Asteroid Prospects: the Facts and Future of Space Mining

January 11, 2017
Author
Kelsey Tollefson
January 11, 2017
Author
Kelsey Tollefson
Executive Editor
John Lenker

The notion of harvesting resources from extraterrestrial sources is not a new one. The lure of untold bounties—orbiting just out of reach—has prompted generations of poets and presidents alike to expound upon the potential applications of space miningThese days, “space mining” is no longer a mere pipe dream. 

Thanks to recent funding successes, asteroid prospecting is fast becoming a very actionable goal. Commercial prospecting missions are projected to begin as early as 2020. But why all the commotion? Why all the “sudden” interest in asteroid mining—and what’s the likelihood that it will actually produce a substantive return for its early-stage investors?

Prospectors are looking for water and minerals in near-Earth asteroids.

Image credit: Planetary Resources

Although it sounds like pure science fiction, asteroid mining is quickly becoming a viable niche industry within the commercial space landscape. While the logistical challenges are not insignificant, early stage ventures are refining the technologies required for commercial deployment. Mining an asteroid for resources would in theory function very much like terrestrial mining—only absent the environmental concerns inherent to Earth-based practices. But what exactly would these mining outfits harvest? While asteroids are composed of a multitude of compounds, there are a few that are of particular interest to prospectors––namely, hydrogen, oxygen, and platinum-group metals. 

Arguably the most desirable resource we could mine from an asteroid would be water. A supply of water already in orbit would prove vastly more affordable than sending Earth-sourced water into space. Aside from its life-sustaining properties, water’s constituent molecules also represent components of (wait for it) rocket fuel. Given both the high cost of producing propellant on Earth and transporting it into space, the ability to produce fuel in situ (in space) would prove invaluable to any long-term manned mission. 

Beyond the tantalizing prospect of orbiting gas stations, mining asteroids would likely prove bountiful in other capacities. Scientific evidence suggests that certain near-Earth asteroids may contain metals valuable to the manufacturing industry. Platinum-group metals, or PGMs––comprising ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium, and platinum––are widely used in a range of industries. While known for their catalytic properties, heat tolerance, and electrical stability, PGMs are also known to be relatively scarce and increasingly in-demand.

Adding asteroid-mined metals to the Earth-sourced variety would make PGMs less expensive and more accessible to a broader range of consumers. And while making platinum-group metals more widely available for industrial purposes is certainly an upside, the proponents of asteroid mining have a grander picture in mind. 

Asteroid mining could represent a space-based industry and supply chain.

A 3d-printed object made of pulverized asteroids. Image credit: Planetary Resources

Experts assert that near-Earth asteroids represent 42 trillion tons of resources. The enormous amount of raw material that asteroids offer has startling implications for the future of space-based industry. And current projections for the commercial space sector mean that demand for asteroid-mined materials will only grow as emerging applications present themselves.

Materials mined in space would likely, on the whole, remain in space. After all, asteroids present such an overabundance of raw material that a massive influx of space-minerals may wreak havoc on Earth’s established economies. So what exactly is to be done with the mined materials? 

The answer is beautifully aspirational: Asteroids provide the materials we’ll use to build colonies and communities in space. Resources mined from asteroids could be used in space-based 3D printers; we could build habitats, modules and tools from scratch, without needing an Earth-bound supply chain.

Water mined on asteroids would support life, and rocket fuel––created in space––would power spaceships making the journey back to Earth or to other settlements. Humanity’s reach would finally extend past the confines of Earth’s atmosphere. With images like that in mind, it’s hard not to see the appeal of commercial asteroid mining ventures. 

The question, as always, lies in the likelihood of realizing any of these aspirations. For the first time in history, technology could soon prove capable of both scouting ideal near-Earth asteroids, and implementing remote mining operations.

Finder’s Keepers: International law supports asteroid resource extraction.

Image credit: NASA/AMA, Inc.

While generations of enterprising dreamers have had the ambition, current technology and cultural interests are finally making asteroid mining a reality. Fueled by eager investors, early-stage space ventures are testing revolutionary satellite and spacecraft technologies and anticipate finding suitable asteroids for mining operations by the mid 2020s—really.

And it’s not only angel investors who want a piece of the asteroid pie. Entire governments are dedicating substantial resources to the effort by establishing R&D partnerships with private space ventures. Governments are also creating international legal frameworks that establish private property rights for materials mined from asteroids. Believe it or not, longstanding international law prohibits private enterprise from claiming ownership of what it finds in space. Seem unfair and demotivating? The Grand-Duchy of Luxembourg thinks so and is taking important steps to change it in order to encourage space entrepreneurship and all the benefits that follow.

In November 2016, Luxembourg adopted a draft law that is designed to establish rules for the emerging arena of space-based property rights. The law states that groups operating in space have a legal right to the materials gained from their efforts. Specifically, the law stipulates that private enterprises would have rights to the profit from materials they mine on asteroids, while leaving the claims to sovereignty of individual asteroids out of the discussion entirely. This bit of fancy legal footwork makes Luxembourg the first European country to join the US in adopting rules dictating ownership rights over space resources. 

To Infinity and Beyond

The advancements in asteroid mining have increased at such a rapid rate—near blinding, actually—that it just might be one of those proverbial “once-in-a-lifetime opportunities” for those who jump in early. And while large venture capital firms might wait a bit longer to jump in with both feet, many savvy, early-stage angel investors are already taking the plunge. Why? They understand that we truly are on the threshold of breaking into an opportunity with nearly unlimited potential. Whatever the tolerance for risk may be, it’s clear that the long-anticipated race to “monetize space” has begun, and that it’s being driven by a unique partnership between private space enterprises, governments, and early-stage investors who are looking for both benefits to humanity and returns on investment that are out of this world.

There’s never been a better time to get involved in commercial space. If you’re ready to start investing in private space companies, we invite you to apply for membership to Space Angels.

Bibliography

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