'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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Sir David Attenborough
people
Life and Style
Young girl and bowl of cereal
food + drink
News
Comic miserablist Larry David in 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'
peopleDirector of new documentary Misery Loves Comedy reveals how he got them to open up
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
football
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Life and Style
David Bowie by Duffy
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
advertisingVideo: The company that brought you the 'Bud' 'Weis' 'Er' frogs and 'Wasssssup' ads, has something up its sleeve for Sunday's big match
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
i100
Environment
Dame Vivienne Westwood speaking at a fracking protest outside Parliament on Monday (AP)
environment
Life and Style
tech
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

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness