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It’s been labelled as the ‘next goldrush’ but instead of heading out to the ‘new world’ to seek your fortune, the new breed of miners will need to be looking towards the stars.
Asteroid mining isn’t a new idea, one of the earliest known references to asteroid mining comes from the 1898 American space opera ‘Edison’s Quest to Mars’. In this work of science fiction, a fleet of spaceships run into Martians that are mining asteroids for gold. Ever since appearing over a century ago, the concept has popped up in Sci-Fi works on a consistent basis.
It might seem a little pie in the sky, but big investments are being made by some of techs biggest names and some extremely wealthy people including Elon Musk, Larry Page & James Cameron.
Firstly, we need to understand why mining an asteroid is a good idea. Way, way back when the planet was first forming billions of years ago, the Earth was a very hot ball of molten rock abundant in natural resources. Due to the formation of our planet, as the earth cooled, these resources were all drawn into the core of the Earth. It wasn’t until millions of years later when our planet was bombarded with asteroids that the outer crust of our planet was replenished. The sort of resources we are talking about include; iron, nickel, carbon, cobalt and other precious metals such as gold, platinum, palladium, rhodium, ruthenium, iridium and osmium. A veritable smorgasbord of rare, exotic and ultimately, wealth creating resources. And when we say wealth creating, we mean it.
It has been estimated by NASA that the total value of resources on the asteroids in the asteroid belt that lies between Mars and Jupiter sits in the region of $700 quintillion. That’s a number followed by 18 zeros’! So it’s understandable why investors are beginning to look at ways of exploiting this untapped wealth.
The first thing to understand about space mining is that it is not only about mining asteroids, or even the Moon and then returning those resources back to Earth. As it stands, space exploration isn’t cheap. OSIRIS-Rex is a recent NASA project aimed at studying and bringing back a sample of the asteroid 101955 Bennu. This project alone will cost just under $1billion, and that’s just to take a look and grab a sample with a robotic arm whilst doing a flyby. Even with no landing or large-scale mining involved, the costs of this project are huge. Admittedly, in the true style of the private sector, savings will be found and costs reduced over time but still, this is going to take a lot of money… and brains.
The first step would be prospecting just like back here on Earth. Asteroids would need to be surveyed and studied to confirm their compositions. If, or when, a suitable asteroid is found, the real work begins.
The first hurdle is the technological advances we would need to make. Space X has started the ball rolling with their re-usable rockets. This helps to reduce costs in the launch stages (it currently works out about $50 million per tonne of material you want to send to space) but one of the main ideas being touted is the construction of machinery in space. This would severely reduce the expenditure of getting mining equipment into space as it will already be there. This would require some very large, and very clever, 3D printing technology that can operate unsupervised for long periods of time in the vastness of space.
This would allow ships and mining equipment to be made in space and then sent to whichever asteroid was deemed worthy of mining. Considering asteroids have literally no atmospheres and minimal gravity, lift off and landing costs would be much lower than setting out from Earth every time. Another option is to bring an asteroid into low earth orbit and mine it from a much closer distance. Again, this would reduce costs in transportation of the quarry.
As previously mentioned though, space mining isn’t just about bringing resources back to Earth. Many agree that the resources would best be put to use to help us travel further out into the cosmos, making humans a truly intergalactic species. We could set asteroids up as interplanetary fuel stops. This could help us with colonising Mars and other planets or moons.
But profit must be made or the whole endeavour would come crashing down so inevitably, some of those resources would come back to Earth. How much is brought back and what profits can be made are yet to be seen but this could actually be the first realistic prospect of humans seeing the first trillionaire being made….. Now that’s a lot of gold in them thar asteroids!
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