Asteroid-Mining – ‘Is this the portal to Human survival’

Asteroids are fascinating masses of rock, ranging from just a few meters across to over 1000km in diameter. It is indeed asteroids that are thought to have killed the dinosaurs over 60 million years ago when a pair of asteroids, greater than 100km wide, smashed into the earth causing a series of colossal and deadly shockwaves. However, as dangerous as these large clumps of rock may seem, they may well be the key to our continued existence in the near future. With the population of the earth rising exponentially and the demand for vital resources such as metals becoming greater, asteroid-mining may no longer be just an idea for the story books. It is expected that, if plans go accordingly, we could be extracting vital materials off nearby asteroids within the next 10 years.

Asteroid-mining is simply the idea of ‘digging up’ asteroids in order to obtain metals such as iron, aluminium and titanium which are growing in demand. Although the technology for this sort of undertaking does not yet exist, the technological developments are rapid. Deep Space Industries Inc. is the more recent of two asteroid-mining companies. Having announced in early January their plans to launch a fleet of prospecting spacecraft’s by no later than 2016, chairman Rick Tumlinson said in a public interview, “We can make amazing machines smaller, cheaper and faster than ever before.” Deep Space Industries Inc. is the second of the two asteroid-mining companies, the other being Planetary Resources. This raises the question amongst many members of the public, ‘Is space really big enough for two asteroid-mining companies and is it really worth the money?’

Many people believe that the money would be better spent on medical research or searching for other forms of renewable energy. However, it is argued that asteroid-mining could be the answer to our energy needs as the technologies that arise from it could soon lead to further space exploration; this includes uncovering already well-known sources of energy such as natural gas. Titan for one of the many moons of Saturn is known to have hundreds of times more natural gas and other liquid hydrocarbons than all the known oil and natural gas reserves on Earth. The question that faces scientists is, ‘How many near earth objects could hold these types of precious materials?’ A further advantage of asteroid-mining as suggested by officials from Deep Space Industries Inc. is that it will provide thousands of jobs; each of these 32kg space probes that intend to build, fireflies and dragonflies, will need an aviator via a live feed to direct the space probes from Mission control. With over 900 asteroids sweeping past Earth every year, the total number of potential ‘mining sites’ is massive!

Deep Space Industries Inc. will also focus on extracting iron and asteroid water (which can then be broken down into Hydrogen and Oxygen) which are the two main constituents of rocket fuel. Although it is for now just another of many ideas, it is hoped that this particular type of mining could one day lead to the formation of space ‘gas stations’, which would consequently allow journeying spacecraft to stop and refuel as part of a greater journey to unimaginably distant planets. Even more so, this may one day lead to the expansion of the human species beyond Earth and far into the cosmos.

Contributed by By Darshan Desai

Snakes take to the sky!

The engine of an aeroplane is an extremely delicate device, made up of over 100 different sensors, designed to monitor factors such as temperature and pressure inside the engine. These sensors detect any changes in the internal conditions then send signals to machines on the ground which can respond appropriately to resolve any minor issues. This is an efficient system that has developed largely over the past decade and has reduced the amount of aircraft related incidents by over 10%. Although engines are delicate, these engines can generate a thrust force during take-off that could shatter a truck to pieces and scatter the remains through a distance of over half a kilometre. However, what solutions are there when an engine suffers serious damage that cannot be resolved by the sensors within or by skilled mechanics because the parts are too delicate? The answer to this is snakes!

Snakes on a plane may sound crazy yet this technological feat could one day be used on aircraft all over the world. The British jet engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce are developing snake-like robots that can manoeuvre their way inside the intricate engine of the aircraft to seek out and repair damaged components using highly powerful ultraviolet lasers. The snake passes into the engine and takes images of the internal structure, which are then sent to a computer device and assessed by a specialist. In some cases, the snake itself can be used to repair the damage, however, in other situations an engineer may be required depending on the magnitude of the damage. If successful these ‘snakes’ could be used to fix problems within minutes, which would otherwise take hours if not days, it would reduce flight delays at airports. This development will not only prove to be highly efficient, but also extremely economical. Millions of pounds every year could be saved by leading airline companies, such as British airways and IATA (which spends 43% of its yearly expenditure on engine maintenance), due to the reduced need to strip down the engines in an attempt to find and fix the problem – the robotic snakes could instead inspect the structure and amend the issue, meaning planes will not need to be taken out if service so frequently.

Currently, damage in the internal structure of the engine, such as that caused by bird-strikes is inspected using an instrument called a ‘Borescope’. This tool is similar to an endoscope which is used by doctors to give an internal view of the body. The Borescope is inserted along the inner rim of the engine and is then used by engineers or mechanics to look for internal damage; however the problem with this is that the resolution of the image is not particularly high. Furthermore, the number of trained Borescope experts around the world is very low and so, this process is time consuming because it may require calling in an expert from halfway around the world. Pat Emmott, a senior vice-president from Rolls-Royce said “We don’t have enough specialists to go around so we need to automate this capability”. This is what led to the development of the robotic snake, which requires no special skills to use in order to carry out a diagnosis.

Although this product is not yet available to airlines, it is believed that the prototype, which is hoped to be 60cm in length and 12.5 mm in width, will be completed by July 2014 and the actual product will be made available by 2018 at the latest. The research and development of this type of technology, being carried out by Rolls-Royce and the snake robot is just a small part of a £2.5 million project, which includes many other products such as a camera chip which can withstand temperatures of 2000oC.

Contributed by Darshan Desai