Christina Ortiz-Dixon

Apr 10th 2018

Asteroid Mining and the Gold Rush of the 21st Century


Since the 19th century, the term “gold rush” has reminded us of that uniquely human drive to seek out riches in desolate areas no matter the risk. Whether it was the intrepid forty-niners traveling west to scavenge California’s Sacramento Valley or searching the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1874, people have ventured far and wide to find treasures that exceed our wildest dreams. Now, asteroid mining is on track to be a potential treasure trove of resources for our generation. While the quest for gold has diminished since the 18th and 19th centuries, our desire to search far and wide for riches hasn’t — we’re just looking in a different direction.

Riches and Resources Abound?

Asteroid mining has been on the minds of space exploration companies a lot lately, and for good reason. On top of boosting the economy of private space exploration and getting humans more engaged with their galactic surroundings, there may be actual treasures waiting to be found on asteroids: palladium and platinum. Some classes of asteroids are estimated to carry almost one ton of extractable platinum group metals, a quantity that alone could be worth upwards of $50 million. Finding these metals on Earth would require a dig of about 4,000 miles, so the benefits they could provide to our current and future status might be worth the trouble of mining in space.

Palladium is a key component of many pieces of machinery, used to make them run cleanly and more efficiently. The metal is used in catalytic converters, which convert about 90 percent of harmful automobile exhaust fumes into less noxious ones, as well as groundwater treatment and hydrogen purification. Palladium also works as a key part of fuel cells that react to hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity. Aside from metal, there’s also the potential to find carbonaceous chondrite asteroids. These C-type asteroids have been cited as the original source of water found on Earth. Water collected from asteroids can provide hydration to astronauts, oxygen for life support and hydrogen and oxygen-based fuel for rockets.

Eyes on the Prize and in the Sky

Despite the potential reward, mining asteroids does pose some situational challenges, especially when it comes to deciding which ones are worth pursuing and which will be the space version of fool’s gold. Gold rush miners didn’t have experts to tell them when a potential dig would lead to a dud, but their asteroid-mining descendants do: astronomers. Martin Elvis, an astrophysicist at the Smithsonian, says that tools like the Magellan 6.5-meter telescopes in Chile could be used to characterize which asteroids might be valuable in about one to two minutes. According to Elvis, 85 percent of the asteroids could be ruled out based on color, leaving only 15 percent as prospective mining areas for exploratory missions.

Planetary Resources, the private company backed by investors like Google’s Larry Page and filmmaker James Cameron, plans to build a fleet of small, simple telescopes with the sole focus of hunting for asteroids. Lightweight, cost-effective telescopes and space crafts, similar to Northrop Grumman’s line of Eagle Spacecraft products, are cheaper to make than larger government-funded ones, and can be launched in numbers, making it easier to replace a broken unit.

Once a prospective asteroid has been spotted, the plan is to launch tiny probe bots that can latch on to the asteroids using an anchor. Because smaller asteroids don’t carry their own field of gravity, the best way to do this is through the deployment tiny drills that can secure themselves into the surface to dock the bot. When docked, the bot would analyze the rock for valuable metals and could potentially attach a tracker to the asteroid to find it again later if further testing is needed. At this point, harvesting becomes the most significant challenge to overcome.

Where collecting water vapors from a C-type asteroid is relatively simple, retrieving metals will prove to be more complicated. Harry McSween, geoscientist at the University of Tennessee and chair of the surface composition group for NASA’s Dawn asteroid probe, worries that anchoring to these bodies would be difficult, as would trying to cut a piece off for processing. But John Lewis, professor emeritus at the University of Arizona, thinks that if the asteroids are composed of enough metal, samples could be collected using a magnet.

While still riddled with uncertainty and roadblocks, the path to mining asteroids for riches and resources we need (or just want) is getting clearer. With the evolution of private space exploration, the partnerships between intrepid university researchers and unwavering human determination, the next discovery phase of unknown treasure is closer and more feasible than ever before.