Iron, Gold, Copper. Minerals are the lifeblood of the world’s economy. From the Arctic circle to the Sahara desert. The $1.7 trillion mining industry supplies raw materials needed for everything from sky scrapers to smart phones. But mining also comes with an increasingly critical environmental cost. One that may require us to think about off planet solutions before it’s too late.
Asteroids, moons and planets in our own solar system hold an essentially unlimited supply of untapped resources. The first trillionaires, will be those who mine asteroids. Resources like gold, platinum and rare Earth metals make some of those asteroids incredibly high priced but the most valuable element may be our most basic one.
What you want to mine in space is what you need a lot of. And while humans have been mining for thousands of years. Mining in space requires new, innovative technologies to realize any potential business and economic opportunities. Such technologies might just allow humanity to expand operations off Earth. And take that next giant leap.
These tiny dots represent the millions of asteroids in our solar system. Over the past two decades government and private aerospace companies have been investigating their composition, location and even possible pay offs to mine them. This one, known as Bennu has an estimated value of $669 million. Ryugu, $82 billion. Better yet, an asteroid called Davida which is valued at more than $100 trillion.
And the reason for these high price tags, they’re made up of valuable metals like platinum, gold and iron. We believe that asteroids have platinum group metals, rare Earth metals in higher percentages than you might find on the Moon, for instance.
Only once in human history has an astroid sample been brought back to Earth. On the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Hayabusa mission in 2010. And even then, the return sample was merely dust particles. And the total cost of that mission, approximately $250 million. One problem is that compared to the Moon, there’s very little gravity. So somehow you have to attach yourself to the asteroid whereas on the Moon, the gravity will hold your processing equipment in place. So, the general answer to the question, can we bring mining materials from space back to Earth? The general answer is no.
Bringing things from space to Earth, only makes sense if what is retrieved is so extraordinarily valuable and just not available on Earth. And even returning the most valuable asteroids could drastically devalue those materials. Take asteroid 16 Psyche, for instance. NASA is constructing a probe to launch in 2022 To study the potato shaped object which is roughly 95% metals. Nickel iron, platinum and even gold. Some estimates value the asteroid at $700 quintillion. NASA says it may be the inner core of a developing planet that somehow lost its outer layers. Offering incredible insight into how planets are formed.
If someone did manage to bring large amounts of this asteroid back to Earth, supply of the resources would sky rocket. Meaning we’d have more of the material than we would have use for. Causing the price to crash to almost zero.
Once we erode the rarity of a high value metal or mineral. The value of that terrestrially could drop significantly. Experts agree that a more likely scenario is materials mined in space will stay in space. Jump starting a whole new money making industry. Any space nation will have looked at what’s called in-situ resource utilization. Which is a very common space term meaning you use the resources where you are. So taking that model of if you need it in space, mine it in space. What would you be mining? Mostly you need fuel.
There’s something else much more valuable for use in space that’s abundant on Earth. Water. Not only can water sustain human and plant life for future manned space missions. The components of water, hydrogen and oxygen can also be separated and reassembled to make fuel. The zero emission fuel called hydrogen fuel is the same used in spacecraft propulsion and fuel cell vehicles.
Hydrogen fuel research in this new space race could also spur new technologies that can help fight climate change by speeding the elimination of fossil fuel use on Earth. And there’s already a high demand for it and an immediate business opportunity for risk tolerant companies wishing to make a fortune.
In a 2018 paper by industry, government and academic experts, they estimated that for an initial $4 billion investment in the Moon water mining operation. Which is about the cost of a luxury hotel in Las Vegas. About $2.4 billion in revenue could be generated annually. The sort of business case 101 for mining in space is if you’re gonna launch something from Earth, it’s gonna cost you about $10000, $20000 per kilo to get it into space. So if you need water for something in space. And you can produce it for less than $10000 a kilo then do it in space. Do you know Launch Alliance, ULA? They have put a price on the water in space. They have said “We’ll give you this amount of money for the water.” Which means people who’re going out and trying to produce that water now have a customer.