Probes to Asteroids, Near Earth Objects, and Comets
Governmental space agencies have visited many asteroids and comets, though no private entities have done so as of this writing, 2013.
A private entity, or even a small country, could send a probe to an asteroid by using a similar design, and at a lower cost if they can gain access to the designs and equipment off the shelf rather than reinvent the wheel on the preceding research. The same applies to lunar polar probes, and getting a piece of the action ... or a piece of the infrastructure ... for the upcoming lunar polar land rush and resources competition.
The cost of a private asteroid or lunar polar probe mission could easily be less than $100 million, which is much smaller than countless other projects on Earth of questionable value, especially various military equipment expenditures.
The best Near Earth Object targets might be those which telescopic spectroscopy indicates may be volatile rich bodies.
The list of probes below include flybys, long time visits, and sample returns of:
As noted in other sections, near Earth objects which are burnt out comets are thought to have a thin crust with rich quantities of volatiles under the surface. Other asteroids which originated in the inner solar system can range from pure rock (unattractive) to pure metal, and many grades in between.
The asteroids and comets visited to date are generally not the most economically attractive bodies, and were chosen my scientists for other reasons. The potential for mining such bodies was not considered in the selection process of any of these targets.
Nonetheless, we have developed and flight tested many technologies useful for asteroid prospecting.
It is much easier to fly pass an asteroid or comet (or move to where they will fly past you) than it is to match their orbit and land on them.
The cost of probes capable of prospecting asteroids has come down dramatically. For example, The NASA NEAR (Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous) probe currently en route to the asteroid Eros which it will study for a year cost 150 million dollars to design, produce, launch and operate. Making and launching another copy of it will cost even less since the design costs are already done and the component manufacturers have already developed their manufacturing capability and billed the US government for it. In fact, government projects are not cost-efficient at all compared to private sector operations. If we produce multiple copies of the same probe, the cost comes down even further.
The company SpaceDev brought the estimated cost down to under $50 million, back in the late 1990s for their NEAP probe (Near Earth Asteroid Prospector), thought they didn't find any buyers at that time. Microsatellite technology has come a long way since that time.
A private launch would become more feasible if the originally sponsoring government agreed to save money by letting a private entity underwrite the mission with a guaranteed government purchase of some of the scientific data, similar to an X-Prize, though the mission underwriter may want to keep some of the data to itself for mining purposes.
We can also study asteroids from the ground and Earth orbit by telescopes, to get a general idea about the asteroids' surfaces. However, telescopic spectroscopy gives us only average spectra and not detailed information.
Ultimately, we need some "49ers" to go prospecting for asteroids, much as American settlers went to California looking for gold in the 1849 gold rush. These 49ers could benefit from the designs of the existing or planned government-sponsored spacecraft, and even employ their human designers and their organizations if feasible. After all, government probes and contractors are paid for with taxpayer dollars, and thus the information is available to the public. Also, some of the people working on those projects may be interested in working for a private venture to an asteroid.
The following sections cover only government funded probes. No private sector probes have been sent to an asteroid, though this may change soon. The private sector probes will be put into the Missions section instead of within this Asteroids section since the emphasis there is business and sustainability (though they may be moved here later).
The probes below are ordered by date of launch, not arrival, since many probes visited more than one asteroid or comet.
This section covers only probes, not telescopes. For the history and future of the latter, see the PERMANENT section on telescopes discovering and characterizing asteroids
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