The gadgets we hold in our hands today are often taken for granted. Companies push out the latest and greatest product, and as consumers, we are compelled to buy a new one every year. What one may not know, however, is that these products are made of rare earth metals which are difficult to find and extract. As technological development continues to accelerate, more and more of these rare earth metals are needed. Some of them could be used to make current products more efficient or durable.
Many environmental laws—both local and international—limit what mining companies can do on Earth. However, space is uninhabited and largely unexplored, and that is why mining companies are looking to space for those rare earth metals. House Resolution 2262, the SPACE Act, eliminated any regulatory hurdles regarding mining in space, and one company, Planetary Resources, is seeking to tackle the challenge of mining these literally untapped resources.
“Most people think this is science fiction and it probably won’t happen anytime soon. Everything that was a breakthrough was once a crazy idea. Those things happened over night, but they have years and years of development behind them. This is something that’s been happening for years,” said Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer at Planetary Resources. The company has both the public and private sector backing it—names such as as NASA, SpaceX and Virgin Galactic have given their backing for the endeavor—which involves flying to resource and mineral-rich asteroids and other planets, prospecting, mining and bringing back rare metals and minerals.
Lewicki, a former NASA engineer himself, wants to start as soon as possible. “Between three to five years from now we will have proven out all the commercial approaches and the very low cost and innovative methods we’re developing that’ll allow us to make that first visit to the asteroid before the end of the 2010s,” he said. “Mining could begin in just a few years after that, once we’ve located the first asteroid that has that resource on it.” Some big names in business and tech are advising or investing in the project, such as Google founder Larry Page, Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt and Virgin CEO Sir Richard Branson.
The efforts, Lewicki said, will also help in the colonization of other planets. “It is the way by which humanity will expand off this planet and be able to do that sustainably and permanently,” he said. New water extraction technology would allow asteroids and other planets to serve as refueling stations by tapping into hydrogen and water, the main ingredients of rocket fuel. In addition, materials brought from other planets could be used as building materials as well.
Many of these asteroids and planets are worth a lot of money, which could open up a titanic market that could easily dwarf other markets. Asterank, a scientific and economic database of over 600,000 asteroids, tracks how valuable each asteroid or planet is. The database claims that a good amount of these asteroids are valued at over $100 trillion each (by comparison, the amount of money the world has collectively is estimated to be $241 trillion).
However, many of these are several astronomical units (AU) away, or the distance from the Earth to the Sun (93 million miles). The closest and most profitable asteroid (and hence the most cost-effective one), Ryugu, is only 1.19 AU away (110.67 million miles), and is estimated to be worth $95 billion ($34.5 billion profit). Some of the valuable minerals and metals that could be mined on these asteroids include iron, nickel and cobalt, which are all used in our devices today.
While mining asteroids may seem like something out of science fiction, we are closer to doing it now than any other time in history. Whoever gets to these asteroids first and successfully mines could become rich beyond their wildest dreams.