As Earth’s population continues to swell, the strain on our planet’s resources continues to grow. And although ecologists assert that we aren’t at the tipping point just yet, Earth has a finite amount of resources. Eventually, we are going to run out, so it makes sense to start planning for that inevitability now. One of the most promising avenues? Space.
Asteroid mining is an endeavour that aims to acquire natural resources from comets, asteroids, and minor planetary bodies in our solar system. It invokes images of Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck (two of the most well known asteroid miners from cinema); however, asteroid mining isn’t just the stuff of science fiction.
In fact, asteroid mining is quickly becoming a reality, and with good reason. According to NASA, the mineral wealth that can be found in the asteroid belt (the region of space that exists between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter) equals out to the equivalent of just about 100 billion dollars for every person on Earth today.
That’s a lot of wealth, but more importantly, that’s a lot of resources – and resources (not monetary gains) is really what space mining is all about. If you aren’t aware, getting materials from planet Earth to outer space takes an extravagant amount of fuel, and that means an extravagant amount of money. To that end, by acquiring raw materials from space itself, we could develop a host of space structures (such as colonies or space stations) and even generate rocket fuel, which will ultimately be needed if we ever hope to explore and colonise our solar system in a way that is economically viable.
No Longer Science Fiction
The mining of celestial bodies is shifting from science-fiction (Sci-Fi) to reality. The mining of asteroids by private individuals and companies through advancements in space cameras and satellites aid in the precise location of asteroids. Once located, these celestial bodies can be used to extract minerals such as platinum, gold, iron, or even water. Indeed, the economic incentive for space mining is evident and analysts predict that space mining & extraction activities could potentially translate to a billion-dollar industry.
Asteroid Mining Corporation develops Satellites for Asteroid Mining
British startup Asteroid Mining Corporation develops a satellite to prospect near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) as mining candidates. The company develops a series of different spacecraft for prospecting, exploration, and extraction, with each craft performing a particular mission. The startup’s proprietary dataset generated from its Asteroid Prospecting Satellite One (APS1) mission guides explorers to specific mining candidates.
HEO Robotics utilizes Space-based Cameras for Asteroid Mining
Australian startup High Earth Orbit Robotics combines intelligent control with space-based cameras to acquire high-quality imagery of satellites, space-debris, and resource-rich asteroids. This imagery is then useful for locating and observing asteroids for mining. The startup builds small satellites that operate in the High-Earth Orbit (HEO) to observe celestial bodies.
Space Mining: A New Business Outside The Earth
This is not science fiction. There are now space mining companies, such as Planetary Resources, which has already launched several mini-satellites to test several of its patents. Other companies like Asteroid Mining Corporation or Trans Astronautica Corporation, although still far from their goal, are already attracting millions of dollars of private investment interested in being on the front line of a possible future space business.
Is asteroid mining possible? This new space race already began back when the Japanese Hayabusa missions successfully returned a few grams of an asteroid’s regolith, so the technology to harvest asteroid material exists, we just have to change the scale. It is no longer a technological problem.
Is it economically viable? We are increasingly dependent on rare elements (such as those in the palladium group), which are expensive to exploit on Earth and come with a high environmental cost, so the sum of these two factors could make it profitable to travel to the asteroids to extract these raw materials. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse argues that the planet’s first trillionaire will undoubtedly be a space miner.
So How Viable Is It, Really?
One of the major concerns with asteroid mining is, of course, getting to the asteroids. As was previously mentioned, a great number of the asteroids in our solar system exist in a belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. And alas, that’s kind of far away. In fact, it’s about 330 million km (204 million miles). For comparison, the Moon is 384,000 km (238,000 miles) away from Earth. Fortunately, as Lewicki asserts, we may not have to go quite that far in order to find viable asteroids for mining.
“Asteroids are actually the most accessible destinations once you go out of low-Earth orbit, and a lot of people aren’t aware of that. They think of asteroids as something between Mars and Jupiter, and that’s very, very far away. But that’s the great benefit of the near-Earth asteroids. There are now 14,000 that have already been discovered, and a few thousand of those actually are far easier to make the journey to-and-from.”
And while asteroid mining may seem like an enormous leap, it is important to remember that, just like the first Moon landing, advancements take place in measured steps. Experts outline the stages that Planetary Resources has planned, noting that this incremental process is meant to be self-sustaining.
Ultimately, technologies for asteroid prospecting are already set for testing on Earth. Planetary Resources is launching Ceres, a series of Arkyd 100 satellites that will be carrying out advanced imaging of Earth. The sensors, which will eventually be used to prospect asteroids, are going to be used to deliver intelligence regarding the natural resource material on any spot on the planet. And so, it seems, the era of space mining is already well underway, bringing us one step closer to a truly viable space industry.
- Mining In Space : The Next Frontier – https://futurism.com/humanitys-future-in-space-depends-on-asteroid-mining
- No Longer Science Fiction – https://www.startus-insights.com/innovators-guide/top-10-spacetech-trends-innovations-2021/
- Space Mining: A New Business Outside The Earth – https://www.bbvaopenmind.com/en/science/physics/asteroid-mining-a-new-space-race/