Can asteroids be mined?

As minerals and non-renewable sources of energy become scarce on our planet could mining asteroids be the answer?

Asteroids orbiting a blue planet, 3d illustration

Asteroids are gigantic pieces of floating rocks in space. Many are known to contain minerals and materials that can be mined. We are in the nascent stages of creating technologies to harvest high-value materials not just from asteroids but also near-earth objects and minor planets.

It is believed some asteroids with a diameter of one kilometre (0.6 miles) can contain platinum valued over $150 billion. And that’s why investors, companies and others see value in mining asteroids.  Metals and minerals like gold, silver, copper, lead, zinc, tin and many more could be mined from asteroids making this a hugely profitable business in the future.

But before you can start working out the business model, consider a few of the challenges.

Where do you begin?

Before we embark on asteroid mining scientists acknowledge that we need to learn more and conduct intensive research.  As per Phil Metzger of Kennedy’s Granular Mechanics and Regolith Operations Laboratory, the next step would be to send a set of first-generation robots from Earth to some of these asteroids. This according to a blog on NASA. “Robots and machines would just make the metal and propellants for starters,” Metzger told the blog. “The first generation of robots makes the second generation of hardware, except the comparatively lightweight electronics and motors that have to be sent up from Earth. It doesn’t matter how much the large structures weigh because you didn’t have to launch it.” If this sounds complicated, scientists believe it is – yet they say that the “prospect was not as daunting as they thought it would be.”

The data collected by Metzger and others helped them look at the possibility of generations of robotic and automated machines that would be able to build and operate as progeny of the original robots.

However, self-replicating machines are yet to be invented.

What are some of the other challenges? 

Long flight time, for instance, three years or more will impact the project’s financial viability. Therefore, Mark Sonter in his thesis conducted at the University of Wollongong suggests conducting fast perihelion missions to short-period comets that guarantee return along with the raw products. 

Another problem is creating transportation that can bring a large amount of precious and raw material back that has a higher net profit. For instance, NASA’s latest asteroid mission OSIRIS-REx costs approximately $1 billion and has only two kilograms of soil storage space. To get a higher return on investment, mining companies have to invest largely in technological R&D to make the business profitable. 

Can someone get ownership over an asteroid? 

International treaties have ensured the nations cannot claim sovereignty over a celestial body. Even though an individual, industry, or a government cannot claim ownership of an asteroid but under the U.S. Space Act of 2015, U.S. citizens are given the right to own space resources that they obtain. The act also promotes and encourages commercial utilisation of resources from asteroids. Luxembourg has a similar condition on space resource ownership as the US but any mission regarding the exploration and utilisation of space resources must be authorised by government agencies.

Who are the key players in the market?

NASA’s Stardust was the first space probe to send samples from an asteroid in 2006. But, Japan’s Hayabusa2 is one of the latest missions to land on a near-earth object in 2019 to collect surface samples. It is expected to return to Earth by the end of 2020. Private companies such as Planetary Resources was one of the largest non-governmental initiatives until 2018. However, the company went out of business because of delayed investments.   

Companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and United Launch Alliance improving launching and landing technology to commercialise space travel, there is more hope for future investment in the asteroid mining sector.

Mining asteroids is a long-term process. How will the project generate profits now?

The British start-up, Asteroid Mining Corporation (AMC) has a solution for that. AMC is building several satellites that will research the potentials of asteroids for mining. According to information available on their website, the data that they gather will then be commercialised for whoever may be interested in buying this data.

Countries like China and India are researching the mining of Helium-3 and are investing in developing extraction technology. Other countries are advancing R&D on shaft and surface mining. Despite the challenges, the race to profitably mine asteroids is on. 

(Research and text by Kuheli Biswas, London)

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