The centuries-long human fascination with space may go beyond making sci-fi movies and into a brave new world of asteroid mining within just a couple of decades.
While scientists and engineers have been studying the costs and technology necessary to launch space mining probes and missions, an analyst reckons that private companies could begin launching satellites prospecting asteroids within five years, and actual mining for water and rare metals on asteroids could begin within eight years.
In this new quest for resources, the Middle East oil-exporting countries, which have long been considered the swing crude oil suppliers on Earth, could play a role in mining for water and platinum group metals on asteroids in space, according to Tom James, Senior Quality Assurance (QA) Partner at energy consultant Navitas Resources.
“Water is the new oil of space…Middle East investment in space is growing as it works to shift from an oil-based to a knowledge-based economy,” James told Bloomberg in an interview published earlier this week.
The Middle East “is an emerging new space power fuelling the future of commercial space and exploration”, James said in a lecture at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute earlier this month.
Water can be used as a propellant in space, while metal-rich asteroid belts are thought to contain gold, silver, and even platinum in quantities exceeding more than 100 times the annual platinum mining output on Earth. According to MIT’s Mission 2016 review, a platinum-rich asteroid of 500 meters (1,640 feet) in width could contain nearly 175 times the annual global platinum output, or 1.5 times the known Earth reserves of platinum group metals.
According to James, some countries in the Middle East could serve as launch pads for prospecting satellites, because spacecraft would burn less fuel to exit the Earth’s atmosphere from a launch site closer to the equator, due to the higher surface velocity from spinning around the Earth’s axis.
Although asteroid mining still sounds like something that could happen only in a Star Trek movie, analysts consider that it’s not as far-fetched as it may seem.
According to Goldman Sachs, “space mining could be more realistic than perceived. Water and platinum group metals that are abundant on asteroids are highly disruptive from a technological and economic standpoint. Water is easily converted into rocket fuel, and can even be used unaltered as a propellant. Ultimately being able to stockpile the fuel in LEO [low earth orbit] would be a game changer for how we access space. And platinum is platinum.”
Of course, Goldman warns that the “successful asteroid mining would likely crater the global price of platinum”, if MIT’s estimates for ore grades in platinum-rich asteroids turn out to be even close to accurate.
The investment bank concludes that “given the capex of mining operations on Earth, we think that financing a space mission is not outside the realm of possibility.”
A 2012 study by Caltech’s Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS) found that the total cost of identifying, robotically capturing, and returning an entire near-Earth asteroid closer to the Earth by the middle of the next decade is around $2.6 billion.
Asteroid mining company Planetary Resources, which has movie director and producer James Cameron as advisor and Google’s Larry Page as founding investor, is already testing asteroid prospecting technology.
Another such company, Deep Space Industries, launched in August last year a commercial mining mission in which a spacecraft will survey and land on a near-Earth asteroid, as a step toward the company’s plans to prospect, harvest, and supply in-space resources.
The U.S. adopted the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act in 2015 to “facilitate a pro-growth environment for the developing commercial space industry by encouraging private sector investment.”
According to MIT, governments around the world would better focus on easily available resources and technologies, and leave funding for asteroid mining to the private sector. The MIT scientists currently predict that after 2045, asteroid mining will prosper, together with humankind’s expansion in space.