How Asteroid Mining Will Breed the Trillion Dollar Company
As the population of our planet Earth continues to climb towards increasingly unsustainable levels, humanity will eventually have to deal with the reality of extreme scarcity of resources. As we are approaching a time when the resources of our planet are nearing depletion, we will begin to look towards the skies, in the race to mine the countless asteroids around our solar system. While space mining has long been a thing of science-fiction, we are now taking steps closer to reaching out into the cosmos in search of the boundless resources it offers.
Asteroids are essentially massive rocks that orbit the sun, and many consist of precious metals like platinum, iron and gold. These asteroids are known as M-type asteroids, which contain 10 times the amount of metal as the smaller S-type asteroids. According to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, research has shown that one single 500-meter wide asteroid can contain almost 175 times the amount of platinum that is mined in one year on Earth. Currently, platinum is worth about $900 per ounce, and it is used in a wide range of electronics, industrial manufacturing, and cars.
Along with precious metals, asteroids could be mined for water, due to large amounts of ice present on the surface. These asteroids, called C-type, are the most common in our solar system, making up about 75 percent of them. This would be important for future space colonies, or for even replenishing diminished or polluted reserves on Earth. Another valuable resource would Helium-3, an isotope that can be used as a fuel source for nuclear fusion, which has the potential of providing near limitless renewable energy for our planet.
While the logistics of going into space and bringing back materials mined from giant space rocks seems practically impossible, experts say that it is certainly doable. A 2012 report by Caltech found that it would cost about $2.6 billion for a company to capture an asteroid and bring it into orbit near Earth, and this number is decreasing due to advancements in Elon Musk’s reusable rocket technology.
The development of self-replicating robot technology is an integral aspect for the success of asteroid mining. Once an asteroid could be captured and placed into Earth’s orbit, mining would be accomplished by sending self-replicating robots, minimizing the size of the spacecraft. These self-replicating robots would swarm across the face of an asteroid, mine the precious metals present, then process the collected materials and return back to Earth with their haul.
Currently, there are several companies actively looking to be the first ones to accomplish asteroid mining. Planetary Resources, a company backed by Google co-founder Larry Page and film director James Cameron, has announced that they will send out an exploratory spacecraft to collect data and asteroid samples by the year 2020. NASA has also launched plans to a probe called OSIRIS-REx, which will explore the 1,600-foot wide Bennu asteroid.
So how lucrative will mining these asteroids be? NASA has said that a smaller, house-sized asteroid could yield tens of millions of dollars. However, some asteroids are known to be the same size as small planets, those of which could hold untold riches. So will asteroid mining create a trillion-dollar company? Probably. But we are still a ways off from seeing this become a reality. Still, the sheer potential of it is an inherently exciting idea to think about.