Mining in outer space: A reality or a far-fetched dream?

What is inside asteroids? Rumors have been spreading for many years now. Many tales spoke of gold, platinum and other precious ores just waiting for specialized equipment to come and mine them.

Some argue that there is about $700 billion billion worth of precious materials in space, more than enough for everybody on Earth.

The catch

All these precious materials are, unfortunately, buried inside asteroids, chunks of space debris, millions of miles away, orbiting between Mars and Jupiter.

However, this hasn’t discouraged the growing community of “space miners”, who are the modern-day equivalent of the Forty-Niners, the people who raced to California in the 19th century, after gold was discovered in the area.

The “space miners” insist that the required technology is already available or is well into production or research, and the only thing that’s keeping the idea from materialising is the vision (or lack of) and insufficient funds.

Serious matter

Fortunately, governments have started to consider space mining. The National reports that the United Arab Emirates will soon introduce legislation that allows would-be prospectors to keep whatever they extract, just like the United States and Luxembourg did.

There are plenty of reasons to believe that precious metals and other goodies are out there. There was a time when asteroids, remnants from the birth of the solar system, were referred to as “vermin of the skies”, but that is going to change in the near future.

It is believed that some asteroids are abundant in metals like iron and nickel, and might also contain precious metals in concentrations a lot greater than the one present in terrestrial mines. Additionally, the fact that asteroids have very weak gravity (compared to the one of a full-sized planet), which means that the precious heavy metals haven’t sunk too much below their surface.

A pioneer in the industry

US-based company Planetary Resources, a pioneer in the space mining business, estimated that a single half-kilometre wide platinum-rich asteroid could potentially contain more of this class of precious metals than it was ever extracted from our planet.

Planetary Resources was formed in 2012 and by 2016 they raised about $50 million from investors. Some of the investors have little to nothing to do with the mining industry, James Cameron being a very good example.       

Engineers from Planetary Resources began developing the required technology, and governments are now taking part in raising confidence in space mining.

Legislation

Back in the 60’s, the International Outer Space Treaty prevented nations from claiming sovereignty of bodies from outer space, like the Moon. The United States Congress has since introduced laws that allow American companies to exploit asteroids, therefore getting rid of a concern that could potentially scare away investors. The UAE followed with a similar decision.

Mohammed Al Ahbabi, general director of the Emirates Space Agency said that he sees the new legislation as a “law for tomorrow”, anticipating the future of space mining.

However, it is believed that no such legislation will be needed soon, because both Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries have abandoned the field because they failed to gain enough capital.

The main problem is the fact that decades-long investment timescales don’t really mix too well with the technical demands of space mining.

Perhaps the first successful space mining mission will be realized by NASA with their Psyche, who will be the first spaceship to provide glimpses of the metallic content of asteroids.

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