2018-09-05 16:24:20 UTC
Asteroid mining is almost reality. What to know about the gold rush in space
Mining resources from asteroids may sound like the stuff of science
fiction, but — at least if you believe some very smart people — it’s
well on its way to becoming science fact.
What will be mined? Why would anyone want to do this? And who are the
main players in this (literal) space? Read on for a beginner’s guide to
all things asteroid mining.
I’M STILL NOT CONVINCED. THIS IS SERIOUSLY A REAL THING?
Well, with that attitude it won’t be! To answer your question: no, it’s
not happening yet — but don’t count it out, either. With resources on
Earth set to become increasingly scarce, it makes sense that we look
Artist’s illustration of Deep Space Industries’ Harvestor-class
spacecraft for asteroid mining. Deep Space Industries
Depending on their type, asteroids can contain everything from water
(useful for long-term space exploration missions) to nickel and cobalt
or even valuable metals like gold or platinum. These are often in much
higher concentrations than we would find on Earth.
Around 9,000 known asteroids are currently traveling in orbit close to
the Earth, and some 1,000 new ones are discovered each year. According
to estimates, a one-kilometer diameter asteroid may contain up to 7,500
tons of platinum, with a value of upwards of $150 billion. That’s a
reason to get excited in itself.
SO IS THIS GOING TO BE THE NEXT GOLD RUSH?
With that kind of money to be made, it certainly could be. While the
upfront investment costs means this won’t be quite the free-for-all of
the famous 19th century gold rush, there are plenty of big names —
ranging from Elon Musk to Jeff Bezos — who are very, very interested.
Think of it as panning for gold, except with the pans replaced by
multimillion dollar space launches.
ISN’T THAT COST A LIMITING FACTOR?
It very well could be. Simply put: the pricey part of this isn’t the R&D
that goes into working out how to do asteroid mining. Nor is it the
launches that take place to actually the achieve the goal. Instead, the
really expensive bit is getting the materials back to Earth once we’ve
Given the astronomical amount of expenditure this will involve, there
needs to be something seriously valuable to offset the cost of
That’s without mentioning the fact that introducing a surplus of new
precious materials on Earth would have the effect of greatly lowering
its market value.
WHO ARE THE BIG PLAYERS IN THIS FIELD?
Considering the price tags attached to this mission, a surprisingly
large number of companies are currently working in this field.
Alphabet’s Larry Page is backing Planetary Resources, although it’s
worth mentioning that earlier this year the company was forced to make
layoffs and delay its proposed 2020 prospecting mission after failing to
raise much-needed money.
Deep Space Industries is another leader, with plans to develop
technologies which will make it easier for governments and other private
companies to gain access to orbit. Deep Space Industries has said that
much of what it plans to mine would be used in space, rather than
brought back to Earth (thereby avoiding one of the biggest costs.)
Then there are the likes of TransAstra Corporation, the U.K.’s Asteroid
Mining Corporation, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket system, and more. Some
days it seems you can throw a space rock without hitting one of these
HOW WOULD THE MINING ACTUALLY BE DONE?
Nobody has actually done this yet, so it’s still largely hypothetical. A
lot of the same mining technologies which are used on Earth could
presumably be employed for extracting materials, depending on their
specific requirements. Water, meanwhile, could be extracted through
heating materials and then distilling the water vapor.
At present, a number of different approaches are being explored.
TransAstra Corporation, for instance, wants to use highly concentrated
sunlight to break up asteroids for extraction.
WHAT ARE THE BIG BOTTLENECKS?
Broadly speaking, there are two: the technical challenges and the legal
ones. Right now, companies are coming up with ways to gather information
about the asteroids in our orbit so as to determine their composition.
After this, they will need to establish the most cost-effective way to
launch a craft capable of carrying out the mining extraction itself.
outer space treaty 1967
Signing of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. United Nations
The legal challenge is every bit as thorny. Right now, we’re at the
earliest stages for ruling who has the right to mine certain asteroids.
The United Nations’ 1967 Outer Space Treaty has been signed by 106
countries — but this doesn’t address the topic in any great detail. In
the U.S., congress signed the Space Act of 2015 into law several years
back. This gives U.S. space firms permission to own and sell the natural
resources they mine in space — asteroids included.
Make no mistake, however: This is going to keep lawyers every bit as
busy as it will aerospace engineers. And especially if and when the
money starts rolling in.
WHEN WILL THIS HAPPEN?
That’s the $150 billion per asteroid question. J.L. Galache, an advisor
to Deep Space Industries, thinks we’ll see the first asteroid mining in
10-20 years. Others predict considerably longer than that. Will it
happen in your lifetime? We certainly hope so.
SIGN ME UP. HOW DO I GET INVOLVED?
Got your eyes on an asteroid-mining fortune, eh? While we’re still a
couple of decades (at least) away from the first rocks being mined,
there are still ways to get involved. In August this year, the Colorado
School of Mines launched the world’s first “Space Resources” degree
course — offering proper certification in this sci-fi-sounding topic.
“I would compare this to aviation,” Dr. Angel Abbud-Madrid, director of
the Center for Space Resources and Research Associate Professor in
Mechanical Engineering at Colorado School of Mines, told Digital Trends.
“The first academic programs started just a few years after the Wright
brothers [pioneered the first airplanes]. People realized quickly that
this was no longer just the field of daredevils and people looking for
entertainment; it was going to become very important. The same thing
happened with academic aerospace programs shortly after the launch of
Sputnik. Even though going to the moon looked far away, there was a
realization that this would happen. Universities have to be ahead of the
curve so they can start preparing people to enter [new] fields.”
Want a future-proof degree? Head to Colorado for asteroid mining