Companies are currently searching for asteroids close to Earth which are composed of ice, minerals, metals, silicate minerals and carbonaceous minerals. The primary aim is to collect materials for space exploration, although they are also investigating ways of bringing materials back to Earth.
As space colonization begins to look like more of a reality, the private sector has set its sights on space mining.
Finding new sources of mineral wealth on Earth is increasingly difficult, the private sector has set its sights on space–or more specifically on the Manhattan-sized hunks of rock and metal hurtling through space at 56,000 miles per hour–for future sources of fortune. More than 10,000 asteroids currently orbit the Earth, and three men believe they can extract and sell their components for an enormous profit.
Larry Page of Google, filmmaker James Cameron, and Peter Diamandis of the X-Prize Foundation make up this curious hodgepodge of rich white men, and in 2012 they founded a privately-traded company called Planetary Resources, which is the forerunner in the race to extract resources from asteroids.
Why asteroids? These massive celestial rocks can contain huge quantities of platinum and its sister metals, which are both rare and expensive on Earth. They also contain water and iron, which are hard to come by in space and serve multiple purposes in outer space endeavors (think radiation protection, fuel sources and sustaining human life). For an idea of just how much one asteroid can be worth, check out the chart below:
Having mining spots in space would allow astronauts to travel farther and faster, and mean that space colonies could theoretically become self sufficient. “Resources have allowed us to move into every frontier on planet Earth,” said Lewicki earlier this year. “If we can find the same opportunity in space, we will find an economic engine to fund the exploration of space.” So basically they’d also save a lot of time.
Water is one very important resource in enabling missions further into space. Asteroids generally contain lots of ice which could be collected and broken down into hydrogen and oxygen to be used as fuel for spacecrafts.
It may seem like the stuff of science fiction but NASA seems intent on mining asteroids to enable the exploration of deep space. The space agency recently announced its intention to send a manned mission to Mars within the next 25 years.
Platinum mining is another potential source of revenue from asteroids. The companies are investigating a viable method of transporting materials to Earth, but costs look to be prohibitive.
Chris Lewicki, President and “Chief Asteroid Miner” at Planetary Resources, asteroid mining would not only create trillionaires here on Earth, but it is also the first step toward exploring the final frontier. It’s also just smart business: if space exploration firms were able to mine for resources in space–as opposed to having them shipped via rockets–they would save millions.
Lewicki maybe exaggerating the timeline of space settlement for the benefit of his company, but one thing is clear: the race is on. Right now private companies are the biggest players in the game, but the government of Japan launched its own space mining operation in 2013. Even the United States government sees this new industry looming on the horizon and is attempting to make it economically feasible for the private sector.
For its part NASA has sent a spacecraft known as OSIRIS-Rex to study the “Bennu” asteroid, which is relatively close to our planet. The spacecraft aims to land on the asteroid and carry out studies of its composition, with a projected landing date of September 2016.
This latest announcement from NASA follows hot on the heels of the successful landing of the Philae probe on a comet known as 67P, which marked the first successful landing on a comet. Probes have previously landed on asteroids, but never with the specific aim of studying the possibility of mining.
Differing methods for asteroid mining
In order to search for the asteroids with the best potential, Planetary Resources intends to use mid-sized space telescopes. In the future the company would like to create a space depot from which mining operations could be undertaken.
In contrast Deep Space Industries plans on using compact spacecraft known as “FireFlies” to evaluate asteroids. Once it has determined the potential of an asteroid, it will then capture it using its “DragonFly” spacecraft, before a “Harvester” craft potentially brings resources back into Earth’s orbit.