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Asteroid mining is almost reality. What to know about the gold rush in space

Mining resources from asteroids may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but — at least if you believe some very smart people — it’s well on its way to becoming science fact.

What will be mined? Why would anyone want to do this? And who are the main players in this (literal) space? Read on for a beginner’s guide to all things asteroid mining.

I’m still not convinced. This is seriously a real thing?

Well, with that attitude it won’t be! To answer your question: no, it’s not happening yet — but don’t count it out, either. With resources on Earth set to become increasingly scarce, it makes sense that we look further afield.

Asteroid Mining
Artist’s illustration of Deep Space Industries’ Harvestor-class spacecraft for asteroid mining. Deep Space Industries

Depending on their type, asteroids can contain everything from water (useful for long-term space exploration missions) to nickel and cobalt or even valuable metals like gold or platinum. These are often in much higher concentrations than we would find on Earth.

Around 9,000 known asteroids are currently traveling in orbit close to the Earth, and some 1,000 new ones are discovered each year. According to estimates, a one-kilometer diameter asteroid may contain up to 7,500 tons of platinum, with a value of upwards of $150 billion. That’s a reason to get excited in itself.

So is this going to be the next gold rush?

With that kind of money to be made, it certainly could be. While the upfront investment costs means this won’t be quite the free-for-all of the famous 19th century gold rush, there are plenty of big names — ranging from Elon Musk to Jeff Bezos — who are very, very interested.

Think of it as panning for gold, except with the pans replaced by multimillion dollar space launches.

Isn’t that cost a limiting factor?

It very well could be. Simply put: the pricey part of this isn’t the R&D that goes into working out how to do asteroid mining. Nor is it the launches that take place to actually the achieve the goal. Instead, the really expensive bit is getting the materials back to Earth once we’ve mined them.

Given the astronomical amount of expenditure this will involve, there needs to be something seriously valuable to offset the cost of transporting it.

That’s without mentioning the fact that introducing a surplus of new precious materials on Earth would have the effect of greatly lowering its market value.

Who are the big players in this field?

Considering the price tags attached to this mission, a surprisingly large number of companies are currently working in this field. Alphabet’s Larry Page is backing Planetary Resources, although it’s worth mentioning that earlier this year the company was forced to make layoffs and delay its proposed 2020 prospecting mission after failing to raise much-needed money.

Planetary Resources' Exploration Program

Deep Space Industries is another leader, with plans to develop technologies which will make it easier for governments and other private companies to gain access to orbit. Deep Space Industries has said that much of what it plans to mine would be used in space, rather than brought back to Earth (thereby avoiding one of the biggest costs.)

Then there are the likes of TransAstra Corporation, the U.K.’s Asteroid Mining Corporation, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket system, and more. Some days it seems you can throw a space rock without hitting one of these companies!

How would the mining actually be done?

Nobody has actually done this yet, so it’s still largely hypothetical. A lot of the same mining technologies which are used on Earth could presumably be employed for extracting materials, depending on their specific requirements. Water, meanwhile, could be extracted through heating materials and then distilling the water vapor.

At present, a number of different approaches are being explored. TransAstra Corporation, for instance, wants to use highly concentrated sunlight to break up asteroids for extraction.

What are the big bottlenecks?

Broadly speaking, there are two: the technical challenges and the legal ones. Right now, companies are coming up with ways to gather information about the asteroids in our orbit so as to determine their composition. After this, they will need to establish the most cost-effective way to launch a craft capable of carrying out the mining extraction itself.

outer space treaty 1967
Signing of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. United Nations

The legal challenge is every bit as thorny. Right now, we’re at the earliest stages for ruling who has the right to mine certain asteroids. The United Nations’ 1967 Outer Space Treaty has been signed by 106 countries — but this doesn’t address the topic in any great detail. In the U.S., congress signed the Space Act of 2015 into law several years back. This gives U.S. space firms permission to own and sell the natural resources they mine in space — asteroids included.

Make no mistake, however: This is going to keep lawyers every bit as busy as it will aerospace engineers. And especially if and when the money starts rolling in.

When will this happen?

That’s the $150 billion per asteroid question. J.L. Galache, an advisor to Deep Space Industries, thinks we’ll see the first asteroid mining in 10-20 years. Others predict considerably longer than that. Will it happen in your lifetime? We certainly hope so.

Sign me up. How do I get involved?

Got your eyes on an asteroid-mining fortune, eh? While we’re still a couple of decades (at least) away from the first rocks being mined, there are still ways to get involved. In August this year, the Colorado School of Mines launched the world’s first “Space Resources” degree course — offering proper certification in this sci-fi-sounding topic.

“I would compare this to aviation,” Dr. Angel Abbud-Madrid, director of the Center for Space Resources and Research Associate Professor in Mechanical Engineering at Colorado School of Mines, told Digital Trends. “The first academic programs started just a few years after the Wright brothers [pioneered the first airplanes]. People realized quickly that this was no longer just the field of daredevils and people looking for entertainment; it was going to become very important. The same thing happened with academic aerospace programs shortly after the launch of Sputnik. Even though going to the moon looked far away, there was a realization that this would happen. Universities have to be ahead of the curve so they can start preparing people to enter [new] fields.”

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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