On a certain type of investor, asteroid mining is the way to untold riches. Astronomers have long known that the asteroids are rich in other scarce resources such as platinum and water. Even the idea of a clear is to me these things and return them to Earth—or, in the case of water to the base of the moon or the Earth-orbiting space station.
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There is no shortage of interest in these projects. In the past decade, investors have funded half a dozen companies that have set their sights on various nearby rocks. Many observers it’s only a matter of time before this mission gets the green light.
But profit margins are only part of the picture. Potentially more important aspect of these missions is their impact on the Earth’s environment. But no one had assessed that the environmental impact in detail.
Today, that changes thanks to the work of Andreas Heine and his colleagues at the University of Paris-Palais in France. These men have their account greenhouse gas emissions from the asteroid-mining operations and compared them with the emissions of similar ground. The results provide some eyebrow-raising insights into the benefits that asteroid mining might provide.
The calculations are relatively simple. Rocket launches issuance of large amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The fuel aboard the first stage of the rocket burning up in Earth’s atmosphere the form of carbon dioxide. The kerosene-burning rocket one kilogram of fuel creates three kilograms of carbon dioxide CO2. (The second and third stages of the work outside the Earth’s atmosphere so that it can be ignored.)
Reentries are just as harmful. That’s because a large block of re-entering the car ablates in the upper atmosphere, producing nitrogen oxides such as nitrous oxide (N2O) greenhouse gas about 300 times more effective than carbon dioxide CO2. One estimate of the space shuttle released about 20% of its mass in the form of N2O every time he returned to Earth.
Hein participated in the use of these numbers to calculate the KG of platinum mined from an asteroid would release about 150 kg of carbon dioxide CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere. However, the economies of scale of a large asteroid-mining operations can reduce this to about 60 kg of CO2 per kg of platinum.
That needs to be compared with emissions from land-based mining. Here platinum mining generates significant greenhouse gases, most of the energy required to remove these things from the ground.
Indeed, the numbers are huge. The mining industry estimated that the production of one kilogram of platinum on the Earth releases about 40,000 kg of carbon dioxide. “The impact of global warming of the earth mining is several orders of magnitude greater,” says Hein and associates.
Budgeted figures are also encouraging. In this case, the authors calculate the greenhouse gas emissions of an asteroid-mining process, the water returns to any place within the orbit of the moon, which is called the cis-lunar orbit. Comparing these emissions are from sending the same volume of water from the ground into orbit.
The big difference is that the water protects the vehicle from the ground distance only a small percentage of the mass of water. But an asteroid-mining spacecraft can be transferred to a large multiple of the mass of water to cis-lunar orbit. “Significant savings in greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved”, says Hein and associates.
This interesting work should help to focus minds on the environmental impacts of mining that is quickly growing in profile. But it is only the first step. There is uncertainty in the numbers here, so this you will need to understand better.
Other factors also ultimately need to be taken into account. The Earth-bound mining industry to become more environmentally friendly through the use of renewable energy instead of burning coal to generate energy (as is the case in South Africa). The launch of missiles could also become greener if it is more environmentally friendly types of fuel. All of these things that will change the numbers.
There are also emissions that this analysis does not take into account. For example, it does not include emissions from Mission Control on Earth or from the launch platform construction. Then there are the ongoing effects of rocket launches on the ozone layer, which also need to be considered.
So there is more work to be done. But Hine and co have taken an important first step towards realistic environmental life cycle assessments for asteroid mining, a task that will surely become more pressing in the industry matures.
Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1810.04749 : explore the potential environmental benefits of asteroid mining
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