Chances are that you have heard about asteroid mining. But what exactly is asteroid mining? Is it something that we should pursue? And is it even possible?
Let’s start by trying to define what an asteroid is. In basic terms, an asteroid is a small rock orbiting the sun. Beyond that and things begin to get confusing. Comets, asteroids, meteoroids, planetoids, and satellites are only a fraction of the names for small rock like bodies orbiting the sun. They earn their different classifications by their location, what they are primarily made of, if they are spinning or not, how fast they are moving, who discovered them, and on and on and on.
So, maybe I can’t really define what an asteroid is to an exact degree without getting really scientific and specific. That doesn’t really matter though. For this article, when I say asteroid I generally mean any celestial body that is not a star, planet or moon.
Asteroid mining would be collecting recourses from these asteroids. There are several theoretical methods we could use to mine these recourses, and that might be the subject for another article at a later date.
So, why would we want to mine an asteroid? Is there any value in it?
Before I get to the speculated value of an asteroid, let’s talk about the Late Heavy Bombardment.
Approximately 4.1 to 3.8 billion years ago, after the Earth and other rocky planets already had the majority of their mass there was a disproportionately large number of asteroids that are theorized to have collided with the Earth and other planets.
It is also theorized that most of the Earth’s gold and platinum came from the Late Heavy Bombardment. The rest of the gold and platinum landed on Earth before or after that bombardment.
That’s right if the theory is true, then no gold or platinum was on the Earth when it first gained mass. That would explain why they are found in some parts of the Earth and in small clusters.
Until recently Gold was the most valuable mineral on Earth, but now primarily because of its use in electronics, Platinum is the most sought after mineral on Earth.
On October 25th, 2011 an asteroid was discovered as it passed by Earth. This asteroid became known as 2011 UW158. It passed by the Earth again on July 19th, 2015. As it passed by the second time, scientists used inferred, spectral telescopes, radar and several other interments to try and figure out what it was made of.
UW 158 is roughly four hundred fifty meters wide and 1011 meters long. It was determined that the majority of mass in this asteroid was platinum, ninety million tons of it!
To help put that in perspective, only 192 tons of platinum has been found on Earth! The value of 90 million tons of platinum is roughly a fourth of the 2016 US gross domestic product.
If we could somehow harvest all of that platinum, it would alter the economy of the entire world. The price of platinum would drop well below the price of tin. This would have devastating results in some of the poorer countries that rely heavily on the export of the rare material.
But at the same time, it would advance electronics. Scientifically, we would take leaps and jumps forward if we could make components out of pure platinum rather than just plating with it.
More precious than platinum is the potential to mine water from asteroids.
Now, you are probably thinking, did he just say that water was more precious than platinum?
I sure did. Let me explain.
First of all, water is the first necessity for life. We can’t live without it. Earth has a limited supply of it.
It currently costs around ten million dollars per ton to launch something into space, and that includes the rocket and fuel. I don’t think I need to go into more detail about how much it would cost to send water into space. The quantity of water needed for astronauts is minimalized if we can collect it at asteroids.
Another reason why water is so precious is that it can be refined and turned into fuel. Once again, fuel weighs a lot. If we know that an asteroid has water, we can equip the ship with enough fuel to make it to the asteroid. Once at the asteroid we use the water like a gas station to refuel the ship.
Once refueled, we can load up the ship with metals to bring back to Earth. Or, we could simply use the asteroid as a fueling station to get us to the next asteroid. We could potentially travel long ways without needing to come back to the Earth.
Now, if we hopped from asteroid to asteroid moving away from Earth, where would we get our food?
Something else we could mine from asteroids is ammonia, methane, nitrogen, and carbon; all needed for fertilizer. With this fertilizer, we could grow food in our ship.
So, if asteroids are so valuable, why aren’t we mining them right now?
Well… There are a few reasons why we aren’t actively working on mining asteroids right now.
It wasn’t until recently that we had any evidence that asteroids weren’t made up of just common rock. With the passing and studying of UW158, we now have scientific data that backs the idea that some asteroids are financially worth mining. Did I mention that over eighty percent of all asteroids in our known system is made up of carbon? Carbon doesn’t have a very high street value.
The idea of asteroid mining isn’t new, but there aren’t any governments that are willing to invest billions of dollars into something as crazy as asteroid mining without some type of payout.
But now that we have scientific data, there are several countries and private cooperation’s working on getting ships back into space.
This knowledge of what was in UW158 isn’t what started the new space race, but it definitely helped fuel the fire.
Then there is money. When we talk about building rockets, testing prototypes, training an astronaut crew, we are talking billions of dollars. This isn’t something that comes easily or overnight. SpaceX is currently testing a reusable rocket, the Falcon 9. Being reusable reduces the cost per launch, which is (at the time of writing this) around sixty-three million dollars per launch.
SpaceX has not to my knowledge backed down from their claim that they plan on sending tourists around the moon in 2018. However, they still haven’t had a manned launch of the rocket.
The cost for this venture is staggering.
Surprisingly, China and India are among the countries that are running in the lead with the private corporations in this new space race.
Not too long ago, China sent a rover to the moon. Their long-term plans include sending a crew to the moon for the purpose of mining Helium 3. This also happens to be why Sam Rockwell is on the moon in the movie Moon. If you haven’t watched Moon, I highly recommend you check it out, great movie.
Helium 3 is very rare on Earth and can be used for emission free fusion.
With China wanting to mine the moon, and everyone else wanting to mine asteroids, a debate has risen in the United Nations.
If you read my article about the space race then you will probably remember the outer space treaty called the “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.”
The outer space treaty has been ratified by 102 countries including the US and China. The treaty states, “the exploration and uses of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind.”
The current debate is whether this means that no one owns the moon or if everyone owns the moon. Depending on how the United Nations comes down on this, it might mean that no one can mine the moon and or asteroids.
If the United Nations decides that mining of celestial bodies can be done, then how is this going to be regulated?
Is it going to be first come first serve? Probably not, because whatever group, country, or corporation is able to start mining first will have an enormous advantage over everyone else. Also, there are the hundreds of countries that simply can’t afford to have a space program. Do they lose out on the benefits of space mining? The way that the treaty is worded, I believe that they will have to benefit from space mining as well.
Do we limit the quantity that any group can mine? Do we appoint a policing force to make sure everyone is following the rules? Do we require that a percentage of everything mined be given to the United Nations to separate out to other countries? These are all things being addressed by space lawyers at the United Nations.
Yes, space lawyer is an actual profession.
Lastly, I wanted to quickly go over the environmental impact of asteroid mining. On Earth, mining has had a devastating effect on the environment. The benefits versus the risks are constantly being reviewed for any mine. The effects on living organisms around the mined area are generally how we measure these environmental risks.
Because of the lack of life in space, this will be very minimal.
Of course, there will have to be a test done on each asteroid for the presence of any living organisms. But the chances of finding anything alive on any asteroids in our solar system are extremely small. This is another thing that the United Nations has to discuss. The presence of a single bacteria cell would mean proof of extra terrestrial life, and that would be a major discovery for us.
Not to mention, because of the cost of a mining mission, finding proof of life could quite possibly bankrupt the company or government planning on mining that asteroid.
We then run into another possibility. A small company or government has a lot to lose if they spend all that money and don’t get anything by mining the asteroid. It is possible that they could cover up the discovery of bacteria or other life forms.
All of these concerns need to be addressed quickly because it’s only a matter of time before we are ready to begin collecting these valuable resources.
Let me know what I missed, I always want to learn about new things!