Imagine planning a cross-country trip with a group of friends. Instead of just the usual duffel bag and snacks, however, you must bring every single item you plan to use over the three week trip. Rather than changes of clothes, you must haul gasoline to last 2,000 km, kilograms of food and water, sleeping bags, and spare car parts for any number of possible car problems. If this seems costly and impractical, that is because it is; yet, it is the principle that every mission into space has relied on to date, instead of learning to live off the land. This translates into extraordinarily high costs, as it is currently more expensive to put 1 kilogram of water into low Earth orbit (LEO) that it is to buy the same kilogram of solid gold on the open market. One of the most promising ways to obtain natural resources in space, for use in space, is through asteroid mining.
Companies like Planetary Resources, which specialize in the identification, classification, and extraction of natural resources from celestial bodies, are teaming up with terrestrial mining companies to repurpose and re-invent how mining takes place. Familiar techniques like drilling, crushing, and fragment collection will be paired with novel ideas such as solar concentrators—devices that heat asteroids and collect the vaporized gases on the walls of hollow enclosures. Desired resources from asteroids can be broken into one of three categories: industrial metals, platinum group metals, and volatiles. Industrial metals include elements like aluminium, iron, and nickel, which, while plentiful on earth, are difficult and expensive to transport into orbit. Industrial metals will be useful in the construction and repair of a wide variety of celestial objects such as satellites, space station components, solar panels, fuel containers, and infrastructure projects. Not only will space-sourced industrial metals reduce payload weight coming from Earth, but it will also allow for the construction of extremely gossamer and light structures in orbit, due to the removal of the requirement to endure the earthquake-like launch environment.
While industrial metals will be kept in space, platinum group metals (PGMs) will be brought back to Earth due to their scarcity and extremely high value. PGMs are used in a huge array of high-tech equipment, from cancer fighting drugs and medical equipment, to semiconductor chips and smartphone components. Even a small, 20 meter, platinum-rich asteroid could double the world’s current supply overnight, potentially flooding the market if not carefully introduced over time. Perhaps the most immediately sought resources however, are volatile gases including water vapor, hydrogen, and carbon dioxide. Water alone can provide life support systems for astronauts, radiation shielding from cosmic rays on missions to Mars and beyond, and be converted into rocket fuel.
Once obtained, these resources will truly allow humanity to live off the land as we launch into a new phase of exploration. Sustainable access to natural resources in space will not only drive down launch cost and offer a very real solution to humanities constantly growing need for energy, but it will reduce the need for environmentally hazardous deep sea mining. Learning to utilize asteroids will create an entirely new space economy, backed by some of the worlds’ most renowned entrepreneurs. Planetary Resources counts among its investors world-renowned business magnates Larry Page, Eric Schmidt, and Richard Branson, who have a history of transforming traditional industries with great financial success. Further partnerships with manufactures, terrestrial mining companies, and construction companies will prove fruitful for all parties involved, potential returning trillions of dollars in the long run. What remains is the courage to invest the capital required to get asteroid mining efforts of the ground.
Read more about Asteroid Mining.