Shout asteroid, and most people will scream and run for cover, thinking the end of the world as we know it is nigh. Indeed, that common knowledge we learn as children about the demise of the almighty dinosaurs because of a rogue asteroid will kick in, sparking a sort of primal fear long since cemented by Hollywood movies about marauding space rocks putting a fiery end to mankind. Title image from pixabay here.
Asteroids are a natural component of the Universe, remnants of a long distant past when the Solar System was formed. They vary in size, from tiny pebbles to larger, so-called ‘global killer’ rocks, and all these space vagrants roam known space in endless orbits.
And one day, asteroids may become very profitable indeed, if current plans to develop commercial mining operations on them come to fruition.
Space is open for big business
Space industry is currently worth somewhere in the region of $330bn, and growing fast. There is big business to be made out there in the vastness of space.
One of the industry’s primary focus is the mining of mineral resources in asteroids, specifically Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs). These rocks (about 16,000) are primary targets for mining as they travel around the Sun in similarly eccentric orbits to Earth, and at a sufficiently ‘close’ distance (about 150 million kms.) to our planet to make mining operations viable.
Why mining asteroids
Any spacefaring mission, past or present, is hindered by the fact that it must carry all consumables onboard, which imposes certain limitations. Spacecraft just cannot make refueling stops. Therefore, the next logical step is to mine resources mid-way and make these resources available to any passing space missions.
Asteroid mining involves exactly what the name implies. Travelling off Earth, landing on a piece of rock hurtling at high velocity though space, deploying the necessary hardware to drill under the rock’s surface, and extract the good stuff. Then, take it home, and do it all again. It is a bold proposition, perhaps just a step too far right now due to technological limitations, but many believe it will be as routine as topping up a the gas station within less than fifty years.
The idea isn’t new, of course. Corporations have had their beady eyes set on all those resources just floating around for decades. But it’s only now that technology has developed enough to put some serious thought into it. Early prototype models already exist of what a mining spacecraft might look like.
This enterprise is also driven by a growing scarcity of resources earthside, which drives the prices ever higher. The principles of supply and demand can be fully applied here.
Asteroids -some of them at least-, contain the necessary resources to facilitate this ‘refueling’, so to speak, and enable spacecraft to fly longer into deep space.
Asteroids are subdivided into types, according to their spectral imaging. Out of this classification, C-Types are by far the most common, comprising about 75% of known asteroids. C-Type rocks are easily distinguishable because of their low albedo (reflectivity), due to a high carbon content. C-Types are prime targets for mining, as they are mineral-rich.
NEAs are thought to contain two trillion tonnes of water, for example, a precious resource that can be used to sustain human life and as propellant for spacefaring craft. If predictions are revealed to be accurate, mining operations could eventually extract mineral like nickel, ammonia, iron, cobalt, and many more.
The players in the space-mining opera
The Open Innovations Forum, held at the Skolkovo Technopark in the outskirts of Moscow in October 16-18, featured a number of interesting speakers advocating asteroid mining as the next big thing.
Luxembourg-based satellite company SES was one of these companies. SES’ fleet already fields a network of geostationary satellites that beam down data 24/7, 365 a year. SES now has an eye on all those rocks drifting around space, picturing dollar signs on all of them.
At first glance, the tiny European nation of Luxenbourg may sound as the most unlikely candidate to fund such ventures. But the country, small as it may be, it’s rich. Very rich indeed. It has pledged about 25m euro to become the main European hub of off-Earth mining operations, to begin with.
So the nation has intent, and money.
But to whom exactly do all those asteroids belong, and who can claim ownership?
Mining in international space. Who owns what
A number of international treaties signed in the 1960s intended space to be ‘humankind’ property. In other words, no one nation could claim a unique stake in it, no matter how many flagpoles were erected on the Moon or elsewhere.
This is all well and good, but the 60s’s highlight was the Flower Power, and those flowers have long since wilted. Real world land grab economics now dictate the rules. Any commercial mining operations off-Earth pose intricate ethical and legal questions, for which answers do not yet exist. Luxembourg, and some other nations like China and the United States, also want a slice of the asteroid pie.
And it is a very, very rich pie in the sky.