The July 23 close fly-by of asteroid 2017 BS5 is explored in a Q&A with Dr. John S. Lewis, chief scientist at Deep Space Industries.
An asteroid the size of a football field is headed straight towards us. And it will be here within days. But not to worry because 2017 BS5 will pass by Earth at a safe yet cosmically-snug gap of just 3.15 lunar distances (roughly 756,000 miles).
Discovered this February, 2017 BS5 is one of five near-Earth asteroids with close approaches the folks at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Lab have their eye on. Another will buzz the Earth in October. Three more will parade past us in the next three years.
To get a better sense of what’s in store with this week’s close encounter we spoke with Dr. John S. Lewis, chief scientist at DSI and author of Asteroid Mining 101: Wealth for the New Space Economy.
Q: In your opinion, what is most noteworthy about 2017 BS5?
Dr. John S. Lewis: Everything truly noteworthy about 2017 BS5 will be learned by astronomers this summer. Statistically, there is about a fifty percent chance that the body will turn out to be very dark, around 100 meters wide, weak, and full of water and organic matter. There’s also about a fifty percent chance that it will turn out to be “dry” and strong.
Q: Why haven’t scientists been able to provide us with a better physical description of their recent discovery, asteroid 2017 BS5?
JSL: There are, as yet, no useful data to characterize what 2017 BS5 is made of. The close fly-by this weekend will give Earth-based astronomers a great opportunity to get a good spectrum and tell us what class of meteorite it is most closely related to, what the dominant minerals are, and what economic value it might have.
Q: Do the orbital characteristics of 2017 BS5 disqualify it as a potential mining target?
JSL: Near-Earth asteroids contain a number of bodies with orbits very close to Earth, with orbital periods close to one Earth year. Because of the nearby orbits, their synodic periods, or the time it takes to “lap” Earth from one close fly-by to the next, is often uncomfortably long. Sixty years, in this case. Thus, assuming we get beautifully informative spectra of 2017 BS5 this summer, our next opportunity to send a probe to it, and potentially mine it, will be one synodic period later, which puts it in 2077. I for one will not be waiting for that launch. I’ll be 136 years old, and expect to be retired by then.
Q: Assuming that 2017 BS5 was identified as a desirable target, what would your recommendations be for mining its resources for in-space use?
JSL: My recommended strategy is to wait for the observations to pour in before investing in commercial exploitation. Although there is a high likelihood that it will turn out to be made of something useful, that built-in 60-year cooling-off period is a strong deterrent to investment. Also, we need to have the compositional information before we can design processing equipment suitable for use on it. Loose silicate dust, monolithic steel crystals, and sticky mud require and deserve very different processing schemes.
Q: At an estimated 40–90 meters wide, 2017 BS5 is not considered a potentially hazardous object but do you know what level of damage it could cause should it impact Earth or explode in Earth’s atmosphere?
JSL: Until we know what the body is made of, hazard projections are nonsense. It could be a dustball, a snowball, a loose collection of rocky rubble, a monolithic soft rock, a monolithic hard rock, a giant steel cannonball, et cetera. It could, at the extremes, fall apart into dust at high altitudes or penetrate hundreds of meters into Earth’s crust and explode like World War III.
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