Ye Peijian, a famous Chinese academician on information processing and space vehicle, said that the development of asteroid resources would be one of the future direction for space development. He said, “In China, we can implement demonstration projects in 10 years if we want to. It will take about 50 years to achieve mass mining.”
Reporter learned from Asteroid Exploration Academic Report held on the same day by the Fifth Academy of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), the asteroids, especially near-earth asteroids, are space exploration targets with highest value in the near future. Huang Jiangchuan, the technical director of the moon and deep space exploration in the Fifth Academy, said China should implement a high-starting and landmark asteroid exploration mission during 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025).
Ye said at the meeting that there were profound potentials for development when using the asteroid’s own orbital characteristics and material properties. The rare metals on some asteroids, for example, are several times more than that on earth, worthy of several hundred million dollars. Asteroids as a whole can also be developed as giant spacecraft. The main ideas currently envisaged asteroids as a resource development platform and an interplanetary navigation platform.
Temporary plan to develop resources is to capture an asteroid and control it within reach. Then, we could carry out robot or manned resources exploitation and returned to the earth after obtaining scarce resources. Or we could directly use the mineral resources on asteroid and carry out in-orbit construction work.
Ye said, “In the future, when China captures asteroid, we may ‘catch’ the asteroid at high lunar orbit or Lagrange 2 based on perspectives of future manned asteroid exploration connection, extracting asteroid resources for subsequent deep space mission as well as collision threat and dynamics feasibility of capturing the asteroid.”
The long-term vision of the scheme is to use the asteroid as a space transfer station that provides the basic materials for establishing space facilities and interplanetary navigation system, so as to carry out further exploration missions.
The star craft program will take advantage of the asteroid’s orbit. The idea is to have the probe to land on the surface and then the probe hibernates or explores, in which the asteroid would be used as a ferry platform. When the asteroid reaches a proper position, the probe flies toward the deep space target. This can reduce the probe’s demand for propellant and could decrease probe size or enlarge the detection distance. In the future, humans will also be able to build a large and closed ecosystem of asteroids whose operation relies on energy collected from asteroids. The centrifugal force generated by asteroid’s rotation simulates that of the earth so as to meet the astronauts’ living requirements and form mobile home in space.
The vision is wonderful, but there are numerous technological barriers. Ye said that asteroid exploration involved many key technologies in “selection, exploration, control and use”. For example, when selecting the asteroid target, it involves parameter identification and analysis, scientific value evaluation, engineering feasibility analysis, etc. When conducting the early detection of the target asteroid, we need to solve problems like power and fuel supply for long interstellar flight, autonomous navigation to targets in deep space as well as how to capture, land on, adhere to and move on target with weak gravity. As for selecting and reaching the asteroid target, we need to solve how to control the asteroid at close range, including eliminating the asteroid’s spinning, offsetting its orbit excursion and transferring asteroids to the target area, etc.
When developing and utilizing asteroid resources, we should first get in-situ resource utilization technology. Ye said, this technology is used to explore and obtain natural or disused resources on extraterrestrial objects and is applied to maintain extraterrestrial living products and services. It is involved with destination survey, exploration, acquisition and preprocessing of original resource; the process of transforming original resources into propellant, energy, and other consumables production process; and the support for in-situ resource utilization of factories and equipment.
At the meeting, Yang Jian, the head of Purple Mountain Observatory, Chinese Academy of Sciences, awarded Ye Peijian bronze plaque and named certificate of “Ye Peijian Star”. It is learned that Purple Mountain Observatory discovered no. 456677 asteroid on September 11, 2007.
Head Image: China’s Mars probe model