'Scuse me while I kiss the sky

A rendezvous with Eros on Valentine's day. Is asteroid 466 the future of global commodities?

The final countdown has begun for an ambitious space mission to kiss an asteroid called Eros on St Valentine's day. If the romance works out, it could lay the foundations for a new love affair with precious rocks that could be more meaningful than a visit to Tiffany. The rendezvous with Eros, a city-sized chunk of rock, may one day lead to mining on an epic scale, millions of miles from Earth.

The final countdown has begun for an ambitious space mission to kiss an asteroid called Eros on St Valentine's day. If the romance works out, it could lay the foundations for a new love affair with precious rocks that could be more meaningful than a visit to Tiffany. The rendezvous with Eros, a city-sized chunk of rock, may one day lead to mining on an epic scale, millions of miles from Earth.

Mission controllers at the American National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) have begun a 24-hour watch on Eros, some 150 million miles away in deep space. Nasa is on the look-out for a speck of light about 26,000 million miles farther beyond the floating piece of geology, namely the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (Near) spacecraft. Over the next few weeks, until 14 February, Near will move closer and closer to Eros.

As Eros moves against the fixed background pattern of stars, its trajectory will be analysed, and Near will fire its thrusters to edge closer. If all goes to plan, Near will become the first craft to go into orbit around an asteroid. What Near will see beneath it will be an ancient, pock-marked object riven with valleys that holds under its bleak, airless surface the secrets of the solar system's past and possibly the fate of our species.

Older than the oldest rocks on Earth, older than those on the Moon, Eros has remained unchanged in composition for billions of years, since the time the solar system was born, long before Earth came into existence. Eros is one of thousands of known asteroids that orbit the Sun, mainly in a giant ring between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Perhaps some of them are the debris of a much larger body shattered by impacts when the solar system was young; perhaps some of them have always been small bodies. Though scattered across vast tracts of space, together they would not make up the mass of the Moon.

The first asteroid, Ceres, was discovered on 1 January 1801; others were soon found. Measuring about 35km by 14km (22 by nine miles), the potato-shaped Eros is larger than the other three asteroids that spacecraft have flitted past. It circles the Sun every 643 days and spins every five hours. It is a tiny world of bright sunlight, deep shadows and minimal change.

Near will use its magnetometer to look for a magnetic field around the asteroid, which would tell scientists something about the asteroid's iron content. An X-ray/gamma ray spectrometer would analyse tiny amounts of high-energy radiation, looking for spectral signatures of silicon, magnesium, iron, uranium, thorium and potassium. A near infra-red spectrometer will map out the surface composition.

Near's path to Eros has been a rocky one, so to speak. The craft was launched flawlessly in February 1996, and in June 1997 it flew past the large, dark asteroid Mathilde. So angular was that tiny world, that, when approaching from its dark side, Near's camera was able to see only a series of rocky ridges with deep shadows in between. To some astronomers it looked like a prehistoric flying dinosaur. One researcher stuck a picture of it above his desk, labelled: "Pterodactyl".

When the time came for Near to fire its rocket in December 1998 to guide itself towards Eros, disaster almost struck. The rocket shut down after only two seconds, and mission controllers had to scramble to rescue the spacecraft. When they regained control, it was clear it was too late to orbit Eros. Emergency observations of it were made as it went sailing by in the interplanetary dark. Another rocket, fired in January 1999, put it back on course for the rendezvous, but this time it would be a year away on the other side of the Sun. So, for the second time, Near is approaching Eros.

The craft will tell us more about asteroids in just a few weeks than we have ever learnt. What we know already should fascinate us, for asteroids may play a role in the economic and technological development of Earth. The fact is, a smallish, 1km asteroid contains about eight billion tonnes of metal, worth over $50,000,000bn. Its iron and copper could supply the Earth for a decade. Its nickel would satisfy us for one millennium, its cobalt for several. Such mineral riches, yet you could walk round it in 15 minutes.

Near will be circling the 2,900 cubic km of Eros, in which there is more aluminium, gold, silver, zinc and other base and precious metals than has ever been mined or indeed ever could be from the outer layers of Earth's crust. Forget conventional mining and all its environmental problems. One Eros in orbit around the Earth, or preferably the Moon, is all we would need for almost all time. But perhaps Eros is not the right asteroid to mine. Better would be the more numerous 100-metre ones. Standing on one of those would be a hazardous occupation, as too vigorous a step would send you careering off into space. Lift a piece of rock and drop it, and it would take five minutes to reach the ground.

Mining the metal would not be complicated. Scoop the surface (it will be loose) and crush the fragments in a centrifuge, extracting metal fragments with a magnet. Take what is left and heat it in a solar furnace - huge mirrors made of foil will do - and all sorts of useful material will be vaporised that can be extracted with the kind of condenser seen in any oil refinery. Even oxygen, a rocket fuel, can be obtained.

It is difficult to say how much Eros is worth. One low estimate is that its mineral wealth would sell on the open market for $200,000bn. But the resources are way out in space. One way to transport the metals back would be to mine them on Eros and send the refined ore to Earth. It takes about 2,000 calories to boil a gram of iron, so the equivalent of 20,000-200,000 megatonnes of TNT would be needed to start liberating substantial quantities of iron from the asteroid. The energy could be obtained from the Sun. If you wanted to mine one section of Eros at a time, a huge solar energy collector - a sheet only a few kilometres in size - could collect enough energy to power a smelting plant on Eros.

Those are all "guesstimate" figures. But they show how mining one small asteroid such as Eros would revolutionise the availability of many raw materials on Earth. There is another reason to take a keen interest in Eros. One dynamical analysis of its orbit suggests that it is unstable on a time-scale of 100 million years or so; after that it has a 5 per cent chance of colliding with Earth. That is almost certainly an alarmist figure, but sooner or later something like Eros will threaten us, so we had better find out more about it. Hopefully, unlike Bruce Willis, we will not blow it up but nudge it into a safe orbit and mine it. At the moment, such gold-mines in space are tantalisingly out of reach. No one knows how much a robot mission to mine an asteroid would cost, but it is a safe bet that it would be the best return on an investment since Leonardo da Vinci bought a sketch-pad.

 

David Whitehouse is science editor of BBC News Online

News
Alan Bennett has criticised the “repellent” reality shows which dominate our screens
tvBut he does like Stewart Lee
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
i100
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
News
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits