Asteroid Mining — Yay or Nay?

Humans consume resources at an alarming rate every day. As we inch closer to depletion of fossil fuel and natural minerals to mine, there is a very real chance that we will need to turn to extra-terrestrial sources of precious metals.

A popular idea that is gaining traction these days is to mine asteroids for metals. Asteroids are rich with a variety of metals like gold, silver, iridium, iron, nickel, palladium, platinum, titanium, etc. These can be mined and brought back to earth, or samples collected and brought back to a lunar base. They can even be mined and used at the origin itself for construction of equipment. The low gravity, low atmospheric, high vacuum environment on an asteroid could potentially enable easy construction of metal extraction complexes, especially due to lack of hazards like fire, which can’t burn without oxygen in the atmosphere or enclosure. Besides, there is some evidence of water on asteroids. Breaking up water into oxygen and hydrogen that can be stored could theoretically provide fuel to craft and humans.

Artist’s conception of mining an asteroid

So far, only five countries have seeen an asteroid up close — China, Soviet Union, USA, EU, and Japan. But plans to mine asteroids aren’t limited to space agencies. Asteroids are comparitively small bodies that can successfully be persuaded to change their paths and get captured by other large bodies. There is one school of thought that is exploring at this option. But such ideas naturally draw flak as they are inherently risky. Carl Sagan was of the opinion that altering the natural paths of asteroids puts humans at the risk of collision.

However, there is a proposed an Asteroid Redirect Mission, where scientists plan to target a small asteroid the size of the International Space Station to be captured and pulled into orbit around the moon to mine for resources. The technology to achieve this isn’t fully realized yet. It could be If NASA could cobble up the funds for this mission, it could be launched as early as 2020.

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Besides space agencies, Planetary Resources is currently the only company that has serious plans of mining asteroids. Founded by tech billionaires like Peter Diamandis (of X-Prize), Eric Schmidt, Larry Page, Sergey Brin (Google), filmmaker James Cameron, and many more. The objective of the company is to mine asteroids effectively enough to bring down the cost of mining, especially for metals like Platinum. Aluminium was extremely expensive two centuries ago before people figured out how to mine effectively for it. The founders are gambling on this happening for other precious metals, in the process making themselves a tidy sum.

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