The mining of celestial bodies and the research, as well as the use of space resources, has gone from science fiction to a palpable reality, considering the near-Earth asteroids as candidates for the first mining incursions outside of our planet.
There are already initiatives on an international scale that address these future activities seriously and rigorously.
President Obama signed the so-called “Space Law,” approved by the US Congress whose latest title allows companies in the country to exploit space mining and the appropriation of asteroids and other “space resources.”
The concept of “space mining” began to develop in the early 90s but caught momentum on November 25th, 2015 when President Obama signed the so-called “Space Law,” approved by the US Congress.
Its latest title allows companies in the country to exploit space mining and the appropriation of asteroids and other “space resources” by private individuals and companies if they get the technology to move and exploit the bodies rich in minerals such as platinum, gold, iron or water.
The law makes it clear that whoever is capable of recovering resources from an asteroid has the right to “own, transport, use and sell it.” However, this is not something novel as the Americans have transgressed the rules of maritime law to space.
In addition to that, the USA cannot reserve sovereignty rights because the claim of celestial bodies by governments is expressly prohibited in the International Treaty of Outer Space signed within the UN in 1967.
This treaty states that nations cannot have territories in space, i.e., no country can claim exclusive ownership over any celestial body.
Therefore, the race for the lucrative exploration and private exploitation of space has begun, and it is only necessary that technological advances allow it.
It is something that companies are already immersed in, and that could be extremely profitable at a spatial level.
These companies are investing in developing probes capable of approaching asteroids to try to exploit their resources, which are innumerable.
They are also attempting to find the most suitable candidates for their first expeditions among the rocky bodies that orbit the Earth or accumulate in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
Race Towards the Asteroids
There are many companies interested in asteroids such as Deep Space Industries, Orbital Sciences Corporation, Mars One, Bigelow Aerospace, etc. The Blue Origin aerospace company owned by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is building a rocket called the New Glenn.
The SpaceX firm, founded and run by entrepreneur Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors and PayPal, is carrying out cargo missions to the International Space Station with its recyclable Falcon 9 Dragon rocket and has plans for the future beyond the orbit land.
Planetary Resources, a group supported by Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, film director James Cameron, magnate Richard Branson, owner of Virgin, and other Silicon Valley shareholders is also in the race.
It is estimated that some asteroids could contain all the platinum obtained from landmines in all of history and have a market price of hundreds of billions of dollars.
In fact, it is presumed that some contain iron, nickel or cobalt in sufficient quantity to cover the needs of the Earth for 3,000 years.
Bernstein's Wall Street research firm says a large asteroid called 16 Psyche in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter with an extension of 200 kilometers wide could contain enough nickel ore to cover the current human demand for millions of years.
There are about 12,000 asteroids that pass each year close to the earth, from large rocks to pieces several kilometers in diameter. Also, it would be easier to land on 10% of them than on the Moon.
Yet, the fever for the conquest of asteroids is as strong as ever and the battle to commercially exploit the riches of the space has only just begun.
The endeavor is even more heated if we take into account that many of these raw materials that are indispensable for modern industry such as zinc, tin, silver, copper, lead, etc., could be exhausted on Earth throughout this century.
But all the interest that asteroids awaken does not end solely on the economic question.
Apart from the extraction of minerals and precious metals, it is considered that the rock fragments whose resistance, very similar to that of concrete, has allowed them to exist for billions of years. And, this could serve as logistical support for future human settlements on Mars.
It could further offer water, oxygen and other elements that could be used to produce fuel and vital backup systems in space at a much lower cost than carrying them from Earth. It is also expected that asteroids will help us reach the red planet.
This is because the use of captured resources to propel space probes and keep astronauts alive from substances that are not found on Earth is the only way to allow permanent spatial development.
A trip to Mars would be much cheaper and more efficient if you could get some of the fuel along the way.
And that is where the asteroids and the Moon intervene, which will be essential to colonize the human presence in the Martian soil as a preliminary test.
The red planet has always been an object of the imagination of the human being who has looked at the planet with eyes full of conquest.
The moon fell into our clutches in 1969, although we abandoned its exploration too early, and Mars has been the target of NASA since it began sending probes in the mid-60s.
Asteroids and The Moon, Immediate Objective
Regarding the Moon, it is a great reserve of raw materials that are in the process of running out on the planet.
With natural resources decreasing by the minute due to the high demand of the world industry and the exponential growth of the population, the Moon presents an abundance of the Helium-3 isotope.
This is a very scarce gas on the planet, which could become the ideal non-polluting fuel for a new generation of controlled fusion nuclear plants, not to mention the richness of the lunar soil in titanium, iron, and aluminum.
That is why Europe set its sights on reaching the Moon and Japan, as well as Mexico, planned to launch their first mission to the satellite in 2018.
However, the director of NASA, Charles Bolden, declared in 2013 that the agency ruled out “conducting an inhabited lunar mission,” although not “the possibility of participating in it if it is conducted by another country or is the product of an association with private companies.”
In this context, NASA has raised the idea of sharing their knowledge, their engineers and access to their facilities and equipment with American companies to help conceive and build robotic devices capable of landings by planting loads between 30 and 500 kilos.
With reasonable budgets, it will be possible to send missions to inhabit the Moon in a decade.
It is clear that both the Moon and the asteroids are objects of mining in space and there are several countries and a few companies focused on the exploration and use of extraterrestrial resources.
Delving a bit into history, space mining has its antecedents in the North American specialists of the Bureau of Mines, the official mining organization of the United States.
This organization tried the real possibilities of mining on the Moon, including the excavation and crushing equipment that could be used in that null atmosphere, its transport, maintenance and the possibilities of using certain mineral compounds.
Space Mining and The Economy
Could the asteroids become a future source of resources? Some companies are already starting to get on the bandwagon of space mining, opening the door to great possibilities but also immense challenges.
There are two things you should know about asteroids - one is that they can cause our extinction and the other is that they can make us rich. For the first, there is substantial evidence and for the second, not so much.
That said, will the asteroids be a source of resources soon? Will human voracity reach the moon as well as other celestial bodies for mining and resources?
The only clear thing, for now, is that it will take decades to know if those who invest today in space mining are visionaries or just crazy.
The solar system is not a textbook diagram in which planets evolve cleanly around the sun. In the interplanetary space, there are millions of celestial bodies of a multitude of forms and sizes, without traffic guards that order their orbits.
At least 18,000 of them or the Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs) approach us less than 1.3 times the distance to the sun. And there are many NEAs left to discover.
The Earth travels through space as if by a highway in the opposite direction. Every day, several objects of a few meters in diameter fall to the planet which disintegrates in the atmosphere.
The worrying objects are somewhat greater. In 2013, an asteroid 20 meter in diameter exploded over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, releasing energy tens of times higher than the Hiroshima bomb and injuring more than 1,200 people.
It is the largest object that has been reported since 1908. Then, there was another similar explosion on Tunguska, Russia. No asteroid detection program saw it coming.
Space agencies do not devote more and more resources to watch the sky in vain. They do it so that if an asteroid is really going to present a danger to the planet, it gives them time to do something about it.
But the asteroids, in addition to distrust and scientific curiosity, are undisturbed remains of the materials with which the planets were formed 4.6 billion years ago. In space, there are apparently billions of dollars in the form of metals, fuel and essential compounds for life.
Chris Lewicki, director of Planetary Resources, one of the companies that have space mining as one of their central objectives even mentioned that in principle, you could do anything with the metals that you extract from the asteroids. As he sees it, the universe is your mining factory.
A website named Asterank, created by a former engineer from Google and later purchased by Planetary Resources estimates the value of asteroids. It takes into account what is known about their composition and estimates their value to be more than one trillion dollars.
Hence, the economic implications of space mining are immense and undeniable if all its possibilities are explored to the fullest. It might possibly disrupt the economy of the earth to a large extent, but it is a necessary evil if we want life on earth to sustain for hundreds of years.
Sophisticated Machines for The Future
Advanced equipment is predicted to be used by remote controls and machines in the future that is simple, light and resistant.
We are also expected to exploit the natural resources of the space that will provide vital support to the human settlements on satellites like the Moon and planets like Mars.
Contemplating the future is the smart thing to do where life on earth is concerned. Science, which is ultimately what has solved the serious problems posed to humanity during the course of its history, will be the one that takes us from the planet and leads us to the conquest of the cosmos.
It will be necessary to use the energy and mineral resources of space to sustain future life on Earth.
Nobody can predict the future with certainty. As Mark Twain said, “Prediction is difficult, especially about the future.” However, what is undeniable is that we are at the beginning of our success in the exploration of space.
Although sometimes, the reality is slower than our desires, in the next half century, we will inhabit the Moon and Mars, we will be hovering other planets of the Solar system, and we will extract the minerals of the asteroids. The first Earthman might even be born on a space base.
Let's hope that the 21st century will bring us many answers to innumerable questions that still need to be solved and other discoveries that we have not yet been able to dream of!