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Is Asteroid Mining the Next Gold Rush?
published during a waxing gibbous moon.
06/13/2016

Hauling all of the fuel you need is one of the biggest limitations of space travel. But imagine being able to stop at gas stations along the way, like on a road trip. That’s right: space pit stops with all the rocket juice you need to continue on your cross-planetary journey.

In 2013, a company named Planetary Resources proposed just that, releasing the video below with an accompanying post touting asteroid mining as the “radical solution” needed to solve the payload problem.

Lest it sounds like a wistful fantasy from the mind of a sci-fi writer, it’s real: The company, Planetary Resources, is reportedly backed by Virgin’s commercial space travel devotee billionaire Richard Brandon, filmmaker James Cameron, and a sprinkling of Google executives, to name a few.

Asteroid mining is an ambitious and intriguing goal — one that would alleviate the heft of rockets and, subsequently, the fuel needed to push them out of gravity’s clingy grasp. According to a NASA estimate, it costs about $10,000 to send a pound of payload into Earth’s orbit. It’s why agencies like SpaceX and India’s government have invested in reusable technology: The more you can reuse the rocket technology, the more that colossal dollars-per-pound number drops.

Asteroids, which are often confused with comets and meteors, are the inactive rocks that tumble around the sun. As a friendly mortality reminder, one the size of a car can burn up in our atmosphere, but bigger ones can change life as we know it.

Near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) are so intriguing since they’ve remained unchanged since the solar system’s formation. Some of these rocks have an ample treasury of hydrogen, oxygen, metals and other useful components.

Asteroid Mining

Credit: Planetary Resources

As Planetary Resources puts it in a detailed post, that’s 42 trillion tons of low-hanging fruit just waiting to be plucked. Platinum, for instance, is used to make electronics, dental fillings, and catalytic converters for cars and other vehicles, according to the Royal Society of Chemistry. The company has already launched two of their test spacecraft and have more probes in the wings waiting to take off this summer.

Deep Space Industries has also thrown a helmet in the asteroid-mining ring. Founded in 2013, the company has already released concept art of their prospecting and harvesting spacecraft. It additionally notes that NEAs have little mass and therefore very little gravity, making it easy to juice them.

Asteroid Mining

Credit: Deep Space Industries

Both companies are honing their searches for targets, and in the meantime, developing high-tech crafts to land on them. Planetary Resources has secured contracts with NASADARPA, and private companies to develop new technologies, and it’s keen on pursuing Earthly endeavors, too. Just last month it announced that it secured over $21 million to deploy and operate Ceres, an Earth observation satellite that will peer more deeply at our natural resources.

Earlier this year, the Luxembourg government revealed it will be offering financial and regulatory incentives for space-mining companies who opt to settle down in the European country. A government official selected one America, one European, and one Chinese national to be on the advisory board, Space.com reports — and the European is Jean-Jacques Dordain, who served as the European Space Agency’s director general for over a decade till 2015.

Regarding the plausibility of mining, Dordain has pointed out that each element of such a mission has already been accomplished. “Going to an asteroid — done,” Dordain told Space.com. “Landing on an asteroid — done. Collecting samples — done. Returning samples to Earth — done.” Mining is legal, too, under the commercial space mining act signed into law last year that is in full compliance with the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. In short, the law states that U.S. companies or citizens have the right to own resources extracted from celestial bodies.

And that means the idea has been greenlit on enough fronts to graduate from pipe dream to a plan that has so many brains behind it–it just might work.