Mining asteroids could unlock untold wealth – here's how to get started

Mining asteroids could unlock untold wealth – here's how to get started
433 Eros - an asteroid in a near-Earth orbit. Credit: NASA/NEAR Project (JHU/APL).

Several privately funded space companies are locked in a race to claim the trillions of pounds worth of precious metals thought to exist in asteroids. The UK has now entered the race, with the Asteroid Mining Corporation becoming the first of these new firms in the country.

In theory, the business case speaks for itself – the incredible expense of space missions would be more than compensated for. But how do you actually go about an asteroid? How do you pick one to mine? These are some of the questions I've been pondering while carrying out a feasibility study for the corporation.

Asteroids can be categorised as being made of carbon, silicon or metal. Mining companies are particularly interested in metallic asteroids, but their compositions are still not well understood. Scientific investigations into asteroids – such as NASA's minor planet survey – have largely focused on discovering potential threats posed to our planet from collisions.

No asteroid has yet been directly sampled. Telescope observations have been carried out along with analyses of meteorites – fragments of asteroids that have fallen to Earth – and the data suggests that a small percentage of asteroids contain high concentrations of valuable metals such as platinum and gold. So before we get swept up in how to spend our trillions, we must first prospect for suitable targets.

More than 750,000 asteroids have been identified to date. The vast majority can be ruled out instantly, as they are found in the , orbiting between Mars and Jupiter – too far away to be considered as potential mining targets. Instead we should focus on the asteroids near Earth, which narrows the search to around 17,000 targets. To narrow it further requires satellite observations with a telescope and spectrographic instrumentation.

A spectrograph analyses the sunlight reflected from the surface of an asteroid by breaking it down according to wavelength. This enables us to determine the composition of the surface. For instance, if the light from an asteroid appears reddish in colour, this suggests the presence of clusters of iron and nickel on the surface. Platinum is normally found in such clusters on Earth, so we can infer that it might be present in these asteroids. However we are only able to observe how light interacts with the surface of the asteroid – not the layers beneath it. And the surface may have been altered by collisions with other solar system objects or by exposure to radiation.

Mining asteroids could unlock untold wealth – here's how to get started
Artist’s impression of a solar-powered satellite on a mining mission. Credit: NASA

The requirements

When choosing an asteroid we must figure out whether it is sufficiently large and whether it has a high enough concentration of valuable and widely used metal. Is it moving too fast? How far out is it orbiting and how long will it take to send a probe?

According to Professor Martin Elvis, an astrophysicist at Harvard University, an asteroid worth mining needs to have a market value of $1 billion. In order to satisfy this requirement, the asteroid must be more than 1km in diameter, contain more than 10 parts per million of platinum and have a velocity relative to the speed of the Earth of less than 4.5 metres per second. There are more than 17,000 near-Earth asteroids, but how many of them fit the bill?

Professor Elvis made a theoretical estimation based on probabilities and assumptions. For instance, of all the meteorites that have fallen to Earth, approximately 4% were metallic. So we can assume that 4% of near-Earth asteroids are also metallic. Taking into account this and other probabilities, we are left with only 10 asteroids that are – theoretically – economically worthwhile and practically feasible to mine.

As the targets have not yet been directly identified, the task now is to find these needles in the haystack. The initial design phase for a prospecting satellite is underway, and the Asteroid Mining Corporation is aiming to launch it by 2020. This would go into low-Earth orbit and would survey the skies for near-Earth asteroids, gathering spectral data and determining their composition in order to identify specific targets. As part of my report I will identify the range and resolution of the spectrograph needed to determine composition. I will also work out a preliminary telescope design.

The next objective would be to launch a probe, collect samples for detailed chemical analysis and photograph the surface of the target to identify a potential landing place. The eventual aim would be to land a mining craft on the surface of the target and extract in situ. Many different techniques have been proposed. However, this would be an incredibly ambitious feat of engineering that can not be underestimated, with many unanswered questions and unknown timescales at this early stage.

There are not just technical challenges to overcome. There is currently concern over the legal ramifications of this burgeoning industry, given the lack of laws and regulations to govern the international nature of space exploration. The United Nations oversees the Outer Space Treaty, signed by 106 countries. This provides a framework for the governance of space-based activities, but it does not provide the detailed legislation needed.

There are concerns that the situation could become the new Wild West, with a lack of laws leading to disputes over who has the rights to mine a particular asteroid. There is no mechanism currently in place to adjudicate such claims, and the legal landscape is complex.

The challenges are considerable – and while it may be some time before we see the first space mining trillionaires, it is undeniable that prospect of mining is helping to attract funding and accelerate scientific understanding. New instrumentation and engineering technologies will be developed in order to meet the practical challenges of mining asteroids and a detailed database on the composition of asteroids would aid in scientific understanding of the formation and evolution of our solar system. Watch this space.


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Asteroid mining could start 10-20 years from now, says industry expert

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May 02, 2018
I hope the USA takes the lead in this new 'gold rush' since we respect the rule-of-law. The General Mining Act of 1872 would provide a good template since it arose from the last gold-rush.
Given the recent behavior of China and Russia we should ensure they do not dominate this new frontier since they do not respect the rule of law.
Getting the minerals down to earth is also a challenge. Reentry heating would require a ceramic nose shield. The metal could be in the form of a very long iron rod backed by a steerable supersonic parachute / tail assembly so it can be delivered accurately. This technology obviously has military applications as well.
Large asteroids of all types could be used to build Momentum Exchange Tethers, simply by adding Kevlar cables. These tethers would be very useful for moving beyond low earth orbit, or for moving cargo to and from the surface of the moon.
If NASA had long range vision and steady funding of 1.5% of our budget we would be there by now.

May 02, 2018
Our environment on earth is degraded a great deal by mining and refining metal. If we were to do this in space it would greatly benefit our environment. Refining metal in orbit with large mirrors might also be very cost effective.
If we are to move into space it will require a huge up front investment, almost as much as a war. For this we need a vibrant economy. NASA gets less than 2% of our budget, and we seem to always be broke. Should something worse than 'The Great Recession' strike before we access the limitless resources of space we might end our days as a species fighting over an ever shrinking share of resources on earth.

May 02, 2018
Gold rush in space?
The most detailed study of an asteroid shows that it contains precious metals worth at least $20,000bn. (in 1999 dollars)
http://news.bbc.c...1227.stm

May 02, 2018
David comments.
Should something worse than 'The Great Recession' strike before we access the limitless resources of space we might end our days as a species fighting over an ever shrinking share of resources on earth.
Unfortunately we passed that a long time ago. And it is our countries doing most of the killing to get their mitts on said resources. Without any respect to any international laws. Or perhaps the ones we write ourselves. Yes, let's get there before those damn Rooskies.

May 02, 2018
Hmmmm, the last time the US potentially violated international law and supposedly did it for resources, it was supposedly in Iraq. That didn't work out so well on a cash flow basis given how much money we ended up giving Iraq and how little oil we got. Which we also paid for. Not all that sure the whole grabbing resources thing is working out particularly well. Just sayin'.

May 02, 2018
For the most part, we have become far too comfortable with inaction and the glacially slow pace of space exploration. A great many people argue against space exploration and the development of space-based resources as too costly, too wasteful, and too impractical. If all those millions of naysayers actually believe what they are saying, they should not mind at all if the world agrees the first to remove an economically substantial mass from an asteroid has the right to claim that asteroid. This should include all asteroids up to and including Vesta. Dwarf planets like Ceres, and planets like Mars, are large enough that claims to less than the entire body should be considered.

I have to wonder how those people who say it can't be done, or we should solve all our problems on Earth first, would react if the powers-that-be started carving the solar system up piece by piece.

May 02, 2018
As the article pointed out, locating the closest flying platinum/gold mine might be a good idea. However, for the long term, I suggest 16 Psyche is the place to be. If you are unfamiliar with 16 Psyche, consider it may contain more recoverable metals than the rest of the solar system combined, including Earth. It is a large, potato-shaped asteroid that may contain 2 million cubic kilometers of metals such as iron, nickel, gold, platinum, iridium, etc. NASA plans to launch a probe in 2022 to orbit 16 Psyche for some initial "prospecting."

https://en.wikipe...6_Psyche

May 02, 2018
we need the space elevator first before even thinking about mining out there.

May 02, 2018
we need the space elevator first before even thinking about mining out there.


I know with certainty it is possible to get intact metal from space down to the surface because I purchased a nice iron-nickel meteorite specimen on the web. Thinking off the top of my head, perhaps the metal itself could function as an ablative heat shield.

May 02, 2018
There won't be any trillions. As soon as a space craft heads for Earth, the price of whatever they have on board will drop to close to zero.

May 02, 2018
@CA everybody's got an excuse. The guys who get the money won't care about excuses. And maybe we need asteroids to make a space elevator. Just sayin'.

@James there's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip.

May 02, 2018
Anybody know how many gold miners got rich? Oil Field workers? Coal miners? Lumberjacks? Trawler fishermen?

Struck it rich, kept those riches, weren't robbed of their riches?

How many of the Cortez Gang and the Pizarro Brothers Gang got to die old in their beds with their riches piled around them?

It baffles me why any of the metals produced would be brought down to Earth? It doesn't matter where you hoard such wealth, cause EFT.

Using these materials in Space Industries would be the obvious low-cost, high-profit best practices.

And the guy holding the command key to the anti-missile weapon systems? Don't you want to make his job superfluous to needs?

Hilarious, the feverish rushers drooling over the riches of the Solar System. Then whining about anyone else accessing those resources. You greedy guts resent that anyone else work hard to also get rich. What makes you entitled to claim all of it? Or, any more than you are able to collect?

May 02, 2018
I hope the USA takes the lead in this new 'gold rush' since we respect the rule-of-law.

...well...if you include the rider "when it suits the US"...because stuff like the oil-grab in Iraq or similar aren't exactly "by the law".

Anybody know how many gold miners got rich? Oil Field workers? Coal miners? Lumberjacks? Trawler fishermen

People working on oil rigs make a fair buck...but in the end asteroid mining will be - moreso than any type of mining on Earth - something that a well funded company will take on and not some lone guy with a shovel. So the extraction of wealth will be very much "institutionalized".

The big issue I see is finding a way to get repeatedly imparting the necessary delta v of the ore to Earth. That requires some serious tech (railgun or similar, which in turn requires a serious power source). Seeing that currently we're shooting car sized stuff (max) into orbit that seems kinda ways off.

May 03, 2018
Here's a Sci-Fi movie script for ya.

A country gets out into space and finds an asteroid to mine. It starts churning out materials to build more space equipment. Meanwhile "country" decides the riches of the solar system are too valuable to share with the rest of the world and builds up space weapons to obliterate any other countries rockets from leaving Earth. "Country" achieves massive military supremacy in space, and uses this advantage to conquer the rest of the Earth. Throw in a few zero-gravity raunchy love scenes and you have another block buster.

May 03, 2018
The big issue I see is finding a way to get repeatedly imparting the necessary delta v of the ore to Earth. That requires some serious tech (railgun or similar, which in turn requires a serious power source).


Agreed. When you start to look at the big picture, it becomes clear that humanity's reach in the universe can be reduced to one thing, i.e., propulsion. Reaching Mars with enough equipment to set up a base, possibly redirecting comets, mining asteroids, etc. It all comes down to propulsion. Logically, our focus should be on developing the most effective propulsion we can. Reusable, refillable, high thrust, high specific impulse, good thrust to mass ratio. This is going to be very difficult to achieve with chemical propulsion, so I suggest nuclear propulsion of the same kind previously experimented with by the U.S. and the former Soviet Union.

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