This summer, a group of student researchers and professors from Western University is taking part in a new project that will look at the future of asteroid mining in space.
Known as the Khepri Asteroid Mining Mission, the international research effort is exploring options for potentially mining resources from the Bennu asteroid, a half-kilometer long asteroid located 200 million miles away from Earth. The project will investigate a wide array of aspects, including engineering, business, legal issues and public policies of space resource utilization.
Along with Western, the collaborative project includes professors, students and industry professionals from the University of Toronto, University of Waterloo, University of Arizona, the University of Alberta, and MDA, a space technology company based in Brampton, Ont.
The team from Western includes: civil and environmental engineering professor Timothy Newson; Earth sciences professor Gordon Osinski; as well as three students from the Faculty of Engineering, two from the Faculty of Law and one from the Faculty of Science. Western Law professors Valerie Oosterveld and Elizabeth Steyn also serve as policy/law supervisors for the project.
One of the team members, Ariyaan Talukder, a second-year mechanical engineering student at Western, is in charge of designing an anchor system that would secure a drilling unit to the surface of the asteroid and the gripping claw that would grab boulders. During the summer, he will work in a centrifuge lab with Newson in the Spencer Engineering building to test the design.
“Basically, we’re trying to create a system (that will allow us to) land on the asteroid Bennu, that includes anchoring and gripping onto the boulders,” said Talukder. “Then from there, we’re going to lift it up into some sort of mothership-like unit and process the boulder that we pick up from the asteroid into water, which will then be used to power satellites and things like that.”
One of the major problems the team from Western has been trying to figure out is the anchoring system. Researchers did not know much about the surface integrity of the Bennu asteroid because of the lack of a sample from the surface to date. That changed last week on July 7 when two papers published in Science and Science Advances found the surface of the asteroid is nearly cohesionless, essentially having the consistency of a plastic ball pit. This was discovered thanks to footage taken from the OSIRIS-REx mission from NASA, when it grabbed a small sample from the asteroid in October 2020. That sample is expected to be brought back to Earth when the mission returns in 2023.
Over the last few weeks, the team at Western had planned to use a simulated “brutal” surface of the asteroid made of water, gypsum and other elements to test the anchoring systems. After this discovery late last week, Talukder said in an email response that the team will be “unable to consider anchoring on to the asteroid,” and will have to change tactics to pick up boulders off the asteroid.
“The method we have decided on is a unit that is in orbit of the asteroid and picks it up with the gripper (the element I am working on) to return into the mothership to be later processed,” said Talukder.
The Bennu asteroid, also known as 101955 Bennu, was first discovered on Sept. 11, 1999. Named after the Egyptian mythological bird of the same name, which is associated with the sun, rebirth and creation, it is classified as a carbonaceous, or C-type, asteroid. These asteroids are volatile-rich and primitive because they contain remnants from the early Solar System and have a very high-water content. Bennu is also the most researched asteroid in space right now.
The Khepri project is a first step in the infancy of the so-called, cislunar economy – the economy between Earth and the moon. The extraction of water on asteroids would support and expand this new economy and deep space exploration pursuits, as it can be used as a rocket/satellite propellent, and for human consumption and space agriculture.
A few years ago, it cost at least $27,000 per pound to send equipment into space. This included the launch of the space vehicle. With this estimate, Talukder said there is around $330 trillion worth of water on Bennu alone. Through space mining of water from asteroids like Bennu, the cost for refueling would be significantly reduced over time as the need to ship out necessary supplies, like water, from Earth would decrease.
While the Khepri project is focusing specifically on water, other missions could go to other asteroids to mine valuable resources, like titanium, gold and platinum, in the future. Talukder said it is possible the cislunar economy could become practical in the next 10 years.
“We’re talking about other countries that could easily use it,” said Talukder. “It could be very, very economically beneficial, and provide the Earth with a lot more resources than we have right now, since we have such a limited amount.”
In addition to the engineering aspects of space resource mining, the Khepri project is also looking at law and policy development, recognizing the need for international guidelines to govern state and private sector activities, with major space-faring countries implementing those principles.
For a basic blueprint of space mining regulations, there is disagreement on how it should be managed. Some scholars believe it should be similar to analogous areas that are regulated by international treaties, like the High Seas or Antarctica. Others believe it should be regulated by the Moon Agreement, a UN treaty that came into force in 1984.
The policy group part of the Khepri project is considering a “wide variety of methods” to address the legal and policy gaps in space mining. Brieanna Miklaucic, a Western Law student on the policy team for the project, said the team plans to suggest a bottom-up approach involving non-legally binding principles, called “soft law.” She said this can be done through “international fora, coupled with adoption of national legislation to provide security to the private sector.”
“This national legislation helps to establish the practice of countries that can, over time, impact the development of legally binding international law,” said Miklaucic.
Last month, the United Nations Office for Outer Space held its 65th session of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. Topics discussed at the conference included the plans and progress of deep space exploration, technological advancements and sustainable development.
The team at Western is working on its final report and will present its findings to MDA on Aug. 18, which is expected to have computer-aided design models and simulations. The project officially ends on Aug. 26.
Joshua Goeree is a Western News intern from the Master of Media in Journalism and Communication program.