Scientists Want to Carve A Space Station Out of an Asteroid

In a paper published last month, scientists propose that asteroid mining will be made easier by working from the inside out.

Like something out of a video game, researchers are looking into how humans can carve a space station out of an asteroid.

Is an Asteroid Suitable for a Space Station?

For one, having a large rocky hull around your station provides a natural defense against the intense cosmic radiation that could prove deadly for humans.

But assuming you have an asteroid mining magnate who cares nothing for the human chattel he might use to mine the lucrative space minerals, there are other benefits to using an asteroid station to facilitate your mining operation. Particularly, the spin of the asteroid could create enough artificial gravity that mining equipment could be effective in carving out the interior for its precious mineral wealth.

That’s the conclusion reached by astrophysicists Thomas I. Maindl, Roman Miksch, and Birgit Loibnegger from the University of Vienna in Austria in a paper published to the pre-print resource arXiv in December.

SEE ALSO: WILL ASTEROID MINING BE THE NEXT GOLD RUSH?

Working from the inside of an asteroid out is an important idea since you can’t simply take a borer and start drilling away at the surface to break the thing down. Because of the difference in mass, the borer (or human laborer with a drill) would simply spin around the drill—in effect, the asteroid would be the one holding the machine and the motor would be spinning you instead.

Likewise, a jackhammer is out of the question, which would just knock our poor miner off the surface of the asteroid and into space. These are just the challenges of getting inside the space rock. The researchers highlight other important considerations that would affect such a project.

Most important is the possibility that a hollowing out an asteroid would weaken its structure enough that it compromises its overall integrity. In effect, the rotation that allows the interior to have gravity in the end tears the entire thing apart once it doesn’t have enough material holding it all together.

Science Vs. Science Fiction

Asteroid Mining
Source: NASA, via Wikimedia Commons

Ultimately, the researchers acknowledge, these things are a long ways off.

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“The border between science and science fiction here is sort of blurry,” said Maindl, in an interview with New Scientist. “My gut feeling is that it will be at least 20 years before any asteroid mining happens, let alone something like this.”

Still, it’s something the researchers think ought to be examined as the future of asteroid mining begins to take shape. “If we find an asteroid that's stable enough, we might not need these aluminium walls or anything, you might just be able to use the entire asteroid as a space station,” Maindl said.

To achieve the gravity necessary, about 38% of Earth’s, the researchers calculate that an asteroid 500 meters by 390 meters, similar to those we’ve seen near enough to Earth to possibly be accessible, would need to spin between 1 to 3 times per minute. This could be achieved using the angular momentum produced by thrusters on the surface as robots or humans land or take off.