China Considers Asteroid Retrieval Mission

Asteroid Itokawa (Credit: JAXA)

As NASA looks to jettison its asteroid retrieval mission, China is evaluating whether to conduct a mission of its own.

A senior government space scientist said China was considering mounting a mission to “capture” an asteroid and try to fire it into the moon’s orbit within a decade, state media reported.

The ultimate aim would be to mine the asteroid for metal and minerals, or use it as the base for a space station.

Ye Peijian, chief commander and designer of China’s lunar exploration programme, said at a meeting of space authorities in Beijing this week that the nation’s first batch of asteroid exploration spacecraft would probably be launched in about 2020, according to state media reports….

Many near-Earth asteroids contain a high concentrations of precious metals, Ye told the Science and Technology Daily, a newspaper run by China’s Ministry of Science and Technology.

  • Kapitalist

    They copy everything. Even the bad ideas.

  • JamesG

    Welcome to 2010 China!

  • JamesG

    Depends on what they copy though. ARM or DSI, Planetary Resources etc.

  • passinglurker

    The idea was a sensible goal for human exploration given the budget constraints, but in the end asteroid exploration always get the shaft. We could have boots on phobos long before mars if we wanted to but no if you want to go anywhere but the moon or mars half the community jumps down your throat.

  • windbourne

    Ability to move large amounts of material to the moon, where robots can take it apart.
    Interesting idea.
    So will it be China that becomes the world leader in space mining since our GOP is so short sighted?

  • Kapitalist

    I think a human mission to Phobos and Deimos is the slam dunk choice here. Micro and milligravity is what the ISS has learned us to handle. Just introduce 26 months stays at it to see that it isn’t a showstopper. A Mars’ moons mission would be the first human mission to two celestial objects. We’d learn about how to ship people to and from Mars’ orbit. They’d spend almost a year there, we’d know more about Mars’ moons than about our own Moon. It would yield very important science about the formation of the planets and of the asteroids and the history of Mars. We have to go there sooner or later, and the best time is the first time. One simply prioritizes the transfer mission and once it is launched focus on the Mars surface mission part of it. It wouldn’t have to delay a Mars surface mission.

    With determination now, a crewed Mars’ moons mission could be launched right about election day 2024. It is a bad conjunction, i.e. long travel time and less time spent at Mars. But for “gravity health” (I should copyright that term) it doesn’t matter since they don’t have the benefit of Mars’ surface gravity. It’s 26 months in weightlessness whenever they go. Then the good conjunctions could be used for surface missions 2033/35 or 35/37 with about 6 months plus 7 months trip times and an entire year on Mars.

    Yes, simulating gravity with rotation would be nice. But it might not be necessary for the first mission. It would be nice if it turns out that we can do without it for Mars travel purposes.

  • JamesG

    They probably will because we tend to turn everything into petty political squabbles and think more like socialists (government is the answer!!!) than the communists do these days…

  • passinglurker

    Yes but here’s the thing a lot we could learn boots on the ground on mar’s moons we could also learn traveling to a closer near earth asteroid or bringing one to us even whittling the plan down to bring back a boulder could teach us new things about ISRU or the formation of planets.

    It forms a sensible progression to go from boulder-ARM to a manned NEA visit to Phobos/Deimos and then finally mars with new accomplishments and needed technologies developed along the way.

    Given China’s more methodical approach it is no wonder they’d consider the possibility.

  • Kapitalist

    I think Mars’ moons are much more valuable targets than yet another asteroid mission. And it would be the one real stepping stone to Mars’ surface without delaying it. Asteroids bring their boulders to us without our effort. They are called meteorites and fill up museums.

    I’ve heard the hypothesis that meteorite iron mining could’ve been very important in ancient history. But I’ve never heard of any crowdfunded “mission” to loot museums of their meteorites for mining purposes. There’re tons of it there and you could get there by just buying a bus ticket any day, so asteroid mining should start there.

  • Jacob Samorodin

    Less risky for sure for human beings to land in a 5,000 – 10,000 kg lander on Phobos, where gas thrusters can do the job of a gentle descent, than hope that parachutes will unfurl properly on a 40,000 kg MEM approaching
    the surface of Mars at supersonic speed.
    BTW, there is statistical evidence that Phobos is home to fragments of deep martian crust that struck and penetrated it’s surface. Remember the martian AH8001 meteorite? On Phobos, you won’t have to worry about organic contamination for martian meteorites, unlike the claim of contamination put forth by skeptics against the AH8001 results and claims.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    This is an interesting theme I hear from folks like you a lot. I’m not going to poke fun, or even try to poke holes in your stance, but I’m interested in what sources of information you use to lead you to the conclusion that enterprises such as COMAC, COSCO, GasProm, LukOil, Energya, United Aircraft, Leonovo, Haier, Huawei, etc are not state funded, state partnered, and don’t have their stock values held up and manipulated by state institutions such as banks and treasuries? I’m interested in your sources that lead you to believe that these are real organic self started businesses that have earned their place in the world by merit of performance in the market and not the bludgeon of force from a state? Again, I’m not trying to argue with you, I’m just trying to look at these economies through your eyes.

  • passinglurker

    That’s what they already do but there is only to much to learn from a molten lump of iron, but I’m not in to mining metals I’m talking about volitiles the things you need to source your own propellants and life support

    As for mars moons being valuable the problem is we just don’t yet have the mature life support or propulsion technology to make the manned leap to mars orbit let alone the surface phobos/deimos might as be a decade away .

    In the mean time here is what we could do to make the relevant technologies…

    First is ARM which will prove out high power SEP propulsion and bring a boulder or asteroid to DSG for study the DSG would then prove out deep space life support technologies and study the asteroid to prepare for further experiments on NEA’s and mar’s moons.

    Next phase you bundle some ARM propulsion busses together and mate it to your fleshed out deep space hab to make a deep space transport and take it on a 1 year cruise to a NEA (akin to nasa’s “shakedown” cruise but with science and a destination)

    And then with everything proven you shoot for the Martian moons

    This plan keeps momentum and interest by continuously one upping itself just saying a more distant target is more valuable would kill that momentum and keep mars or its moons a decade away indefinitely whereas the asteroid approach ultimately gets us there through a series of smaller but still bold steps.

  • Kapitalist

    The ISS has had continuous life support for 3-13 astronauts during 17 years now. 6 astronauts during 2 years to Mars is nothing at all.

    DSG is only stupid. There’s no argument at all for that idiocy. It’s made up to motivate the use of SLS/Orion, which however never will fly. NASA is way too corrupt and incompetent to be able to ever develop any launcher or spacecraft again. SLS and its production line is a worthless pile of junk. A space station or a Mars spacecraft should of course be constructed in the relative protection and practicality of LEO. Why radiate astronauts in deep space without any reason at all?

    ARM is even more stupid, I’m glad it has finally been cancelled, they just had to wait out Obama to do the obvious. Putting the Chelyabinsk asteroid on board a rocket and launching it to a Lunar orbit, to send astronauts to it, what maniac made that up? Instead, send the astronauts by bus to a museum to achieve the same thing. They could touch the “asteroid boulder” and chip off a bit when the janitor isn’t watching. Creating artificial celestial objects to pretend to go to them, is a symptom of mental illness. Much easier to go directly to Phobos and Deimos. And since they are real astronomical objects, real science can be made, which motivates the risk the astronauts are taking. Also, it would be a real step towards going to Mars. ARM is a meaningless diversion.

    Mars is the only target that motivates the public. Even the Moon has no appeal at all.

  • Kapitalist

    Oh, the space hypochondriacs will say that it must be forbidden to go to Phobos. Some of the ancient Mars fragments that landed there could have hostile alien life. Or they’ll pick up Iosif Shklovsky’s old theory that Phobos is a hollow spaceship. They make up any story in order to stop human space flight and sample returns. They feel that they have to “protect” themselves against the evil aliens on Mars. Unfortunately, no fact and no rationality can beat the kick they get from having that feeling.

  • Tom Billings

    “Mars is the only target that motivates the public. Even the Moon has no appeal at all.”

    Do not seek to motivate the public. The political majority have support levels for human spaceflight that are “a mile wide, and an inch deep”, which support will leave us stuck on a mudbank.

    Instead, find the narrower and deeper channels of private interest. We must learn what these channels may be in the future, and be ready to use them.

  • Kapitalist

    The public pays for it. Be it as investors or as tax payers. Their motivation is necessary. Personally I’m motivated by the science, and Mars’ moons are among the most mysterious objects there are in the Solar system. They obviously offer the most science for the least cost in the shortest term.

    Also, the public’s motivation is necessary in order to get any kind of rational plan going. Left to itself, as we see, NASA will do meaningless things nowhere, like ARM and DSG and fiddling with in SLS/Oreo junk yard forever. They would never ever get anywhere without the public pushing them.

  • passinglurker

    Geez we had such a good run before you flipped the table there…

    Look I’m not gonna bother with a game of point-counterpoint badminton with you, but I will say that without these small escalating steps you will lose all momentum just waiting on the ground for funds and technology to accumulate.

    You see when a politician says they want to go to mars or even mars orbit they are really saying they want to keep the status quo and kick the can down the road to the next guy. In order to make any progress out of the status quo you need to think in terms of 4 year goals without a massive budget influx….

    ARM can be done in 4 years and building off the ARM propulsion bus you can visit an NEA in person with a proto-mini-DST within 4 years after that and then 4 years after that you’ll have a full scale DST docked to a DSG(basically repurpose the proto-DST as a station/supplies and xenon depot) which you can use to reach mars orbit all without losing political momentum with the election cycle.

  • Kapitalist

    Going to Mars orbit isn’t hard. It’s just like moving the ISS. NASA got bashed for killing Columbia’s crew without any reason. They did some elementary school experiment and stuff that could easily have been done robotically. Deaths are acceptable, but only when they are motivated by a valuable purpose. Sending humans to a tiny meteoroid outside of the museums has zero scientific value and contributes zero experience for useful spaceflight. But it is still as dangerous as going to Mars orbit.

    The only thing that has even injured any astronaut to date, is launching and landing through Earth’s atmosphere. The risk of having another dead astronaut could be cut by 75% today by keeping the crews on the ISS there for 26 months at a time. It’s not only much safer, it is cheaper and relevant for useful space flight too.

    ARM’s SEP tug could tug useful cargo to Mars orbit instead. Or return a boulder from Deimos. The nowhere destination is crazy. And why have a DSG outside of LEO? Makes no sense, since it will not be a “gateway” for crews shifting between a Earth-Lunar transfer vehicle and a Lunar lander/ascent vehicle. It’s pointless. A way to replace the ISS with something crewed only a small fraction of the time because it is more dangerous, more expensive and less useful than a station in LEO. It is not a gateway or a stepping stone. It is a stupid mistake.

  • redneck

    The public is a nebulous entity that is barely relevant to progress in space. There is public support for SLS/Orion, but not necessarily for F9H or New Glenn. Guess which is more relevant to manned spaceflight.

    Things get done because individuals want to do them. I don’t do opinion polls on how to run my life or my business, my friends and customers provide all the feedback necessary.

  • publiusr

    Guess which is more relevant to manned spaceflight.

    The one that uses hydrogen because it has the best specific impulse and lends itself to NTR .

  • publiusr

    China may want to have small asteroids brought to Earth.

    Our military had a chance to.

    Here’s why:

    “The workshop report noted that military space systems launched from Earth tended to be made as light-weight as possible to reduce launch costs; this made them fragile and vulnerable if attacked….“On the other hand,” the workshop report continued, “if a relatively inexpensive (500-1000 dollars per kilogram) supply of construction materials became available high above Earth, defensive systems would likely be designed very differently, with greater capabilities and greater survivability.” Layered armor for an SDI missile-defense platform with a cross-sectional area of 20 square meters would have a mass of about 400 metric tons; 100 such platforms would thus require about 40,000 metric tons of armor.”

    After armor, the most important application of space resources in terms of mass was what the La Jolla workshop report dubbed “stabilizing inertia.” An enemy attack might cause a missile-defense platform to spin out of control even if its armor shielded it from damage. Mounting the platform on a chunk of raw asteroid would greatly increase its mass, making it much harder to shove around.

    Third after armor and stabilizing inertia were heat sinks.

  • redneck

    SLS is less relevant by any reasonable metric