Asteroids will be the unsung heroes that help us become a multiplanetary species.
For the first time since the 1960s, space exploration is truly exciting again. This is thanks in large part to the advent of New Space, the name given to the new generation of commercial space companies that are determined to open up the final frontier to all. At the forefront of the new space race is SpaceX, which in less than a decade has managed to turn the rocket industry on its head by pioneering reusable rockets and dramatically cutting the largest barrier to entry when it comes to space: the astronomical costs.
SpaceX isn’t content with schlepping research supplies to the ISS and satellites to low earth orbit, however. Its CEO Elon Musk has also made it abundantly clear that he sees his company as the stepping stone to turning humans into a multi-planetary species. At last year’s International Astronautical Congress, Musk outlined his plans for getting humans to Mars. This plan involves a whole new generation of spaceships designed for transporting Martian colonists en masse, as well as the successful development of the Falcon Heavy, which will be the largest rocket ever made.
But getting boots on the Red Planet is only half the battle. The success of these Martian colonies will ultimately depend on our ability to access and exploit the untold number of asteroids in our solar system. Indeed, our ability to mine these space rocks might also determine the future for those of us who stay behind on Earth.
Only a few decades ago, the concept of mining asteroids for their precious metals such as gold or platinum would’ve sounded like high science fiction. But in the last decade or so, a crop of asteroid mining companies have sprung up and are currently locked in a race to be the first to mine in space. The two leading companies in this respect are Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources, both of which are actively developing prototypes for their robotic miners in the hope that they’ll be launched to an asteroid in the next few years.
Both of these companies started with an eye toward recovering precious metals on these asteroids that are found in relatively small quantities on Earth, such as platinum, but are nevertheless integral to the smartphones, computers and other electronics we all use on a daily basis. But according to Daniel Faber, CEO of Deep Space, his company soon recognized that these hunks of space rock hold a far more valuable resource than gold—water.
Colonists on Mars are going to require massive amounts of water during transit to the Red Planet and once they arrive, for their own sustenance and farming. Moreover, water is a crucial starting ingredient for the fuel that will power the SpaceX ships bound for Mars. As it turns out, the asteroids in our solar system are flush with this resource and Deep Space intends to capitalize on this future need by extracting water from asteroids rather than precious minerals.
Whether or not other asteroid mining companies will follow in Deep Space’s tracks is uncertain. Planetary Resources is still focused on harvesting precious metals in addition to water, and this is a win for those of us that won’t be headed to Mars. For the most part, the precious metals used in consumer electronic devices are exceedingly rare, although it is thought that the ocean floor may harbor vast reserves of these metals. This has led to a deep sea gold rush as companies compete in a desperate bid for the right to extract these minerals from the sea bottom. As you might expect, seabed mining isn’t exactly great for the environment. Our ability to harvest these same metals from asteroids could help to seriously mitigate the environmental damage done by seabed mining.
For now, however, asteroid miners are stuck on Earth, limited by funding woes and technological difficulties. Still, a number of countries are waking up to the huge potential of this emerging industry, particularly Luxembourg, which has begun to offer huge incentives to asteroid mining companies headquartered in the country. The US Congress, meanwhile, passed a law in 2015 legalizing asteroid mining (though there are still some international legal hurdles that must be navigated.)
Whether these efforts will be enough to literally get the asteroid mining industry off the ground remains to be seen, but what is clear is that the future of asteroid mining will play a large role in the future of our species on and off the planet.