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Is Asteroid Mining Profitable

Resources from space, asteroid mining.
Earth-orbiting asteroids could fuel space mining.
Asteroid Mining: One hundred billion dollars for every inhabitant of the Earth. That's the value NASA calculates of all the minerals stored in the asteroids in the main belt of our Solar System.

For some years now, several start-ups have been working on how to send a ship to one of these asteroids to extract its riches and bring them back to our planet. Technology may be on the verge of achieving this, but there are still risks and legal considerations to be taken into account. 

Asteroid Mining 

Until now, asteroids have been a mine of information for scientists studying the origins of our Solar System. Many of them are remnants of the formation of the planets and therefore may offer a window into the conditions in the protoplanetary disk that formed around the young Sun.

They have also been closely observed to describe an orbit that takes them to cross the Earth periodically to calculate the risk of a collision with our planet. NASA and ESA have specific programs dedicated to tracking these NEOs (Near Earth Objects) and have even been looking for some time for mission projects that could divert one of these asteroids from its path, if it presented a real risk of impact.

All these investigations have classified asteroids into three main types, according to their spectral type: C, or carbonaceous, S, or silicate, and M, metallic. The C-type carbonaceous asteroids are found in the outer zone of the main asteroid belt and are the most common of all; it is also believed that their composition is the closest to that of the Sun. S-type asteroids are more common in the inner regions of the belt, near Mars, while M-type asteroids occupy the middle areas.

How asteroid mining will work.
How asteroid mining will work.

There are two other types: D, Trojans in Jupiter's orbit, formed mostly of carbon, and V, located in the outer Solar System, between the gas giant and Neptune. Each has different advantages for future space mining companies, but it is their orbits that will ultimately determine which ones are chosen to be exploited first.

What minerals are found in asteroids?

Because there are very valuable minerals in all of them and their stocks on Earth are running out. M-type asteroids, for example, are composed of 80% iron and 20% nickel, platinum, gold, iridium, palladium, magnesium, rhodium, osmium and ruthenium. Iridium, for example, is difficult to find on Earth because its high density and its tendency to bind with iron causes it to "sink" far below the Earth's crust. Platinum, on the other hand, is the most expensive metal in the world.

The concentrations of these metals in the asteroids are much higher, compared to those on our planet. The company Planetary Resources, for example, maintains that a single platinum-rich asteroid, barely 500 meters long, may contain more metals of the platinum group than all those that have been extracted in the history of the Earth. No wonder "asteroid fever" has broken out.

Those who want to exploit the asteroids

In reality, there is more growing interest than a fever, driven by the belief that asteroid mining is the great untapped sector on a planet where all its natural resources are used, and exhausted. Astronomer and publicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson said in an interview on CNBC that "the first trillionaire in history will be the person who exploits the natural resources on the asteroids". There are already candidates for this.

One of the first companies that was founded with the precise objective of engaging in space mining is Planetary Resources, which not only aims to extract minerals and fuel from these huge rocks, but also water. The company, in fact, considers water the most important resource because it is the basis on which to build a large-scale human exploration of space. This is one of the companies that, in the technological aspect, has its most advanced plans, having launched several small satellites into space to test its technology, but it is in financing that it is encountering problems that, according to reports this summer, have led it to auction part of the equipment of its central offices.

In addition to this, Asteroid Mining Corporation was recently founded in the UK and is currently looking for investors. This is the same phase in which the American companies Aten Engineering and TransAstra Corporation are also involved, with the latter building its facilities so that its engineers can develop its own technology.

Is mining asteroids a good idea?

In Luxembourg, on the other hand, facilities are offered for the installation of start-ups dedicated to this sector. In 2016, its government approved to allocate some 200 million euros from its budget to provide funding and subsidies to these companies, hoping that asteroid mining will bring the same benefits to the Grand Duchy as it did in the 1980s by offering various tax exemptions to communication satellite companies.

If we talk about technological aspects, one of the SpaceX launchers, the Falcon Heavy, is already considered one of the most important pieces of technology for making asteroid mining a reality. How would one of these missions really work?

How asteroid mining will work

The scheme would be quite similar for all companies. In a first stage, the most suitable asteroids would have to be identified, either because their composition is rich in a certain mineral or because their orbits place them on a shorter and relatively simple path from the Earth. This would be done from the planet's surface, with telescopes designed for this purpose or, perhaps, the catalogues of asteroids made by the space agencies would be used.

Then, a probe would be sent to study the asteroid in question further, identifying the areas where water, or platinum, or iron was most abundant and where it could be landed.

With that full object map, would come the most complicated part: sending a robotic module that can touch the ground on the surface and start digging. The low gravity of the asteroids and their constant pitching movement in their rotation make that task the most risky and crucial to solve. There have been two space missions that have tried exactly that, with relatively successful results. The most recent was ESA's Rosetta, which sent the small Philae lander to the surface of a comet. The module failed to anchor on the first one and bounced off it until it managed to hold on to two of its four legs, which served to carry out part of its programmed studies.

The mission, however, that may have the most interest for future asteroid mines is Japan's Hayabusa. The probe was to land briefly on the asteroid Itokawa, take samples and return with them to Earth. The fact that it simply managed to send those samples back was a triumph considering all the problems it experienced on its mission. When the sample capsule was recovered by JAXA technicians, it was not even known if it would contain anything. But there was, which is why there is currently a Hayabusa 2 studying another asteroid, Ryugu, whose samples are expected to return to Earth in 2020.

And then there's OSIRIS-REx, a NASA mission launched in 2016 that should bring back about two kilograms of material from the Bennu asteroid. It is scheduled to arrive at its destination next December and may be the closest thing to a "dress rehearsal" of a space mining operation that can be seen.

Big risks, big profits

These missions have shown that materials can be extracted from asteroids, even if it still carries a rather high component of risk and uncertainty, but the promise of large profits drives these companies willing to boost space exploration while making money.

Planetary Resources has managed to test in space, through two nanosatellites, a couple of technologies necessary for the study of the composition of the asteroids, but it has also been in trouble because it has not been able to secure a new injection of funds through a multinational mining company. And then there's the legal issue.

International treaties adopted since 1967 on the use of space prohibit any nation or individual from claiming property rights to any celestial object, but nothing is specified about the exploitation of resources not only on asteroids, but on the Moon itself, of which there has often been talk that the helium-3 present on its surface would be a solution to mankind's energy problems. What would happen if a private company managed to land on an asteroid and extract minerals?

Space law expert Chris Newman of the University of Sunderland explained to The Guardian that "the way in which a private company could enforce its right to mine is through a national court. In reaching a verdict, that court could exercise sovereign rights contrary to the Outer Space Treaty. We will only know how this would turn out if it is proven in court.

To these potential legal conflicts, and conflicts of national sovereignty, should be added the consequences that the extraction of minerals from asteroids could have for the world economy. This is what Wired pointed out when he picked up a simulation that several students from Tel Aviv University had done on the subject. According to their work, the first shipment of metals from an asteroid that returned to Earth, with large amounts of gold and platinum, could bring down the price of gold by 50%, and the same was true for the rest of the minerals extracted in space.

All these risks and potential problems pale in comparison to the promise of the wealth that mining companies would obtain from their exploitation. If the annual production of unprocessed metals on Earth reaches 660 billion dollars a year, the amount extracted from asteroids would move by 700 quintillions. This is the equivalent of 100 billion dollars per inhabitant of the planet. However, for now, it is a business that is more in the development phase than in the short term.