Mining the plentiful resources of the moon and near-Earth asteroids could alter the course of human history, adding trillions of dollars to the world economy and spurring our species' spread out into the solar system, a new breed of space entrepreneur says.
A number of private companies — such as the billionaire-backed asteroid-mining firm Planetary Resources — aim to start making all of this happen. But it won't be easy, as hitting extraterrestrial pay dirt requires melding the know-how of the space and mining communities.
Asteroid mining refers to the possibility of exploiting raw materials from asteroids and other minor planets, including near-Earth objects. Minerals and volatiles could be mined from an asteroid or spent comet then taken back to Earth or used in space for space-construction materials. Materials that could be mined or extracted include iron, nickel, titanium for construction, water and oxygen to sustain the lives of prospector-astronauts on site, as well as hydrogen and oxygen for use as rocket fuel. In space exploration, using resources gathered whilst on a journey is referred to as in-situ resource utilization
Russia recently revealed that the crater of a meteorite that landed in Siberia 35 million years ago, contains trillions of carats of rare diamonds. The Soviet government discovered the deposit in 1970s but it’s only now that documents have been disclosed revealing the true extent of the diamond hoard, which scientists say could supply the entire world for 3,000 years.
Based on known terrestrial reserves and growing consumption in developing countries, there is speculation that key elements needed for modern industry, including antimony, zinc, tin, silver, lead,indium, gold, and copper, could be exhausted on Earth within 50–60 years. In response, it has been suggested that platinum, cobalt and other valuable elements from asteroids may be mined and sent to Earth for profit, used to build solar-power satellites and space habitats, and water processed from ice to refuel orbiting propellant depots.
In fact, all the gold, cobalt, iron, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, osmium, palladium, platinum, rhenium, rhodium, ruthenium, and tungsten mined from the Earth's crust, and that are essential for economic and technological progress, came originally from the rain of asteroids that hit the Earth after the crust cooled. This is because, while asteroids and the Earth congealed from the same starting materials, Earth's massive gravity pulled all such heavy siderophilic (iron-loving) elements into the planet's core during its molten youth more than four billion years ago. This left the crust depleted of such valuable elements until asteroid impacts re-infused the depleted crust with metals. Some flow from core to surface seems to occur, e.g. at the Bushveld Igneous Complex, a famously rich source of Platinum group metals.
The world, it seems, is stuck in a catch-22 situation – it needs money to fund mining and it need mining to make money. The question is, should scientists, entrepreneurs and governments wait until earth’s reserves run out or take a giant leap of faith?
Proposed mining projects..