The simple truth about asteroid environments is revealed in a Q&A with Dr. John S. Lewis, chief scientist at Deep Space Industries.
As mankind endeavors to open the frontier of space, and companies like Deep Space Industries prepare for asteroid mining missions in the next few years, concerns about environmental impact are being raised.
So we asked Dr. John S. Lewis, chief scientist at DSI and author of Asteroid Mining 101: Wealth for the New Space Economy, about the realities of asteroid environments and the impact human activities will have on our near-Earth orbital companions.
Q: Do asteroids contain climates and ecosystems like Earth?
Dr. John S. Lewis: Asteroid environments are nothing like Earth’s. Climate refers to the state of the atmosphere. No asteroid has an atmosphere worthy of the name. Ecosystems are interacting networks of life forms. Asteroids, being airless and usually very cold, lack not only ecosystems but life itself. In other words, asteroids are cold, dead worlds.
Q: Are there any life forms on asteroids, or are asteroids what scientists consider “abiotic”?
JSL: Meteorites, fragments of asteroids broken off by collisions, fall to Earth all the time. Well over 10,000 of these meteorites have been studied in laboratories without even a single cell being detected. Even the search for indirect evidence of life has turned up nothing. Therefore, asteroids are considered abiotic.
Q: Have we ever detected life during — or as a result of — robotic missions to asteroids, like JAXA’s Hayabusa, ESA’s Rosetta, or NASA’s Deep Impact?
JSL: Comet and asteroid missions, like Deep Impact, are usually focused on measuring the planetary body’s composition. Spacecraft that journey on these cold, deep space missions are typically not equipped for detecting the subtle evidence of life. And for good reason. There is no known life form that can survive at such low temperatures.
Q: What makes asteroids so inhospitable to life?
JSL: Again, it’s the low temperatures. Because it’s so cold, there can be no liquid water on their surfaces. Plus, the hard vacuum of space makes the presence of habitats extremely improbable.
Q: What characteristics would an asteroid need in order to harbor life and support an ecosystem?
JSL: Based on Earth as our only example of life, our hypothetical asteroid environment would require the presence of liquid water and temperatures compatible with that water. It’s the Goldilocks rule: not too hot, not too cold. We would also need abundant and diverse water-soluble organic matter, like amino acids and proteins. We would require enough atmospheric pressure to allow liquid water to persist without exploding. And we would need an energy source, such as sunlight, to power our ecosystem.
The truth is, if there is any liquid water in any asteroid, it would have to be deep underground. It would have to be pressurized to keep it from boiling away instantly. Which means it would need to be completely out of contact with sunlight, the ultimate source of energy that powers life on Earth. Again, this makes ecosystems on asteroids extremely improbable.
Q: What is Deep Space Industries doing to make sure its asteroid mining targets are abiotic?
JSL: DSI’s target asteroids are here in Earth’s neighborhood, so to speak. And we look at the evidence from the study of fragments of asteroids that have fallen to Earth. At least several dozen of these near Earth asteroids have dropped fragments on Earth, and these have shown zero evidence of life.
When we find an asteroid that is an interesting candidate, we will send out a robotic spacecraft to check it out. These prospecting missions will complete exhaustive scientific surveys. This scientific data will provide us with the details of the asteroid’s composition, geology, and overall environment, and will confirm that there is no possibility of life.
Then we can carefully extract the valuable materials without damaging anyone or anything. These resources will help build cities in space that support rich ecosystems, and bring life and culture to the desolate reaches of the solar system. For the first time in history we aren’t taking resources from anyone, or destroying any ecosystems to get them. For the first time, the possibility exists to expand the the biosphere, the economy, and human experience at no-one’s expense.
Q: Finally, what would you say to anyone who has concerns about the environmental impact of human activities on other worlds?
JSL: At Deep Space Industries, we take our environmental responsibility seriously. We are committed to being good stewards of our environment here on Earth, and the asteroid environments we will visit in the near future. With the benefit of advanced science and cutting-edge technology, asteroid mining will help humanity utilize the riches of the solar system, as we work toward a cleaner and more prosperous future for all mankind. And we are not alone. Many of our colleagues, your local policy makers, and space advocates from around the world, want the same thing — to create an unlimited future for all of us.
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