Asteroid mining is the exploitation of raw materials from asteroids and bringing these resources back to Earth. With an exponentially rising global population, precious resources are quickly becoming depleted. Luckily, asteroids contain many materials that we need and so mining them could set us on the path to a sustainable future.
Mining asteroids for precious resources
Asteroids can contain a variety of valuable resources, including water (which would be useful for long-duration space missions), nickel, cobalt, gold, and platinum. In addition, these materials are often found in much higher concentrations than on Earth. According to some estimates, an asteroid one-kilometre in diameter may contain up to 7,500 tonnes of platinum.
The greatest cost involved in mining asteroids will be transporting the materials back to Earth. So the mining will need to be extremely lucrative in order to make these expenditures worth it. But that could easily be the case. After all, 7,500 tonnes of platinum is worth upwards of $150bn.
We haven’t actually mined an asteroid yet, so to do so would be an immense historic achievement, a way of making science fiction a reality.
There’s no reason that the same techniques used for mining on Earth can’t also be applied to asteroids. Some other, more novel approaches are being assessed, however. For instance, the aerospace company TransAstra Corporation has proposed using highly concentrated sunlight to break up asteroids and extract their precious metals.
It’s not clear when the first asteroid will be mined. One expert says that we will witness the historic occasion in the next 10-20 years, although other industry experts believe we will have to wait much longer than that. There are also legal challenges to consider. If we allow companies to possess, own, transport, use, and sell resources from asteroids, this may violate the Outer Space Treaty (1967), which states:
“Outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”
Nonetheless, if it’s private companies – rather than nation states – claiming these extra-terrestrial resources, then asteroid mining could be legal. But we will have to wait and see what the courts decide in the future.
Asteroid mining could help tackle human exploitation
Another potential benefit of asteroid mining that has been overlooked is the opportunity to end the human rights abuses involved in mining on Earth.
Many asteroids contain coltan, a metallic mineral used for the production of tantalum capacitors, which are found in pretty much every single electronic device – laptops, cameras, video game consoles, smartphones; you name it.
Coltan, unfortunately, is a conflict mineral. It’s a mineral that is mined in areas of armed conflict, most notably in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Other conflict minerals include cassiterite, wolframite, and gold. The mining of coltan in the Congo has resulted in a number of human rights violations, including child labour, forced labour, sexual violence, physical abuse, human trafficking, slavery, and unsafe working conditions.
If we are able to extract all the coltan we need from asteroids, then this may remove the incentive for such horrible human rights abuses in the Congo. On the other hand, it may take a while before asteroid mining becomes feasible, so we can’t let the conflict in the Congo continue until then. Moreover, who’s to say that profiting from asteroid mining won’t also result in more human exploitation?
In any case, asteroid mining – once the practical and legal issues are addressed – could prove to be a sustainable way of extracting natural resources and achieving our spacefaring ambitions.
About the author: Sam Woolfe @samwoolfe
Sam is a freelance writer who is particularly interested in space exploration, sustainability, tech, and agriculture.