Will we mine asteroids?

Will We Mine Asteroids?
Platinum crystals. Credit: Periodictableru

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?

Here on Earth, precious metals like gold and silver are getting harder to find. Geologists are developing more elaborate ways to get at the veins of beneath the surface of the Earth. And for the truly rare metals, like platinum and iridium, forget about it. All the platinum ever mined in the history of the world would fit inside my basement, and it's not that big of a basement.

There are asteroids out there, just floating past us, taunting us, containing mountains of precious minerals. There are iron-nickel asteroids made entirely of metal. Comets of water, dirt and organic materials, everything you'd need to make an orbital farm. Just a single 30-meter , like the recently discovered 2012 DA14, is worth $20 trillion dollars. Now, if you could just somehow get to it.

Mining here on Earth is hard enough, but actually harvesting material from asteroids in the Solar System sounds almost impossible. But almost impossible, is still possible. With enough ingenuity and a few breakthroughs in spaceflight and robotics, plus some convenient hand waving for the sake of storytelling and there could be a future of ahead of us.

If there are mineral rich asteroids that contain a large amount of precious elements, it just might be cost effective to deliver those elements back to Earth. $20 trillion dollars sure would help buy that you wanted for sci-fi Christmas. If we had Robotic harvesters extract the gold, platinum and iridium off the surface of the rock and they could send return capsules to Earth.

It would make even more sense to keep this stuff in space. Future spacecraft will need rocket fuel, hydrogen and oxygen, conveniently contained in water. If you could mine water ice off a comet or asteroid, you could create fuel depots across the Solar System.

Miners could extract and concentrate other materials needed for spaceflight and return them to Earth orbit. There could eventually be an orbiting collection of everything you need to survive in space, all gathered together and conveniently located … in space.

You might be surprised to know that getting to a nearby asteroid would require less energy than traveling to the Moon. Asteroids actually make better refueling stations than the Moon, and could serve as a waypoint to the other planets.

Will We Mine Asteroids?
Artists’s conception of a Robot space miner. Credit: NASA

There are a few companies working to mine asteroids right now. Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries have both developed plans for robotic missions to find asteroid targets, analyze them up close, and even return samples to Earth for study.

Within a few decades, they should have identified some ideal candidate asteroids for mining, and we get on with the work of mining with Solar System to support our further exploration. Perhaps then we'll become a true spacefaring civilization, or just get conquered by an uprising of our sentient robotic miner drones.

So, will this ever happen? Will we eventually mine asteroids to send material back to Earth and support the exploration of space? Who knows. Business and industry are drivers of innovation. If there's profit to be made, somebody will figure out how to do it.

Will We Mine Asteroids?
Artist’s illustration of a robotic miner. Credit: NASA

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US company aims to 'harvest' asteroids

Source: Universe Today
Citation: Will we mine asteroids? (2015, January 9) retrieved 24 August 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2015-01-asteroids.html
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Jan 09, 2015
The point of this article is? The only reason humanity won't harvest all forms of matter is if it dead ends in the relatively soon future. Even in the most pessimistic of scenarios human's will have achieved pure magic in the next 500 years. I would ask the question of what technology will not have been achieved in the next millennium. For all intents and purposes dyson spheres and black hole harvesting are likely to be subjects of interest in that time frame.

Think about it, in 20 years we should be comfortably harvesting picotechnology, in 40 years femtotechnology. The increasing strength to mass ratios and superior modulus's should fit to an exponential curve at some point in the very near future...

Jan 09, 2015
One of the big benefits to profitable mining of asteroids would be less mining on Earth. Don't get me wrong I like mining, but maybe we could do without some of the huge open pits mines that are often required for rare Earth metals.

@travisr The point of this article is presenting a case for a whole new industry that could have major impact to the World's economy.

Jan 09, 2015
"Just a single 30-meter asteroid, like the recently discovered 2012 DA14, is worth $20 trillion dollars."

That sounds like the launch-to-orbit cost for the mass of the asteroid. By no means will that rock be worth that much if it's simply brought back to the Earth's surface.

And there's a lesson there. The mass of asteroids is valuable *primarily* because we can access and use it without launching it.

Rare metals are rare - in space as well as on Earth. There are some out there, assuredly, but mainly we're looking at common minerals which make no sense to bring to Earth's surface. We can get more done with those minerals by leaving them in space and using them as raw materials.

The way forward is through robotics. It's just plain too expensive to send men to work as laborers; the logistics costs will eat us alive if we take that road.

Jan 09, 2015
It depends - some materials like He3 could be well worth the expense of bringing them down here. And perhaps certain materials could be processed in microgravity in such a manner that would vastly increase their value here on earth.

Jan 10, 2015
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Jan 10, 2015
Why the mining of asteroids should be more effective, than the drilling of average rock at the Earth?

You speak of Earth's crust, the less dense flotsam and jetsam of the age when the Earth was molten.
That is to say, I'm smelling the lobyyism of cosmic flights here, nothing else.

I see someone writing about a subject in which they are keenly interested. Nothing more.

Jan 11, 2015
It is one thing to go to an asteroid. It will be quite another to mine one. Stirring up that fine material in such a low g environment won't be pleasant. Caustic, abrasive dust and static electricity will be huge hurdles. Without major tech breakthrough, humans are out of the question. And machines really hate abrasive dust combined with the relentless stickiness of static charges. If we're serious about mining up there, we have a lot of work to do. I suggest working out the bugs on the Moon.

Jan 11, 2015
Some enterprising individuals may eventually mine asteroids, but not 'we'.

Jan 12, 2015
Yay...we'll make it with "just a few breakthroughs". Wow. What a novel insight. Guess what: we'll traverse the galaxy with 'just a few breakthroughs'.

Rugged robotic space miners are still not exactly out game. Currently flimsy washing machine sized rovers held together with spit and wishful thinking and carrying a few duracell batteries is what we're up to. Even if we land one and could somehow extract the ore (how exactly?) - the major problem is accelerating all that mass (as one or in pieces) to where you want to collect it. That requires - apart from some launch mechanism - energy. LOTS of energy. Not the type of energy you get with a few square meters of solar panels.

Asteroid mining will come. But just not yet.

Jan 15, 2015
So, mountaintop removal in space? The robber barons have utterly trashed Appalachia and sickened us inhabitants, so I guess it is time to move along. Snark.

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