One small step for mining's new frontier

January 18, 2016 by Blair Price, Sciencenetwork Wa
One small step for mining's new frontier
Planetary Resources is mainly hunting for significant oxygen and hydrogen-hosting asteroids to produce rocket fuel for space shuttles. Credit: PRO2di7 & titanio44

Once a figment of science fiction films, the sometimes risky notion of mining in space may soon become a reality if asteroid mining hopeful Planetary Resources has its way.

A operation in could bear some resemblance to what people have seen in movie theatres considering the venture has backing from Avatar director James Cameron, but thankfully WA's resource industry has more to learn than fear from a space mining push.

The frontrunner of the space mining corporate scene, which also counts Google bosses Larry Page and Eric Schmidt among its key investors, has lauded the US Congress's approval of the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act in late 2015.

This controversially allows private companies to claim ownership of any non-living resources they obtain in space plus extends existing indemnities related to any possible catastrophic commercial aerospace launch failures up to 2025.

There are various problems with the SPACE Act, according to Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research director Professor Andrew Dempster, but he says it is a good start.

"Mining in space is real and we need to start thinking about how to regulate it, at an international level," he says.

Asteroid hunters also have a new tool at their disposal with scientists recently developing a gamma-ray spectroscope capable of detecting metals in these orbiting rocks.

But the asteroid scoping technology is also expected to help the conventional mining industry.

"With companies in this business for a few years now, it is not surprising that new sensors for space prospecting are emerging," Prof Dempster says.

"This is not a threat to terrestrial mining—quite the opposite in fact—the new sensors are also likely to be useful on Earth.

Prof Dempster estimates that a full off-earth mining operation is a decade or two away.

"It's not happening tomorrow, but it is within the time-frames with which big mining companies operate," he says.

However, Planetary Resources is mainly hunting for significant oxygen and hydrogen-hosting asteroids to produce rocket fuel for space shuttles.

This strategy avoids the headaches of making any asteroid product survive the re-entry into Earth's atmosphere at a profit.

Curtin University astrogeologist Dr Martin Towner says WA could learn and contribute a lot to future off-Earth mining.

"The sort of technologies of autonomous and remote robotics used in space are very similar to the remote systems that are now arriving in the resource industry, so technology could flow both ways," he says.

Explore further: New US space mining law to spark interplanetary gold rush

Related Stories

Will we mine asteroids?

January 9, 2015

It's been said that a single asteroid might be worth trillions of dollars in precious rare metals. Will we ever reach out and mine these space rocks? How hard could it be?

Space likely for rare earths search, scientists say

February 20, 2013

The quest for rare earths vital to some of modern life's most indispensable technologies may see mining robots jet to the stars within decades, a world-first conference in Australia was told Wednesday.

Space mining startup set for launch in US

April 21, 2012

A startup evidently devoted to mining asteroids for metals is to make its public debut on Tuesday in the US northwest city of Seattle, seeking to redefine the term "natural resources."

Recommended for you

Cassini sees dramatic seasonal changes on Titan

October 21, 2016

As southern winter solstice approaches in the Saturn system, NASA's Cassini spacecraft has been revealing dramatic seasonal changes in the atmospheric temperature and composition of Saturn's largest moon, Titan.

Citizen scientists seek south pole 'spiders' on Mars

October 20, 2016

(—Ten thousand volunteers viewing images of Martian south polar regions have helped identify targets for closer inspection, yielding new insights about seasonal slabs of frozen carbon dioxide and erosional features ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jan 18, 2016
Wasteful chemical rockets are not the future of space exploration -Other technologies are. Public science is not moving as fast as black ops technology, it never has.

The estimate was that, at the end of the second world war, that black technology and science was moving at a rate of 50 years of advancement for every year of public scientific/technology advancement.

That very real scenario, would not have had to be around for very long, in order to make chemical rockets --obsolete. Obsolete due to far more advanced technology which remains hidden --explosively potent hidden technology.

Look up the bevvy of comments from Ben Rich, the former head of Lockheed Martin's black ops Skunkworks, who said that, "We Now have the technology to take ET home, but it would take an act of god to ever get it released."

This is all very real. Note the high emphasis as of recent, in space exploration - and to a global police state. Easy access to advanced technology - would beget both.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.