In 2012 Planetary Resources (PR) and Deep Space Industries (DSI) were established. Precious metals such as gold and platinum are found within some asteroids. Earth’s resources of these metals are in decline, but possibly in abundance in asteroids. Much like the gold-rush in the 19th century, could asteroid mining be the next space race or frontier type venture?
How do you actually mine an asteroid? Asteroids are made of carbon, silicon or metal. To date, most research into asteroids has focused on the threat of asteroid collision, rather than their composition, and none have been directly sampled. However, metal asteroids are of most interest to mining companies. Analysis of asteroids which have fallen to Earth found that precious metals are present in some of them; all space mining needed to know. With over 750,000 asteroids identified, how do we know which to mine? Most of these asteroids are in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, so far too far away for us to think about mining. Instead they focus on near Earth asteroids, of which there are 17,000. Finally, scientists can calculate the composition of asteroids using a telescope and spectral analysis.
What does this tell us? Spectral analysis looks at how light from the sun is reflected off the asteroid surface. If the light reflected looks red, the asteroid is likely to have iron and nickel on its surface. On Earth, platinum appears with these elements in such a way, and we can then deduce that platinum may be present on the asteroid. However, this is just the surface, layers underneath may not be the same and thus, it is a risk.
There are so many factors to take into consideration: how fast is it travelling? How big is it? How far away is it? and could we send a probe to gather more info? Professor Martin Elvis, an astrophysicist at Harvard University, has deduced that to make the entire trip worthwhile, the asteroid must have enough metals to have a market value of $1 billion! So usually, the asteroid should be 1km in diameter, contain >10 parts per million of platinum and be travelling less than 4.5 km per second. How many asteroids fit these needs? ~4% of asteroids which have fallen to Earth have metallic composition, so it can be assumed that ~4% of the 17,000 near Earth asteroids contain metals. However, with all the other parameters, that might leave only 10 asteroids which are economically worth investigating. Not as promising.
Another mining possibility is extracting ice from asteroids and selling it IN space as propellant for other missions. Water can be broken into hydrogen and oxygen to make combustible fuel, or just heated and expelled as steam. DSI was developing propulsion systems which run on water. Tamara Alvarez, (a doctoral student at the New School in New York) said, “I do think we’re going to do Mars missions, and we’ll need resources in space.” The idea of buying and selling in space seems decades away (and it may be), but it is promising that companies are investigating how we could lengthen space travel and exploration using such methods.
Other countries are also in the asteroid mining game now: Japan, the UK (Asteroid Mining Corporation), and the UAE who have all now announced their own asteroid-mining laws or investments. However, all is not golden. In 2016, PR alone raised $50 million for their asteroid mining venture, but at the start of this year, the asteroid mining bubble burst. One problem is the risk factor. Grant Bonin, the former chief technology officer of DSI, blames its demise on investors’ unwillingness to take long-term risks. It is likely that after mining an asteroid the products would have to processed on the moon, as processing on Earth would cost far too much. So not only does it cost a lot to carry out a mining mission, but a moon base would have to be developed too! In 2009 there were a dozen privately owned space companies, now there are over 400, leading to a lot of competition for funding.
Henry Hertzfeld, the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said “the bottom line is that space is hard, it’s risky, [and] it’s expensive.” At this moment in time, there are more well funded space ventures than asteroid mining. However, it may sound like science fiction, but the technology needed to accomplish these goals may not be as far away as we first assumed. Just imagine trading in space.