Like something out of a video game, researchers are looking at how humans can sculpt a space station from an asteroid.
Is an asteroid suitable for a space station?
On the one hand, having a large rocky hull around your station provides a natural defense against the intense cosmic radiation that could be deadly to humans.
But supposing you have an asteroid mining tycoon who does not care about the human assets he could use to extract the lucrative space minerals, there are other benefits to using an asteroid station to facilitate your mining operation. In particular, the rotation of the asteroid could create enough artificial gravity so that mining equipment could be effective in digging the interior for its precious mineral wealth.
This is the conclusion reached by astrophysicists Thomas I. Maindl, Roman Miksch and Birgit Loibnegger of the University of Vienna, Austria, in an article published in the arXiv of resources pre-printed in December.
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Working from the inside out of an asteroid is an important idea, since you can not just pick up a drill and start drilling the surface to break the thing. Because of the mass difference, the drill (or human worker with a drill) would simply spin around the drill – indeed, the asteroid would be the one holding the machine and the engine would be spinning in its place.
Likewise, a jackhammer is out of the question, which would only knock our poor miner off the surface of the asteroid and lead it into space. These are just the challenges of getting into space rock. The researchers point out other important considerations that would affect this project.
Most important is the possibility that an emptying of an asteroid will weaken its structure enough to compromise its overall integrity. Indeed, the rotation that allows the interior to have gravity at the end rips the whole thing apart as it does not have enough material to hold it together.
Science vs. Science fiction
Ultimately, the researchers recognize that these things are far apart.
"The border between science and science fiction here is kind of blurry," Maindl said in an interview New scientist. "My intuition is that it will be at least 20 years before any asteroid mining happens, let alone something like that."
Still, it's something researchers think should be looked at as the future of asteroid mining begins to take shape. "If we find an asteroid stable enough, maybe we do not need those aluminum walls or anything, you can use the whole asteroid as a space station," Maindl said.
To achieve the required gravity, about 38% of the Earth, the researchers calculate that an asteroid 500 meters by 390 meters, similar to those we have seen close enough to Earth to be accessible, would need to rotate between 1 and 3 times per minute. This could be achieved by using the angular momentum produced by surface propellants as robots or humans land or take off.