Mining Our Solar System

With the rapid technological advances in ion propulsion, thrusters are becoming more powerful, longer lasting, cheaper, and less complex. Today, the standard for ion propulsion is NSTAR (NASA Solar Electric Propulsion Technology Application Readiness). However, with the imminent implementation of NEXT (NASA Evolutionary Xenon Thruster), thrusters will have 3x the propulsion. Farther down the timeline is NASA’s Annular Engine that promises an ion beam 2x larger than that of NSTAR. A larger beam will produce stronger thrust, faster acceleration, and greater top speed. To give you an idea, NSTAR can reach top speeds of 10,066 MPH. Though NSTAR takes 4 days to accelerate from 0–60 MPH, the constant thrust allows it to reach speeds ideal for long distance missions.

Today, ion thrusters are used for two primary reasons: deep space exploration and satellite positioning. In both cases, they’ve preformed brilliantly. But as the new ion technology comes to fruition, I can’t help but imagine an entirely different use case. By using the gravitational force of a two+ ton ion thruster, however insignificant, we could potentially alter the heliocentric orbits of asteroids in our solar system. In doing so, the ion thruster could “tow” asteroids into a geocentric orbit for further research and monetary benefit. The asteroid belt offers opportunities of all shapes and sizes. Circumferences range from a 20 feet to 1859 miles (size of Ceres). The selection is (literally) endless. This endless selection provides troves of information and resources waiting to be discovered. And ion propulsion can transform such a progressive vision into reality.

But before mining our solar system, why not monetize an increasingly popular market closer to home. Satellites, and their positioning, are nothing novel. We’ve been launching and positioning them for decades. But with the continued privatization of our upper atmosphere (on demand orbit), there will be an inevitable demand for increased satellite control. Whether it be stationary orbit or repositioning, more satellites means more congestion. And there will be a price for precision. Now, there’s been talk of reducing this congestion, but I don’t see that happening any time soon. The proliferation of geospatial imaging has just begun, after all.

Whatever the scenario, ion thrusters have their place. I’d love to see more private innovation of this technology in the coming years.



Originally published at on January 29, 2016.

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