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It is well known that many characteristics about an asteroid such as orbit, size, rotation and chemical composition can be obtained remotely thanks to passive techniques such as spectrophotometry, radiometry, spectropolarimetry, hyperspectral imaging and thermal modeling or active techniques such as radar measurements.

For the sake of asteroid mining, we are mainly concerned about the internal composition of the asteroids and the content of valuable resources. Are there any asteroids characteristics relevant to asteroid mining that cannot be learned remotely? Said differently, will full asteroid prospecting for the sake of asteroid mining require sending robotic probes to each asteroid?

For instance, it may be expected that the internal composition is heavily correlated with the chemical composition observed in their emission spectra. Is this correct or, if unkown due to lack of datapoints, at least expected to be correct in the academic literature?

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  • $\begingroup$ I would study remotely to get the best candidates for whatever we want (e.g. if we want metals, metallic asteroids can be identified from Earth), then send probes accordingly. $\endgroup$ Jul 15 at 12:43
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    $\begingroup$ Re It is well known that many characteristics about an asteroid such as orbit, size, rotation and chemical composition can be obtained remotely. This is not the case, particular with regard to chemical composition. $\endgroup$ Jul 16 at 13:05
  • $\begingroup$ Some more context about what can we learn remotely about the chemical composition: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asteroid_spectral_types $\endgroup$
    – Rexcirus
    Jul 16 at 14:18

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It isn't an absolute requirement that a probe would be sent before mining an asteroid, but if a probe isn't sent anyone sending a mining mission is taking a big gamble that it's suitable - if it isn't someone's wasted a whole lot of time and money. We can tell a certain amount from distant observations and make educated guesses as to composition, mass and general shape, you need to get much closer to get the detail needed to increase the chances of success. Is is a solid piece or an accretion of smaller pieces? How is the material you want to mine distributed, and is it accessible? Until you get closer you won't know, so it's likely probes will be sent.

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    $\begingroup$ In the scenario you describe it boils down to the economics of a prospector mission, the cost of sending mining equipment to a bad target and the likelihood of being wrong given the remote informations. Unfortunately it's hard to put numbers on these at the moment. $\endgroup$
    – Rexcirus
    Jul 15 at 17:21
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Planetary Resources co. answered this question… at least, on paper.

The Arkyd-something spacecraft would be an Earth-orbit telescope, to winnow down the list of potential targets. The Arkyd-something-else spacecraft (built in series) would then be sent on a flyby or similar mission, which consumes less fuel and therefore money. Fewer such probes would need to be sent due to the telescope dataset, reducing the macro-fuel, macro-money. Eventually there would be Arkyd-something-something spacecraft, to actually “land” (more like docking) on a body and perform in situ measurements, etc. Again, the number of lander spacecraft would fall, given the risk reduction of the prior Arkyds.

This is perfectly in line with precedent- NASA’s macro-program, in line with RKA, etc., has been telescope - flyby - orbiter - lander - sample return. There’s excessive risk in skipping steps; in exchange, schedule is burnt, but we have time to burn for the particular questions being asked. In the case of NEAR Shoemaker, one spacecraft did orbiting and landing, but the landing was “bonus” science, and unplanned and unbudgeted before launch. Nothing to lose.

Asteroid mining per se will likely follow this precedent. The higher masses involved demand more fuel and budget- there’s a reason we don’t do roundtrips when there’s no compulsion to do so. Hence mining operations will be under extreme budgetary pressure, and are looking into not just electric propulsion (per Hayabusa 1/2 and MMX) but sails and siphons to beat Tsiolkovsky’s Law.

Your Answer: No.

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  • $\begingroup$ Planetary Resources required investment funding, and was quite forthcoming about NOT wasting money on every single asteroid. Forthcoming to people with money, analytical acumen, decision authority, influence, etc., that is. $\endgroup$ Jul 16 at 15:01

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