Asteroid Mines – Universal Resources?


Mining resources from Space

Can Asteroids be the new frontier?

Credit: © ESA 2010 MPS/OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Credit: © ESA 2010 MPS/OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Did you know that if you could land on an asteroid that you would see so called “rare” minerals, such as gold, and platinum, and everywhere! Crazy right?! Every time you watch a meteor shower or see a shooting star pass by earth, you are watching chunks of platinum and gold pass you by.

Asteroids – Diamond Making Machines

In September of 2012, Russian scientists revealed that an asteroid crater created 35 million years ago is thought to hold trillions of karats of diamonds.  The crater has a diameter of 62 miles and is the fourth largest verified impact crater in the world.  The crater is located in the upper reaches of Siberia approximately 550 miles northeast of the city of Norilsk.  The diamonds were formed instantaneously when an asteroid impacted with graphite in the earth.  The diamonds formed hold the shape and striations of the graphite on impact.

Ok, so a diamond mine holding trillions of karats would mean that the coveted gem for engagement rings and sparkling jewelry would almost devalue right?  Wrong.  These diamonds are of the type that could never be used as gems.  Instead these are industrial diamonds used in high tech precision tools. The impactite diamonds are twice as hard as normal diamonds, and are valued for their grain size and abrasive qualities.  According to Russia, the mine holds enough of these diamonds to serve the market for the next 3,000 years.

Prospecting in space

So what about those asteroids? I mentioned that they hold valuable rare materials right?  Asteroids are classified into three different types.  C-type asteroids exist farthest from the sun, and are made of clay and other silicate based rocks.  They could even potentially hold water.  S-type asteroids are silaceous and are made up of stoney substances and some including nickel-iron. These asteroids can be found in the inner asteroid belt. The final type of asteroid is the m-type, for metallic, and are mostly nickel-iron.   This type of asteroid is typically found in the middle layers of the asteroid belt.

What makes these materials valuable, and why might you want to mine them from an Asteroid?

These materials are plentiful on earth, but earth is a vast amount of space and the materials are spread throughout the planet.  This makes them harder to find – especially if you don’t know where to look. If you look to mine the material from the asteroid itself then you have a very targeted view of where to find the materials you are looking for.

Another reason is that platinum is not a material that is native to earth.  All of the platinum that has been mined on earth are as a result of meteors falling to earth.  The rare metal is only found on asteroids, and so is particularly rare since not all meteors make it through our atmosphere and you are basically waiting for a precious metal to fall out of the sky.

So how is mining asteroids even possible?

It’s not – yet. The proposition of asteroid mining has the potential for great payoff since the material contained within them could be worth millions or even billions of dollars.  However, launching a space mission to mine the material would cost millions to billions of dollars.  Considering that it hasn’t ever been done, and its not yet determined how to identify the most valuable of asteroids, the cost/benefit ration is currently insurmountable.

That’s not to say people are not trying.  NASA will launch the asteroid sampler return mission in 2016.  The launch named OSIRIS-REx aims to gain the experience necessary to identify asteroids that house the valuable rare materials.  The exploration will gather a small amount of material from an orbiting asteroid and return to Earth.  The knowledge that can be obtained from this mission is not only the experience to mine materials, but other insights into how the planets were formed and life originated.

The infographic provided by Space.com gives some insight into the intricacies and complications of Asteroid Mining.
Planetary Resources' announcement of their intention to mine the asteroids rekindles dreams of the early Space Age.Source: SPACE.com: All about our solar system, outer space and exploration

With this valuable information, start up companies like Planetary Resources Inc, are raising funds to be the first to mine materials from asteroids.  They have funding and advisory capabilities from some of the most renowned technological minds in the United States, but for now, the endeavor is financially impractical.  Even more, Planetary Resources Inc raises the conversation to identify not only financial issues, but the perception of how hard space travel is.  According to the up and coming company, the challenge is getting into space, not traversing through it.

The company created the following video to help explain:

So What?

So why should we care? The resources that are on earth are limited. Sure we have 3,000 years worth of industrial strength diamonds to go through, but what about everything else? It may be impractical to mine asteroids today, but if we don’t start exploring HOW it would be done, will we be prepared when it NEEDS to be done? As mentioned the technological challenges include experience, and the experience means money. Additionally, there is a finders keepers rule when it comes to space mining. If someone has landed on and ‘claimed’ the asteroid, then no one else is allowed to mine there. Not sure that its enforceable, but it might mean that you should invest in companies interested in this type of technology to stake your claim on an asteroid!

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