Satellites may be used to orbit around asteroids and slowly harvest their surfaces until all materials are claimed.
Chinese company Origin Space have announced they will be launching a “space mining" robot in November, in what could prove to be one of the first major advances towards space mining.
Origin Space will be sending their NEO-1 robot into orbit alongside a Long March rocket operated by China’s National Space Administration in just a few weeks. The move comes after a push by the Beijing government for companies to make strides towards realising the potential of the valuable space mining industry.
In truth, NEO-1 is less of a miner and more a prospector. The machine – surprisingly weighing just 30 kilos – will be equipped with scopes and instruments designed to scan asteroids near to Earth for valuable minerals, as well as precious metals like gold and silver. NEO-1 will then test the viability of a number of essential functions like identification of reserves, orbital manoeuvring, and celestial body capture. How the machine performs in these tests could pave the way for further exploration and eventual mining.
Space mining has been considered a long-term goal for many nations, whether as part of public bodies or private enterprise. With resources on Earth limited, some metals are becoming increasingly scarce, restricting supply. Tapping into the vast resources available in our solar system could eventually prove to be more cost efficient than trying to find further reserves on Earth or relying on recycling.
With costs for space exploration as high as they currently are, and reliability low, it could be decades before such ventures prove to be cost-effective enough to be widely used. Conservation is also a concern, with scientists urging that 85% of space should be left natural, and unmined, to avoid the depletion of resources that has been seen on Earth.
Experts theorise that future colonies on Mars, and other planets or moons, will likely revolve around mining.
Despite these hurdles, space mining is already drawing the attention of lawmakers, with huge questions over who has both occupancy and mining rights in the extra-national and extra-terrestrial boundaries of space. President Trump has already signed an executive order giving US businesses the right to make the most of resources in space, and space mining could become a new point of contention particularly between the US and China as both superpowers begin what some deem the next big space race.
What was once a scenario only dreamt of in science fiction novels, space mining is now a very realistic prospect within our lifetime, and something that could become another tense geo-political issue in the years to come. With metal prices rising it is clear to see the appeal for governments and businesses looking to capitalise on the resources out there, so the question is no longer if but when.