When Will Mining Asteroids Become Reality?
For centuries mankind has pushed the limits of nature in a search for precious metals. Early explorers and risk takers wandered off into the high Arctic searching for gold and diamonds. Tribesmen have scoured the Sahara and deserts in Pakistan looking for rubies and other precious stones. Above all, driving this search is the human spirit and need for discovery. Also, probably a healthy dose of greed. In 2017, with the majority of the earthly deposits discovered, humans are looking to the stars. Rather, asteroids through space mining for their next discovery.
Deep Space Industries Leads Space Mining Program in U.S.
Deep Space Industries is a company based in California and Luxembourg. While, the company has been making headlines of late, it released its promo video in 2013; space mining is creeping from the realm of sci-fi into reality.
Wired reported earlier this year, on Deep Space Industries,
“Their personal path to an asteroid is straighter: They hope to launch the prototype Prospector-X this year to see how its propulsion performs, how its avionics stand up to space radiation, and how its optical navigation system fares against obstacles. It will be in Earth orbit, but it’s not on the Earth-observation beat. It’s meant to show that the follow-on Prospector-1 will work—hopefully going to an asteroid by the end of the decade…”
In late 2015, President Barack Obama signed into law a bill that effectively allows people, companies or countries to mine, sell and own any space material.
Eric Anderson, co-founder and co-chairman of Planetary Resources, a company pioneering the space mining industry, stated, “This is the single greatest recognition of property rights in history.”
Space Mining Heats up in 2017
In April of 2017, Goldman Sachs published a 98-page note to clients explaining why it was bullish on space mining; furthermore, why “asteroid-grabbing spacecraft” may be the next method to source platinum and other high-value metals.
The heart of space mining rests in the decreasing cost of rockets and reusable rockets, proven by Musk’s SpaceX.
According to an article published by Business Insider UK,
“It used to cost $35 million (£28 million) to send one person up on a Soyuz rocket. Today, Virgin Galactic hopes to get space tourists into space for something like $250,000 (£200,000), Goldman says.”
Before writing Goldman and the boys off as loonies, consider this:
“Space mining could be more realistic than perceived. Water and platinum group metals that are abundant on asteroids are highly disruptive from a technological and economic standpoint. Water is easily converted into rocket fuel, and can even be used unaltered as a propellant. Ultimately being able to stockpile the fuel in LEO [low earth orbit] would be a game changer for how we access space. And platinum is platinum. According to a 2012 Reuters interview with Planetary Resources, a single asteroid the size of a football field could contain $25bn- $50bn worth of platinum.”
Obviously, if mining these amounts of platinum were achievable it would destroy the current market for the metal. For the reason that,
“Successful asteroid mining would likely crater the global price of platinum, with a single 500-meter-wide asteroid containing nearly 175X the global output, according to MIT’s Mission 2016.”
To read Goldman Sachs: space-mining for platinum is ‘more realistic than perceived’ click here. Realistically,
China Steps to Fore of Space Mining
The Chinese have shown serious interest in being the first to begin harvesting asteroids for platinum and palladium. Chief commander and designer of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program, Ye Peijian, spoke in May about the country mining asteroids for the likes of palladium and platinum. In China to mine asteroids for platinum worth TRILLIONS and use them for interstellar travel, Sean Martin relays Mr. Peijian comments to China Daily:
“In the near future, we will study ways to send robots or astronauts to mine suitable asteroids and transport the resources back to Earth.”
Furthermore, Mr. Peijian explained,
“In addition, some asteroids can be used as bases for interstellar exploration.
We can land an unmanned probe on it, and the probe will travel with the asteroid to deep space.”
In a Newsweek article that followed a few days later,
“Ye Pijian told authorities in Beijing that the first capable spacecraft would be launched over the next three years or so, and that one such captured asteroid could even serve as the base of a space station for China.”
The article predicted that,
“…it could take upwards of more than 40 years to actually mine materials from the asteroids.”
Luxembourg | Latest Country to Invest in Space Mining
Luxembourg is hoping to profit from the advent of space mining also. The minuscule European nation passed a law on July 13th, 2017 that defines the conditions companies must fulfill to obtain a license for launching a space mining mission. In June of last year, Luxembourg announced it would open a 200 million Euro fund to incentivize space mining companies to locate there.
“The legislation, over 18 months in the works, is part of Luxembourg’s SpaceResources.lu initiative, which goal is to boost exploration and the commercial utilization of resources from near earth objects, such as asteroids.”
In February of 2016, Luxembourg announced an initiative to promote mining asteroids for minerals. Mining.com went on to report that,
“A few months later, the government reached an agreement with a US-based company, Deep Space Industries, which will be conducting missions to prospect for water and minerals in outer space. Both parties are currently developing Prospector-X, a small and experimental spacecraft that test technologies for prospecting and mining near Earth asteroids after 2020.”
So, while the rockets will fly, we are a few years away from knowing if and when space mining will become feasible.
The Distant Future of Space Mining
Furthermore, while the technology and capability might be there in practice, doing it real-life, in outer space, will not come easily. Asteroids move extremely fast and nation states or companies hoping to land on them for the purpose of mining will “need to know about a specific rock’s composition before embarking on a mining mission—something they can’t accomplish with the same sensors they are deploying in Earth orbit” according to Wired. I agree with this sentiment, consequently the speed of rocket improvements and cost reductions in the past ten years make me a believer that anything is possible. Even space mining.