With asteroids constantly passing through our solar system containing millions, billions, and even trillions of tonnes of precious and rare earth metals, it’s only logical that investors and scientists are keen to get mining these bumper resources.
To achieve such a feat would take billions of Dollars but the resulting accomplishment could both preserve our environment and make those backing the missions a substantial profit. The big question is: can we do it?
The Value of Space Mining
Space is a wealth waiting to be tapped into. One asteroid, 16 Psyche, sits in the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter. NASA plans to land on it the next 4-5 years and mine it some years after that. They have targeted this asteroid after surveys determined it is made up of iron ore, of which they estimate the value to be around $10,000 quadrillion. To put that into context, the total wealth of the Earth is roughly $60-75 trillion.
Others have made estimates about asteroid content and values too, with Goldman Sachs producing a report suggesting that an area the size of a football pitch and containing a metal such as platinum would be worth between $25 billion and $50 billion.
Such incredibly high values would potentially impact commodity markets, but equally a managed influx would reduce the cost of things like electronics and energy storage, thus accelerating the growth rate of our technology and making things more affordable for everyone.
Last April, The Guardian newspaper reported how asteroid mining was becoming more realistic thanks to technological advances and the decreasing costs that would be involved in such missions. As time goes by, it’ll become more and more inevitable that mining in space will occur due to the improved cost effectiveness, but what’s stopping us from going right now?
Concept art from Deep Space Industries showing how their Dragonfly probe might work to capture and return small asteroids.
NASA and Japan both have sampling probes in space at the moment to take rocks and dust from nearby asteroids, so small-scale mining is evidently achievable, but it’s a leap to go from small unmanned probes to larger drilling rigs. Will they stay unmanned, or will they need a crew?
The spacecraft involved would need a large amount of fuel, a large capacity for carrying cargo back, and they would have to be built to cope with a lack of gravity on asteroids, as well as dealing with uneven or unstable surfaces for landing and drilling on.
To tackle all these challenges costs a lot of money. The Hayabusa2 mission, orchestrated by Japan, cost nearly $300 million (not including the launch), while NASA’s more elaborate OSIRIS-Rex probe cost nearer to $1 billion (including the launch). It would be a much greater cost to make larger probes or landers to operate in the next few years.
The legal ramifications for private ventures – which we touch on below – could also mean that companies do not have the ownership rights to that which they mine…
Laying down the law
Space is a tricky subject when it comes to legal jurisdiction. Most people view them as belonging to everyone. There already exists an Outer Space Treaty from 1967. This was ratified by nearly 100 countries and clearly prohibits nations from claiming ‘celestial bodies’ or using them for military purposes.
The US and Luxembourg have passed laws granting private firms the ownership rights of whatever they obtain in space, which Russia, Brazil and Belgium oppose and believe classes as a breach of this treaty. Given the profits involved it’d be a surprise if we achieved a unified effort like the International Space Station or the Large Hadron Collider projects.
To address the disagreement there are international governance bodies working to develop legal frameworks for space exploration and mining. The Hague International Space Resources Governance Working Group is currently working out the minutia of the legality involved (due to report back in October), while the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) also works on a resolution.
Concept art from Deep Space Industries showing their Harvestor and how it would latch onto an asteroid
The two leading companies seeking to begin mining in space are Planetary Resources, based in Seattle, Washington, and Deep Space Industries, from San Jose, California. Both firms have made prototype probes and landers and received funding from an array of notable people including Richard Branson, Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, James Cameron, and Luxembourg.
Luxembourg has granted mining rights just like the US and are backing both companies, but they are also offering $230 million to any companies that use Luxembourg as a base of operations for asteroid mining. The European micronation clearly sees an opportunity for prosperity as they have sent officials over to China, Japan, and the United Arab Emirates to discuss partnerships for space exploration.
This is as far as anyone has come though. Larger funds are needed to match the launches of NASA and other national space agencies, and so far, these two companies do not have those funds. While many people believe space is the way forward, many more dislike the idea of throwing money at an unknown. Leading space agencies have national and private backing and have the proven experience of performing missions in space. Private ventures on their own are a lot less accomplished and it’s a vicious circle for sourcing funds: people don’t want to commit funds until you prove you can do it, but you need the funds to do it and obtain proof.
Why the sudden interest in space mining?
The reason for the flurry of news coverage discussing asteroid mining is because World Asteroid Day was on 30th June. This date commemorates a lucky escape for Earth as an asteroid – 130ft wide – exploded in our atmosphere above the Podkamanneya Tunguska River in Siberia in 1908.
Chunks of meteorite from the Tunguska region in central Russia
The explosion had an 800 square mile blast radius. It hit the Earth with a force 185 that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima and fortunately destroyed a large section of Russian forest rather than anywhere densely populated. Six and a half hours later and the asteroid would have obliterated Berlin, altering the course of history forever…