mine and use and sell nickel-iron the project becomes very complex.

Of all possible ores for precious metals, it may be one of the most intractable; making alloys is easy but separating the metals in them is hard; if the gold in gold mines on Earth were mixed at those low concentrations in nickel-iron they would probably not be economic as gold mines.

I think that nickel-iron itself is the best asteroid resource that will be found - and the bottom line for asteroid mining will be the ability to mine and deliver it (raw) to Earth markets at costs below Earth sourced nickel-iron alloys. A few thousand USD per ton? I expect transport costs alone using existing technology will still far exceed that.
 
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Lots of gold, and platinum group metals will be found in metallic asteroids - but only well mixed in nickel-iron at low concentrations. As a source of nickel-iron it is a great opportunity but unless the plan is to mine and use and sell nickel-iron the project becomes very complex.

Of all possible ores for precious metals, it may be one of the most intractable; making alloys is easy but separating the metals in them is hard; if the gold in gold mines on Earth were mixed at those low concentrations in nickel-iron they would probably not be economic as gold mines.

I think that nickel-iron itself is the best asteroid resource that will be found - and the bottom line for asteroid mining will be the ability to mine and deliver it (raw) to Earth markets at costs below Earth sourced nickel-iron alloys. A few thousand USD per ton? I expect transport costs alone using existing technology will still far exceed that.
Yes, we know about cost of transporting from the Asteroid Belt, but how about bringing from NEAs? Pickings may not be so rich but delivered cost Planet Earth could be very attractive.

Cat :)
 
Dec 29, 2019
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Yes, we know about cost of transporting from the Asteroid Belt, but how about bringing from NEAs? Pickings may not be so rich but delivered cost Planet Earth could be very attractive.

My thinking is probably at odds with most of the enthusiasts around here - I think the less that is done in space the better the economics and when the economics work then growth, including of activities in space, follows. Conversely, if the economics don't work then growth does not follow.

I think doing more subsidised stuff in space without being profitable, because being in space is treated a desirable and high priority end in itself - and expecting the economics to turn positive afterwards - is wishful thinking. I also don't think activities in space can be treated as a separate economy; activities may be made economic by using in situ resources but there has to be a positive return to investors on Earth. Material commodities need to do more than be useful to those engaged in space activities; actual commodities need to reach Earth markets and make a profit or else the uses in space will be no more than upstream eddies in a downhill flow.

These kinds of projects are too remote and too expensive to rely on wishful thinking or "bootstrapping" - the problems need to be well understood and solutions, as part of a sound business plan, need to be in place before starting. I think the delivery from orbit to Earth is where a large part of the transport costs will be - and very likely the largest part of associated space based activity will be preparing and packaging them for that last few hundred km.

Whilst minimising what gets done in space is important for keeping costs down it still has to involve a lot of space based activities; the near Earth parts of an asteroid mining venture would probably require and support people working in space.

More specifically to your question - I think an asteroid with low delta vee requirements to get to Earth should help. Being closer to the sun - with potential for utilising solar energy - should help. I don't know if solar sails will be suited to moving high mass loads but the less fuel needed the better - whether brought along or produced on site.

On the other hand an object being very cold could make mining easier - brittle materials can be shattered into manageable portions without the energy or equipment requirements that sawing, crushing or plasma cutting would require. Or metallic chondrites - with metal as chondrules that can be separated relatively easily - might be preferable to large, solid metal masses.

I don't know what options might yet get developed for refining the constitutuent metals in nickel-iron asteroid materials in space or on-site - currently I would expect grinding to powder, dissolving in acids and chemical precipitants or electrolytics would be parts of such a process. Not well suited to doing in space or on site I think - a lot of consumable materials that would need to be shipped seems likely.

I keep hoping we may develop better refining; e.g. a way to turn mixed materials to ionised plasma and differentially separating the elements with high power magnetic fields - probably the sorts of things that nuclear weapons treaties would find problematic. But I would suppose they would still be very high energy processes with specialised equipment. Send the refinery into an elliptical orbit that takes it close to the sun to periodically get lots of solar energy?

I think we are still a long way from seeing any viable asteroid mining operation but it makes an interesting thought experiment.
 
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WOW. Thank you for that very impressive reply and the time it took putting it together.
Quite frankly, I am not very concerned about extraterrestrial mining. I suggest mankind has made enough mess of this planet, mainly (directly or indirectly) through overpopulation.
It was just an 'off the top of my head' remark that, if one is going in that direction, perhaps a solution a little closer to home might be worth considering.

Anyway, thanks again for providing a reasoned discussion.

Cat :)
 
Feb 4, 2020
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in thinking of experiments to send with Psyche to "Psyche" a return mission would be nice but a spider bot (might be better than a rover) with a base station to recharge at. The station could could also be a beacon/ relay for crafts in the asteroid belt maybe even a small telescope for observations. solar panels could fold out over a large area and perhaps even studies on solar sails and gravity deflection would be good for it the possibilties are almost endless what do you think love to hear back
 
Ittiz:

Wiki gives:
"Psyche, minor planet designation: 16 Psyche, is one of the ten most massive asteroids in the asteroid belt. This object is over 200 km in diameter and contains about 1% of the mass of the entire asteroid belt. It is thought to be the exposed iron core of a protoplanet, and is the most massive metallic M-type asteroid."

Where is the easy gold? Am I missing something?

Cat ;)
 
Ittiz:

Wiki gives:
"Psyche, minor planet designation: 16 Psyche, is one of the ten most massive asteroids in the asteroid belt. This object is over 200 km in diameter and contains about 1% of the mass of the entire asteroid belt. It is thought to be the exposed iron core of a protoplanet, and is the most massive metallic M-type asteroid."

Where is the easy gold? Am I missing something?

Cat ;)
P.S. David Whitehouse was just on Sky NEWS (UK) talking about just this. He confirmed 16 Psyche is believed to be mostly iron and nickel, so best start panning (if water is not too expensive)!
 
Mar 5, 2020
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The best target for an asteroid factory is a binary asteroid that orbits within the orbit of Mars. By binary I mean two asteroids that have merged or are in contact. The ideal combination would be a carbonaceous or water rich asteroid and a metallic asteroid. A single water rich asteroid with lots of metallic regolith would also work.

A solar furnace can be orbited around the asteroid. Orbiting the asteroid, a solar furnace can continuously be aimed at the Sun. A catapult can boost the material from the asteroid surface for capture by the furnace. The furnace can use local propellent for orbital maintenance or just sling some rocks (very bad practice in long run). Beyond the orbit of Mars, the size of the furnace becomes problematic.

Once you have manufactured something useful you need to have propellant to get it to the customer. That’s where the water rich or carbonaceous asteroid comes in. This asteroid is the source for volatiles. Volatile metals/gases can be used in ion engines or rocket engines.

The problem is that physically and time wise this is a long pipe. You start filing the pipe now and the customer picks it up in a few decades. The manufacturer would own the shipment until a customer paid for it. You could end up with your inventory spread across the Solar System.
 
Dec 29, 2019
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in thinking of experiments to send with Psyche to "Psyche" a return mission would be nice but a spider bot (might be better than a rover) with a base station to recharge at. The station could could also be a beacon/ relay for crafts in the asteroid belt maybe even a small telescope for observations. solar panels could fold out over a large area and perhaps even studies on solar sails and gravity deflection would be good for it the possibilties are almost endless what do you think love to hear back
I suspect adding mission tasks is not really that easy - because it is still expensive to launch stuff I think mass is still a major constraint. Without surety that there will be future missions to support I think communications beacons/relays aren't going to have a use - and communications at that distance doesn't appear to present serious problem that require relays. Big telescopes near Earth might be better value than small ones at a distance, studies on solar sails are better done nearby, as would trialling fold out solar panels or solar furnaces.

I am actually not convinced that Psyche is especially interesting as a target - that it is mostly metal attracts our interest but it seems unlikely to differ much in metal content to metallic meteorites, ie it will be taenite and/or kamecite (nickel-iron) with a few percent cobalt and "impurities" that include precious metals. Finding exceptions - metallic materials that are not nickel-iron would be more interesting.

I'm more inclined to look to missions that can examine multiple targets without landing and catalogue whole regions of asteroids. We have a good idea of what will be found from examining meteorites and from using spectral and other remote analysis so it is finding the unexpected and exceptional that will be worth identifying.
 
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