Forum explores mining them, or taking a ride into deep space
Chinese scientists will look at ways to harvest resources on asteroids and how to use these so-called minor planets as bases for interstellar journeys, according to a senior space expert.
Ye Peijian, a leading specialist in deep-space exploration at the China Academy of Space Technology, told an asteroid exploration forum in Beijing on Monday that more than 900 asteroids fly past Earth each year and many of them have rich resources of precious metals such as platinum, rhodium and iridium.
"In the near future, we will study ways to send robots or astronauts to mine suitable asteroids and transport the resources back to Earth. In the long term, we will consider using resources from asteroids to build facilities in space or to provide materials to support interstellar travel," he said.
"In addition, some asteroids can be used as bases for interstellar exploration. We can land an unmanned probe on it, and the probe will travel with the asteroid to deep space. When it reaches a certain point, we will activate the probe, which will leave the asteroid to execute its scientific mission," Ye said. "This will tremendously reduce the amount of fuel a probe needs to carry and extend its life span as well as its flight range."
He said that Chinese scientists and engineers must develop a number of technologies and special equipment to fulfill an asteroid expedition, including a large-thrust electric propulsion system, long-endurance power technology, a satellite-based navigation system and sampling devices.
Ye told China Daily in March that China plans to conduct at least one asteroid exploration mission between 2020 and 2025. He said the detailed schedule and the target asteroid have yet to be determined.
In a white paper on China's space activities published in December, the China National Space Administration said that from 2017 to 2021, it would undertake a feasibility study and research on key technology for the exploration of Jupiter and asteroids. These deep-space expeditions will be used to help explore the origin and evolution of the solar system as well as the possibility of extraterrestrial life, the administration said.
Xu Weibiao, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Key Laboratory of Planetary Sciences, said at Monday's forum that asteroid expeditions will help researchers understand the physical and chemical traits of asteroids, which could lead to preventing collisions with Earth.
"So far, humans have discovered a total of 157 potentially hazardous objects in space with a diameter of at least 1,000 meters. Each is capable of destroying all civilization on Earth if it were to hit our mother planet. Therefore, we must study asteroids so we can work out how to break the dangerous ones or change their routes," Xu said.
He also said research on asteroids will help expand human knowledge of the solar system and the origin of life.
Pang Zhihao, a researcher of human space activity at the China Academy of Space Technology, said expeditions to asteroids will be technologically challenging for several reasons. For example, a typical asteroid is usually small, its gravity is weak and each asteroid has its own orbit. Such factors make it difficult for a probe to intercept a target asteroid and land on it.
To date, only the United States, the European Space Agency and Japan have carried out asteroid exploration missions.