Asteroid Vesta © NASA

Future off-planet exploration may rely on space stations built inside enormous asteroids, thanks to new research. The move would both counter the ill effects of zero gravity, and provide a ready source of precious minerals.

The interest in mining asteroids and bringing their valuable minerals back to Earth has increased in recent years, possibly encouraged by NASA’s 2016 estimation that there’s enough rich minerals in space rocks to give each person on Earth $100 billion.

Being able to tap into minerals on asteroids could also potentially provide essential resources for longer-term space missions to build or refuel en route.

However, the prospect of launching probes into space to chip away at the untapped resource is halted by one major challenge in particular – gravity. It’s very difficult to successfully use a jackhammer on the surface of most asteroids as the lack of gravity renders most equipment useless.

But fear not, a study by a team at the University of Vienna, Austria, says one possible solution to the issue is simply embedding the mining operation within the asteroid, and use the rapid rotation of the rock to create a simulated gravity.

“If we find an asteroid that’s stable enough, we might not need these aluminium walls or anything, you might just be able to use the entire asteroid as a space station,” lead author of the study, Dr Thomas Maindl, told New Scientist.

The team says finding an asteroid with the right gravitational spin is crucial for the success of the operation. Their mathematical calculations show the asteroid would need to be made of solid stone and spin one to three times a minute, creating a gravity approximately 38 percent that of Earth’s and similar to that of Mars.

Other troublesome factors with such an endeavour mean the concept still remains decades away and even Dr Maindl conceded the idea blurs the lines between science and science fiction: “My gut feeling is that it will be at least 20 years before any asteroid mining happens, let alone something like this.”


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