Asteroid mining. Humanity’s next giant leap forward

The concept of mining in space may seem strange, or somewhat impossible, however, it seems like a Seattle-based company is going to do just that. The company, known as Planetary Resources, has been working hard over the last few years to try to create the world’s first space asteroid mining spacecraft. If this takes off, it could be the next trillion-dollar industry, allowing us to mine precious-heavy minerals which are of low abundance on Earth.

Who are they and why asteroids?

Planetary Resources, formerly known as ARKYD Astronautics, was founded in 2010. Since then, Planetary Resources has been striving in technological breakthroughs, to try to make asteroid mining not only possible but probable. They envision using robotic satellites to mine Near-Earth Objects and bring back materials to Earth.

Near-Earth Objects are comets and asteroids that orbit Earth in relatively near proximity. During the Earth’s formation, the Rare Heavy Earth Elements like metals sunk down towards the core. This means that most of the Earth’s crust is made of significantly lighter elements. So when you think about all the metals that we have around us today, there is way more down under!

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Computer generated Asteroid Belt

Scientists believe that all the metals present on Earth came from asteroids that hit the Earth billions of years ago during the planets cool down. There are two main hypothesis for the existence of the asteroid belt. The first suggests that the asteroids were once part of a planet that existed between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. At some point, and for reasons unknown, the planet broke up into tiny pieces. These remnants make up the Asteroid Belt we have today in our solar system.

The second theory involves Jupiter and suggests that its gravitational pull stopped the possibility of the planet coming into existence to start with. Instead of the ‘space dust’ (asteroids) agglutinating together, they were disrupted by Jupiter’s pull and cleared most of the material away.

In either scenario, asteroids contain significant amounts of heavy earth elements, which can be very beneficial for us on Earth. Resources such as nickel and iron are abundant in Near Earth asteroids and are easily accessible.

How will it work?

Seattle, Washington – April 24, 2012 – Planetary Resources announced that they have planned to mine Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs) for raw materials, ranging from water to precious metals.

“Many of the scarce metals and minerals on Earth are in near-infinite quantities in space. As access to these materials increases, not only will the cost of everything from microelectronics to energy storage be reduced, but new applications for these abundant elements will result in important and novel applications,” said Peter H. Diamandis, M.D., Co-Founder and Co-Chairman, Planetary Resources, Inc

The company announced that they had developed the first line in its family of deep-space prospecting aircraft. Named the Arkyd-100, it will be used to help track Near-Earth Objects for potential mining prospects. Arkyd 200, also known as, the ‘interceptor’ will carry  a suite of scientific instruments designed to intercept asteroids. Learning from the predecessors, the company intends to launch Arkyd-300 NEA swarms; which will be used to explore deep space.

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Furthermore, water-rich NEAs will be excellent sources of hydrogen and oxygen, which can be used for breathing and fuel.

Water is perhaps the most valuable resource in space. Accessing a water-rich asteroid will greatly enable the large-scale exploration of the solar system. In addition to supporting life, water will also be separated into oxygen and hydrogen for breathable air and rocket propellant,” said Eric Anderson, Co-Founder and Co-Chairman, Planetary Resources, Inc.

 

What does the spacecraft look like?

As you can see in the video above, the Arkyd-100 is not as big you may think. Hollywood has portrayed space craft to be these massive machines with massive thrusters. While this may be the case for some launches, many are the size of a car. The Arkyd-100 weighs 11 kg and has been compacted into this tiny form to allow more freedom for launch opportunities. The company claims they are aiming to “make the Arkyd-100 the most advanced spacecraft per kilogram ever made“.

Who owns what?

As of November 2015, the U.S signed asteroid resource property rights in law. The law termed the U.S Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, recognises the right of U.S citizens to own asteroid resources they obtain. The newly appointed law hopes to attract more companies to explore and utilize the resources around Earth.

The U.S is not the only country to recognise space mining as something worth investing into. Luxembourg became the first European country to officially declare they are setting a legal framework which ensures that private operators working in space can be confident about their rights to the resources they extract.

So whats next?

With major backing from big investors like Virgin Group founder, Sir Richard Branson and Google Co-founder and CEO, Larry Page, Planetary Resources has the ability to reach in deep pockets if it needs to. As of July 2015, Planetary resources announced that their first spacecraft had successfully launched and deployed its Testing Asteroid Prospecting Technology on orbit. This marks a giant leap for the company and its efforts to make asteroid mining a reality.

The prospect of mining in space may seem far-fetched now, however within the next decade or so, the chances are that this industry will kick-off. With firm belief that asteroid mining is the next trillion-dollar industry, Planet Resources is taking no chances in being second place.

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Saad Bhatty

Blogger, journalist, geologist and Tech-enthusiast. There is always something to write about!

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