Feb 28th 2018

Minerals From Space Mining Could Power Exploration and Industry

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Imagine setting up a mining operation in outer space and drilling into an asteroid for precious metals. It may sound like something straight out of a science fiction movie like “Armageddon,” but space mining is becoming a real industry that’ll power both exploration of the solar system and industries here on Earth.

Part of the lure is a potential mineral bonanza: UK-based startup Asteroid Mining Corporation estimated that some metallic asteroids could contain 10,000 tons of gold and 100,000 tons of platinum. Such mother lodes could address shortages of precious metals for IT and other industries on Earth, but they could also be used for space-based manufacturing, drastically reducing the construction cost of space stations.

Deep Space Gold Rush

In the U.S., larger companies are already competing to stake their claims amid the hundreds of thousands of asteroids in the solar system. Deep Space Industries, based in Silicon Valley, broke down the job of asteroid mining into four phases: prospecting, harvesting, processing and manufacturing.

Proven know-how already exists to send spacecraft to acquire samples from asteroids — Japan’s Hayabusa probe landed on asteroid 25143 Itokawa in 2005, retrieved granular samples and returned them to Earth five years later after a journey of some 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) noted.

However, the cost remains astronomical. NASA explained that its OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, launched in 2016, is to rendezvous with asteroid Bennu in 2018 in a sample-retrieval mission with a price tag of about $800 million, excluding the launch vehicle cost.

Redmond, Washington-based Planetary Resources will send multiple spacecraft to asteroids to test samples for water, according to Wired, which it sees as both useful for human space colonies and as a material for rocket propellant.

When the company began in 2009, people chuckled at the concept of space mining, but the startup has attracted funding from the likes of Google founder Larry Page and the government of Luxembourg. That funding was part of an investment aimed to launch the company’s first commercial prospecting mission by 2020.

“We’re hardwired to think in terms of scarcity and competition,” Planetary Resources CEO Chris Lewicki told Wired. “But in space, these limits don’t apply. Exploiting them gives us the opportunity to think about how much more there is to develop and share. There are resources there beyond our comprehension.”

Space Mining 101

If you’re contemplating a new degree, the academic sector is beginning to cultivate the human resources needed for deep space mining. In 2018, the renowned Colorado School of Mines will launch a graduate program in space resources, focusing on the feasibility of extracting minerals, metals, gases and water from heavenly bodies to power space exploration. The program is the first of its kind in the world.

The idea is that space mining could make missions more independent and efficient while saving resources at home. The initial focus will be designing robots and automated processing facilities that can extract raw materials and prepare them to be used as engine fuel.

“At some point, we will be able to refuel in space, so we can keep that spacecraft flying,” Angel Abbud-Madrid, director of the Mines Center for Space Resources, told The Denver Post. “We can cut our dependency on Earth.”

There are numerous efforts underway to dramatically expand exploration and colonization of space in the 21st century, and celestial mining, in one form or another, will be a necessary step to reduce costs. Space mining should be a promising industry in the coming decades.

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