MINING in space may be years away but the countdown has started and several companies are now seeking to be the first miners in space. Asteroid mining may sound like science fiction but in fact, modern-day sci-fi films such as the Alien series and Moon, and a myriad of sci-fi books use interstellar mining as a background setting for their narratives.
Theoretically, there are many ways to extract essential elements from asteroids, including strip mining, shaft mining, heating and magnetic rakes for mining heavy metals.
In the near future, mining in space is likely to be no longer restricted to works of fiction, according to a recent edition of Sandvik’s ‘Solid Ground’ mining industry customer magazine.
More and more companies - such as Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries - focusing on mining large asteroidal specimens have popped up recently. Their goal: to find cost-efficient ways to access the precious resources within these floating cash cows, whose potential yields are estimated to be in the trillions of dollars.
Asteroids, the rocky-metallic bodies left over from the formation of the solar system and still orbiting the sun, are replete with water, platinum, nickel, cobalt and other minerals and elements.
While the benefits of mining scarce minerals such platinum are obvious, at the same time, the water within asteroids can be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen for fuel and left in orbiting caches in space, solving one of the great problems of space exploration - fuel availability.
Accessing these floating deposits is another matter entirely.
The three most logical options for mining involve:
- Bringing raw asteroidal material to Earth for use.
- Processing the asteroids in space and bringing back only the desired materials.
- Transporting the asteroid into a safe orbit around the Moon, Earth or International Space Station.
And because not all asteroids are created equal, there’s also the problem of determining which ones are even worth mining.
Planetary Resources is attempting to solve this issue with space telescopes, small spacecraft (30kg to 50kg) that employ a laser-optical system which can be used to survey and examine near-Earth asteroids.
Recently, the company placed a small version of the telescope aboard the Antares rocket on an unmanned mission in October 2014 but the rocket exploded seconds after lift-off, destroying the cargo.
There is still a long way to go before asteroid mining is commonplace but the first small steps are being taken, and more likely than not they will end up being giant leaps forward.