By Astronomy Department
Space mining, in a nutshell, is a result of the deterioration of Earth’s finite resources. Like mining on Earth, its goal is to obtain raw materials for industrial purposes and to prevent the extinction of these resources, such as water, on Earth. Right now we are living in a world that is being devastated by the effects of climate change and the disorganized use of raw materials, so it is crucial that we either work to save the materials that we already have or find ways to replenish these materials, the latter being more likely. Additionally, even though raw materials are becoming scarcer, the world is still evolving with the need for new technology, like electric vehicles, and an increase in population puts resources, like water, in harm's way. Asteroid mining has the potential to eradicate these problems by supplying Earth with an unlimited amount of non-renewable materials. Countries like China, Japan, and Russia are very active in mining asteroids. China, being the most active, is also working together with Russia on expeditions to the moon.
Asteroids are essential to fulfilling this goal as they contain rich deposits of materials such as iron, nickel, and cobalt, which are needed on Earth.
The 2012 attempt made by Planetary Resources was noted to be the first sustainable effort at mining asteroids. From there mining asteroids has become increasingly popular as space mining technology, like the Asterank, has evolved and businesses continue to invest.
This is the question that comes often when we hear about space mining being done on asteroids. Why we just don’t do it on planets or resourceful parts of Earth? The thing is that the asteroids promise an abundance of resources that are rare on Earth or sometimes don't exist. Asteroids contain abundant useful substances, including metals, water, and valuable resources. One example to add is one asteroid, 16 Psyche, which is thought to contain almost only nickel and iron, with an estimated value of $700 quintillion! That’s greater than the economic value of Earth!
Another reason to mine on Asteroids is the lack of environmental impact. Mining on Earth empties the Earth’s resources, which leads to a significant environmental impact. One of the reasons we are planning to mine on asteroids is to bring the resources to Earth, not to empty them. This serves as the primary explanation of why are we not mining on other celestial bodies, like planets, for example, Mars.
Doing these operations on Mars would have an environmental impact which could certainly make Mars even more inhabitable. Our constant endeavor to make Mars habitable and then colonize it would be washed away into the drain. We’ve all exploited the resources on this home planet and we’re somehow paying a price for it every day. Asteroid mining has the potential to turn this around, both environmentally and economically.
The Basics of Asteroid Mining -
Even though the concept of asteroid mining looks exciting, scientists are having a hard time trying to figure out where to get started with the process. The most promising theory is that a spacecraft would be sent to the asteroid on which suitable mining sites would be found based on the availability of mineral composition and water availability. Scientists are still figuring out how to stop the asteroid from rotating while being mined. The spacecraft to be used for this mission should also be highly fuel-efficient and have a light configuration (<500 kg as specified by NASA Ames documents). One of the many specificities of this special spacecraft is its ability to operate on a water propulsion system - by producing fuel by means of breaking down water into hydrogen and oxygen. It is required to go on multiple mining trips until the asteroid’s minerals have been exhausted to improve economic feasibility.
Industrial and Economic Prospect -
Asteroids carry vast amounts of rare Earth materials, such as Platinum, Gold, and cobalt. These materials are pretty much used at almost every industrial scale, and asteroid mining could provide a new source for these materials to increase their supply while keeping the costs down. Also, they contain an abundance of water which serves as an important factor for survival, rocket fuel, and industrial products. This would create a new source of fresh water and would serve as a major boon to our future conservation, which could reduce environmental impact and bloom space exploration. All of this would receive a huge economical aspect from asteroid mining.
Asteroid mining can be both beneficial and harmful to the economy. The purpose of asteroid mining is to obtain more raw materials such as iron, nickel, cobalt, and gold, and because asteroids carry an abundance of these resources, even more than what’s on Earth, it can be profitable. However, what can be seen as beneficial to the economy can also have adverse effects. As seen throughout history, whenever there is an abundance of something there also comes a devaluation of that thing, and in this case, that “thing,” would be any raw material extracted from asteroids, like gold. Asteroid mining can also promote a whole new economy supporting future space expeditions, tourism, and hypothetically, settlement.
The economic effects of asteroid mining are also different for different countries. Asteroid mining is more achievable in wealthier nations, like the United States than in developing countries as they have more access to mining technology and financial resources and less risk in undergoing such activities.
Its Effect on Earth -
Space mining would have some considerable effects on Earth. Asteroid mining could provide access to resources that are rare or difficult to obtain on Earth, such as water, platinum, and other precious metals. This could help to reduce our reliance on Earth's resources and could lead to new technological innovations. It would probably make the costs of resources on Earth to go down due to their availability and abundance.
The development of a space mining industry could lead to new regulations and laws. This is because space mining would raise a number of legal and ethical questions, such as who owns the resources in space and how they should be used. These regulations could have a significant impact on the development of the space mining industry.
There would be intense space industry competition and the first country to establish its asteroid mining success would shoot to the top. China is currently working on its first asteroid mining rover and manifests to launch its project soon. If this succeeds, it would be one of the next big milestones in the exploration of Space and our journey into it.
A decade ago, when the public first heard about asteroid mining, mainstream media was completely filled with articles about the promising future of asteroid mining. But there has been little or no action ever since. Sending robots to manage mining operations for nickel, iron, water, and PGMs (Platinum group metals) is not possible; sending astronauts to carry out the same operation does not seem economically feasible - says Jeff Kargel, a former U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) geologist who is now a senior scientist at The Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona. With the enormous environmental, industrial, and economic benefits, space-mining still remains one of the projects with the most potential. Improvements in propulsion technology (Isp), mining eﬃciency, and material weight in the near future will hopefully increase the range of asteroids that can be accessed for mining. With so many uncertainties surrounding the project, we can only know one thing for sure - space-mining and exploration will someday be no longer a theory of the past.