What Resources Will We Mine in Space One Day?
published during a new moon.
12/29/2016

Mines dug deep into the Earth’s surface provide us with the resources of everyday life, from the building materials that make up our homes to the computers and phones that connect us to the rest of the world. But what happens when we go off-world? Companies and countries are already eyeing the many resources available in space. Here are a few resources that are the most appealing, and where they might be located.

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Craters on the recently examined dwarf planet Ceres might be good places to mine water. Credit: NASA

Water

Water is necessary for human life, and it also contains fundamental components—hydrogen and oxygen—that could be useful fuel components for future spaceships. There are several excellent targets for extracting water in the solar system, including ice deposits on asteroids and planets, and even frozen dust on the surface of these solar system bodies. But one of the most likely water mining targets might be the persistent darkness at the bottom of some craters peppered throughout the solar system. Permanently shadowed and isolated from sunlight, these craters are refuges for large deposits of ice in locations on Mercury, the Moon, Mars, and the dwarf planet, Ceres. Mining ice in these locations could lay the groundwork for a network of pit stops that might allow humanity to expand their range of interplanetary travel.

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Apollo 12 astronaut Charles Conrad on the lunar surface. The lunar regolith might be a valuable source of Helium-3 Credit: NASA

Helium-3

Here on Earth, Helium is a finite resource. And the isotope Helium-3 is even rarer. While Helium-3 is naturally blown off from the sun, the Earth’s magnetic field deflects helium-3 away from our surface. But on the moon, which doesn’t have a strong magnetic field, researchers believe the lunar surface is inundated with the substance. That’s especially interesting to scientists studying the possibility of nuclear fusion. Theoretically, helium-3 is an almost ideal source of energy, because it isn’t radioactive and wouldn’t produce radioactive waste. It would also be very expensive to mine, but the price might be worth it for some companies or nations willing to experiment in the pursuit of clean and bountiful energy resources.

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An artist’s impression of the asteroid sampling spacecraft OSIRIS-REx at Bennu. Credit: NASA

Metals

Nascent space mining companies Planetary Resources and others have their eyes set on asteroids. One of the resources they’re looking for is water, but the other resource is far flashier: metals. In particular, heavy metals and platinum group metals which are highly prized on Earth for their usefulness in constructing electronics. The companies hope to not only figure out how to extract the resources but expand their business off-world. Missions like NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft which launched in September to sample the asteroid Bennu could pave the way to resource extraction on asteroids.

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A hydrocarbon sea on Titan. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/Cornell

Hydrocarbons

Some of the main fuel sources on Earth today are hydrocarbons; methane, oil, natural gas. But while on Earth they are a finite resource, Saturn’s moon Titan has so many hydrocarbons that they rain from the sky and pool into lakes. It’s an attractive resource-rich world, but–at present–the cost of mining hydrocarbons on Titan (not to mention Titan’s immense distance from Earth) means that looking for black gold in space is not likely to happen anytime soon.

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An artist’s concept of an early lunar base made partially with products brought from Earth but covered with a protective shield of lunar regolith 3D printed into place. Credit: ESA/Foster + Partners

Regolith

Humans need water, food, and shelter to survive. The dusty, rocky covering of many worlds including Mars or the Moon is called regolith, and it could prove to be a valuable resource for future space colony efforts. Researchers are already experimenting with ways to turn moon dust into a building material to create buildings that could shield future colonists or explorers from solar radiation.

Some methods involve turning the regolith into a concrete-like substance dubbed ‘lunarcrete.’ Others involve using the material in special 3D printers to create quick and easily assembled bases of operations, with inflatable habitats providing a frame that the regolith shield will eventually cover.