STEM Outreach Activity: Asteroid Mining

Hey Student Space Ambassadors!  This is an outreach activity that you can use as a Student Space Ambassador to teach kids and others about an Earth & Space Science topic. You can modify this activity to use in a Zoom presentation, in your classroom, with a club, at a STEM/STEAM event or even at a local library. Just be sure that if you’re in a group setting, you follow covid guidances!

Overview

Did you know that scientists and engineers are thinking about going to space to mine asteroids? This activity will have kids traveling to a distant asteroid to mine for minerals and other resources! Follow the steps with your kiddos at home!

Although the concept of asteroid mining seems like it belongs in science fiction, scientists, engineers, and even corporations are thinking about how it might happen one day. However, it is good to remind children that asteroid mining is not something going on in our solar system today. While NASA and various space agencies have visited—and even landed on—asteroids, we are still many years away from any large-scale mining projects. Children might have heard about other objects in the solar system. It would be helpful to discuss the differences between them if questions come up on the nature of these space objects.

Materials Needed

Background Information

It’s exciting to imagine what our lives might be like in a future filled with more space exploration—and it’s also important. It’s still too expensive and difficult to mine asteroids today. But in the future, asteroids and dwarf planets in our solar system could become new sources for materials used in manufacturing, energy production, or supporting humans living in space.

When you imagine your asteroid mining machine, you’re doing a little bit of science. Before scientists and engineers can start mining, they need to come up with ideas for how their mining machines might work. Our society will also need to consider how mining asteroids might change our lives, now and into the future.

Robot on Asteroid_Asteroid Mining_The Mars Generation

Robots designed for construction on the Moon, like the one imagined in this artist’s depiction, could also be used on asteroids.

NASA missions are helping researchers learn more about asteroids and the resources they might contain. These science missions are developing important technologies for asteroid exploration that could benefit anyone interested in exploring or mining asteroids, whether it’s NASA or a private company.

There are millions of asteroids orbiting the Sun, ranging in size from a few meters to hundreds of kilometers across. We’ll probably never visit them all, but even a small, house-sized asteroid could contain tons of metal for future technology on Earth, or life-sustaining water ice to support deep space exploration. Spacecraft traveling to nearby asteroids, like NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe, are mapping and analyzing these space objects, which could someday help us better understand how to locate and mine potential resources.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx_Asteroid Mining_The Mars Generation

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, shown here as a model, will collect and return samples from the asteroid Bennu.

What Is Mining?

On Earth, the mining process takes minerals and other resources out of the ground to make new products. Mining can happen underground or on the surface, it uses many different kinds of machines and technologies, and it involves lots of different steps.

These steps include:

Review: What Is an Asteroid?

Asteroids are space objects that orbit the Sun but are much smaller than planets. They are leftover bits and pieces from the formation of the solar system. Scientists have counted about 800,000 asteroids so far—out of millions in our solar system—and found many different shapes and sizes. While asteroids are mostly made of rock, they can also contain metals and water ice. Most asteroids in the solar system can be found between Mars and Jupiter in a region called the asteroid belt.

Visiting An Asteroid

The millions of asteroids in our solar system are debris from its formation. By studying asteroids’ shapes, sizes, and compositions, scientists gather clues about how planets like Earth formed. The Psyche mission, expected to launch in 2022, will visit an asteroid called Psyche orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. Psyche is a rare asteroid—it’s made of metals like iron and nickel rather than rock. There are several hypotheses about how Psyche formed, but some scientists think that Psyche may be the core of a planet that had its exterior stripped away due to an enormous collision.

Asteroid Mining Activity

Now it’s time for your kiddos to step into the role of a NASA Scientist or Engineer! Begin this activity by printing out both the Asteroid Drawing Worksheet and the Asteroid Mining Challenge Cards listed above.

  1. Encourage your children to use their imagination to design a mining machine. How does it work? What special instruments or tools does it need? Does their machine need to communicate back to Earth? How would it get power to operate?
  2. Have your children draw a picture of their mining machine on the worksheet. Use the challenge cards if they need inspiration.
  3. Have a conversation. Why would you mine an asteroid? What does the asteroid look like after mining? How do you think life on Earth would be different after asteroid mining?

Asteroid Mining Machine Worksheet_Asteroid Mining_The Mars Generation

As your kiddos imagine, talk about, and/or draw, you can engage them in conversation about what they are drawing (or just imagining) and ask them to expand on their ideas. Here are some example prompts, but you’ll also want to follow the lead of your kiddos:

  • How did your machine travel to the asteroid?
  • Where do the mined materials go in your machine and how much can it hold?
  • How does your machine break apart the surface of the asteroid?
  • Digging material out of an asteroid might just be the first step of a mining operation. What do you think happens next? Would you move it to a space station? Back to Earth? Why?

Children may also need some encouragement to talk about how their creations and asteroid mining in general might be connected with potential future scenarios. Once again, follow the interests of your kiddos. Here are some suggested prompts:

  • What might we be able to do with the resources mined from asteroids? How might they help us explore further?
  • Who should have access to asteroids to mine? Who should get to keep and use the resources? Individuals? Corporations? Governments?
  • How might mining on Earth change after asteroid mining starts? Who might be affected? How might the environment change?
  • Should we protect or preserve some asteroids and not allow mining there?

 

This activity is brought to The Mars Generation through Discovery Station via the 2020 Explore Science: Earth and Space program through the National Informal STEM Education Network.

Credits and rights:

Artist’s depiction of potential lunar robots courtesy NASA.

Artist’s depiction of OSIRIS-REx TAGing Bennu courtesy NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

NISE

Developed and distributed by the National Informal STEM Education Network.

Copyright 2020, Sciecenter. Published under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial-ShareAlike license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/us/

This material is based on work supported by NASA under cooperative agreement award number NNX16AC67A and 80NSSC18M0061. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

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