The Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) just pulled off something epic. Space travel just got a lot closer.
The most exciting thing I’ve seen in recent weeks is this story about the Japanese space agency successfully landing two small rovers on the surface of an asteroid in deep space.
Think about that for a sec. This is a monumental accomplishment. We’re talking about a relatively small asteroid – its name is Ryugu, and it’s only 1km across. So even finding it in the endless sea of space, let alone landing two remote control cars on top of it, is a massive achievement.
It’s also a really long way away. Like 280 million km. It took four years to get there. It’s not quite as far as Mars, but you can see it from there.
It also has pretty much no gravity. So you can land a rover on Mars just by putting it in Mars’ general vicinity, and letting gravity do the rest.
But for an asteroid that size, you have to get really close to what is effectively a massive spinning rock.
So we’re talking some serious science.
But this isn’t just some jazzed-up science project – this is an important step in the exploration of our solar system.
The thing to realise about asteroids is that they contain the building blocks of planets, all the minerals and elements that make life possible and fun.
So people are seriously talking about ‘mining’ asteroids.
Daniel Faber, from Deep Space Industries and former president of the Canadian Space Society, puts it like this:
“There are asteroids that are made completely of metal, like natural stainless steel, nickel and iron and… the smallest one we know in a near earth orbit is 2km across. It goes by the glorious name of 3554 Amun and it contains in it more than thirty times the amount of metal that humanity has ever mined on earth! And that’s just one.”
But with asteroid mining, we’re probably not talking about capturing space rocks and bringing them back to earth. Iron just isn’t rare enough yet to justify the expense.
BUT if we’re talking about setting up inter-planetary colonies, that’s when space rocks will become incredibly valuable. It will be prohibitively expensive to send up all the water, iron, lithium etc that our space colonies are going to need.
And we might need them on earth anyway!
Much better to build refineries in space, do all the mining up there, and then let our brave colonists just build their own stuff.
Solar system exploration will have to go in stages. We can’t keep using earth as a launching pad. It’s just not an efficient way to do things. You can have every single mission and thing we want to do up there beginning and ending with busting through the Earth’s atmosphere.
The most logical way to do it is to set up a ‘chain’ of bases, extending into far space.
Even colonising Mars probably begins with a space station floating in orbit, acting as a sort of half-way house.
And so the more self-sufficient these bases become, the better.
And scientists think that asteroids are going to be the easiest way to achieve self-sufficiency. They contain everything we’ll need from the minerals to build with, the dirt to grow food with, to the water humans need to survive. Even oxygen.
And there are literally planets and planets worth of them, just floating around for free.
And so this is a major milestone in our dreams of inter-planetary exploration. They just got one step closer.
We’ve made contact with asteroids before, but this is the first time we’ve landed rovers on them, and the information they gather will be vital.
As I’ve said before, these are wild times. Technological frontiers are being pushed everywhere you look, at an incredibly rapid rate.
And I seriously think that inter-planetary travel will become a reality, at some point in my life time.
I’m stoked about that.
I’ve always wanted to see Neptune.