As our Earth orbits lazily around the Sun, some 13,000
asteroids pass close by. Known as Near-Earth Objects (NEOs),
these asteroids are more than just a heavenly curiosity;
they are treasures. The resources contained within them
mean they have the potential to provide untold riches,
the future oil fields of space.
The question is, would it be worth it? Some might ask
whether it’s realistic to stage such a seemingly
out-of-this-world plan. Those involved in the nascent
asteroid mining industry, however, argue that there are
a number of misconceptions about their efforts.
“It is natural to doubt when you don’t know much about
it” explains Chris Lewicki, the president and chief
engineer of asteroid mining company Planetary Resources.
“Most people read the headline and make assumptions.
“We are only repeating what has been done throughout
history, just in a new environment,” he adds.
Natural resources have always allowed us to expand to
new frontiers. When Europeans first settled North
America, they lived off the resources they found on the
land, and in doing so created one of the world’s biggest
economies. During the 20th Century oil helped shape and
redefine the world; momentous changes like these were
started by a relative few.
Those involved in looking to mine asteroids believe
it has the potential to shape and define the 21st
“Prospectors always go first, that is what has happened
throughout history,” says Chad Anderson, managing
director of the Space Angel Network, a global network
for early investors offering access to the emerging
private space industry.
Those involved in looking to mine asteroids believe it
has the potential to shape and define the 21st Century.
“The results could be revolutionary in benefits to space
exploration, and all of us on Earth,” says Steve
Eisenhart, the senior vice president of Space
Foundation, a global non-profit which promotes
Sourced from space
The first thing to understand about space mining is that
it is not only about mining asteroids, or even the Moon
and then returning those resources back to Earth.
“Instead, there is a lot of value in keeping the
resources in space and using them to continue our
exploration of the Solar System and beyond,” says
The most important resource for prospective space miners
is water. The reason: travelling into space by current
standards is the equivalent of taking a road trip across
America, but having to bring all your fuel with you –
only much worse. It takes more energy to escape the
first 300 kilometres from Earth than the next 300
million kilometres. “Once in Earth’s orbit, you are
halfway to anywhere in the Solar System,” says Lewicki.
But if rocket fuel was sourced from space for space,
that problem can be avoided. When water is broken into
its constituents – hydrogen and oxygen – you have two of
the most commonly used elements in rocket fuel. What is
most exciting for those looking to mine space is that
water is throughout our Solar System. It is on the Moon,
Mars and asteroids, and that’s just the places we know
Asteroids are of particular interest to Planetary
Resources. “We know asteroids have water because it has
been found on meteorites which have landed on the
surface of the Earth,” says Lewicki. “They also don’t
need much energy to land on. It’s easier than a trip to
the surface of the Moon.” These near-Earth asteroids
could act as off-world ‘gas stations’.
Asteroids also give us the potential to create tools
And as humans venture beyond Earth orbit, water will be
essential for life support and growing food. It can even
be used to shield astronauts from radiation. Yet it
costs $50m (£32.8m) per tonne to ship it into space.
Asteroids also give us the potential to create tools in
space. “Iron is abundant,” says Lewicki, as is nickel
and cobalt. “Using technology such as 3D printing you
can grab material off asteroids and 3D print something
that never has to be on a rocket.” Tools, machines and
even habitats can then be built off Earth, reducing the
cost of exploration even further.
Of course space, as the saying goes, is hard, and
off-world mining won’t exactly be a walk in the park.
“Sure there will be challenges to overcome, but that is
the history of space,” says Eisenhart. Planetary
Resources say they are already making money from the
technology they have developed, even before they’ve
started mining anything beyond Earth.
“It is important to know that this is something that is
going to happen – it is already happening,” says
Lewicki. The company already has one satellite in orbit,
and the next satellite to launch will have to the
ability to look for water on near-Earth asteroids, using
infra-red imaging sensors. Meanwhile, other private
companies are looking into mining water and other
resources on the Moon.
While you can’t own the Moon or asteroids, you can
own the materials you take away from them
The first water could be extracted from an asteroid by
the first half of the 2020s. That will mark the
beginning of new era, where humanity has moved off our
planet and has a presence in space forever. “I love that
it is audacious, but that is what inspires the
imagination and innovation,” says Eisenhart.
Of course, mining asteroids raises some legal questions.
In the US, the law recognises that while you can’t own
the Moon or asteroids, you can own the materials you
take away from them – the same way you can’t own the
ocean, but you can own the fish you take from it.
This means private companies could go into space, take
materials they need, and it would be perfectly legal.
move by President Obama is
seen as a huge step forward in terms of creating a
stable legal framework to build upon.
Exactly where space mining could lead us is impossible
to predict. But its advocates clearly believe that their
early efforts are an investment in the long-term future
of our species. We might not live to see the benefits,
but our descendants spread throughout the Solar System
may well be profitting from them.