Asteroid mining: the gathering of resources from space. It used to be the subject of science fiction – but in the wake of a new bill granting property rights to miners, several prospective space mining companies are already preparing and launching spacecraft. In the future, this might lead to more available resources and less mining on Earth – and even a leap towards space colonisation.

Asteroids passing Earth. Image: ESA – P.Carril.

Asteroids passing Earth. Bild: ESA – P.Carril.

A number of rare metals and rare Earth elements are essential in the manufacture of many products, including electronics and green tech such as solar cells, wind turbines and electric vehicles. Metal recycling grow in importance, but demand for new virgin material will still be growing for many years. Viable concentration deposits are not always easy to find, however, and new mining operations have to be weighed against their environmental impact and how they affect the surrounding area.

But beyond the boundaries of the planet, rare metals and other resources are available in vast amounts. If we were able to mine asteroids for resources and bring them back to Earth, it would both expand the resource base and reduce the need to affect the terrestrial environment with mining operations.

Eric Anderson is one of the founders of the pioneering company Planetary resources. He describes a vision of light-weight spacecraft capable of spectroscopy and remote sensing, working together:
”It will be possible to know more about an ore body that’s 10 million miles away from us in space than it would be to know about an ore body 10 miles below the Earth’s surface.”

Asteroid mining could also pave the way for space exploration, and – eventually – the creation of new human environments in the form of space colonies. The energy required to escape the gravity of the Earth is the big hurdle, and what ultimately makes space travel so expensive. Asteroid mining would make raw materials for construction and preparation of rocket fuel available, without having to lift them all from Earth.

Rich in assets

There are millions of asteroids in the solar system – remnants of bodies colliding in space. Most of the asteroids are distributed between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, but not all of them. Approximately 13 000 are categorized as near-Earth objects, well within reasonable reach – and 900 more are discovered every year.

Asteroids have an abundance of resources. Platinum-group metals, water and base metals are three of the most interesting categories. We know that ice is present on many asteroids, and the concentration of metals is high compared to the Earth’s crust, where heavier elements tend to migrate towards the core.

Platinum-group metals – platinum, palladium, iridium, rhodium, ruthenium and osmium – are essential in the manufacture of electronics.  Because of their scarcity on Earth, they may be profitable to bring here. A single asteroid could contain more platinum than what has been terrestrially mined.

Water and base metals are more likely to be left in space and used there. Water can be broken into hydrogen and oxygen to create rocket fuel, for space exploration. Iron, nickel and cobalt would be valuable raw materials for future space factories.

Companies preparing projects

Asteroid mining is hardly a novel idea, but the developments in technology are rapidly making it look feasible. According to international treaties, no one can claim ownership of asteroids or other heavenly bodies – but a recently passed US bill (The Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015) grants space miners the right to profit from asteroid resources, once they have been obtained. In the wake of this, several companies have begun exploring the concept.

Planetary resources is one example, currently performing satellite launches to test and evaluate systems but aiming to begin asteroid prospecting in the future.

Moon Express is shooting for the Moon instead. They are interested in helium-3, a stable isotope of helium present in vast amounts there, and a candidate fuel for nuclear fusion. The company is planning launches in 2017.

California based Deep Space Industries intends to begin testing its exploratory spacecraft called Fireflies in 2016. After 2018, the company hopes to also deploy “Dragonflies” – larger spacecraft able to bring back samples of material.

Surveying near-Earth asteroids to find suitable objects and identify their resources is the first step. The actual mining will likely be fully automated. The lack of gravitation will be a two-edged sword; the mining equipment would somehow have to be tied to the surface of the asteroid – perhaps by harpoons. On the other hand, it makes handling the ore easier and less energy demanding once it has been excavated.

The time-spans suggested by companies are amazingly short – but much is happening. Both technology development in general and green tech scale-up would likely benefit greatly once ambitions turn into an actual inflow of asteroid resources. As Eric Anderson suggests, it might eventually make terrestrial mining a thing of the past:
”Wouldn’t it be great if one day, all of the heavy industries of the Earth—mining and energy production and manufacturing—were done somewhere else, and the Earth could be used for living, keeping it as it should be, which is a bright-blue planet with lots of green?”

The article was published in March 2016.