Technology

Farmer in the Sky

Imagine climbing into your spacesuit, strapping on your magnetic boots and securing your helmet before launching your vehicle from the hold of the orbiting station into the inky blackness to mine for minerals. Dead ahead is the belt of asteroids designated C-type, filled with precious organic-based material. Phosphorous and carbon, crucial to making fertilizer to feed the crops back home. Back home might be the planet Earth, or it might be a settlement on Mars or the Jovian moon, Europa. Your mission is to mine the metals and minerals now so scarce on your planet of origin. Only technological advancements have allowed the ancient farming practices to continue . . . and hold back the human race from the edge of extinction.

This scenario may seem to be scooped from the pages of a science fiction novel; but the fact is, asteroid mining might not be too far-fetched. Perhaps it will be a reality in our lifetime. We may be closer to using “space fertilizer” after NASA completes its 2016 asteroid mission to hunt for usable materials.

The mission will send OSIRIS-Rex (Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer) to Bennu, an asteroid discovered in 1999, which is supposed to contain organic material. The craft will arrive at Bennu in 2018 and spend a year collecting samples, measuring temperature and mapping the surface of the rock. It is hoped we can learn more about the resources available in the reaches of space and discover how they can benefit our on- and off-planet endeavours.

Asteroids are the leftovers from the creation of our solar system—with potential value in the metal, rock, dust and ice. They contain all the ingredients to make life possible off terra firma, just in different concentrations. Thousands of asteroids are discovered passing close by Earth each year and millions more are captured by the gravitational pull of the planets in our system. Like mobile grocery stores, whizzing through the cosmos, asteroids can possibly sustain mankind by providing the essentials of life. Of course, it won’t be easy to shop for what you need out in the icy nether regions, but asteroids might become a vital supply resource for the spacecraft and settlements which will eventually populate the planets and moons in our neighbourhood of space.

Water, required for human consumption and the hydroponic production of food stuffs, would be uneconomical to transport on long space voyages. But the ice found on many asteroids could meet the demands of humans and plants. It is just a matter of finding the most economically-feasible way to extract the frozen liquid.

Scientists believe the water here on Earth originated from the very asteroids and comets we dream of mining one day. The elements required to spark life and create water molecules may have crash landed here on Earth when it was still in its early days. It is amazing to think of tapping into a water source and mining elements that have been travelling through space long before the creatures on our own planet even mulled over the idea of sprouting legs and emerging from the ocean’s depths.

So, next time you gaze into the sky while your feet are firmly planted on our home planet, think of the potential farming opportunities that are out there, just past the moon and cruising in an irregular orbit around a distant star.

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