Asteroids and the moon could be the final frontier for sourcing precious minerals
Uncertainty is rising over future supply of the rare and precious metals we need to keep the world's economy moving. As the demands of behemoths like China grow, questions are being asked about how long our mined resources will last.
Naturally, scientists and entrepreneurial business people are already looking to the final frontier – space – to supply mankind's future needs. They're considering how viable it is to seek paydirt on the moon, other planets or asteroids, what they might find there and how to extract and use extraterrestrial materials.
"It's probably still more in the realm of science fiction than science because we haven't done it yet," says Paul Delaney, Professor of Astronomy at York University in Toronto. "But there's an expectation that it will happen within 20 years, maybe sooner."
Knight Frank, a global real estate consultancy based in London, has already published a list of "asteroids to watch" on its website. The short list of five shows the minerals each contain – such as nickel, cobalt and iron – and details when in the next few years they will reach their closest point to Earth (the nearest asteroid will pass at around 9.5 million kilometres from Earth, a not insubstantial trek).
The real estate company notes that "while eyebrows have been raised in scientific circles regarding the economic viability of asteroid mining, the potential rewards appear compelling, if the significant technological challenges can be overcome."
It's a big "if," yet companies are already considering the potential. One of them is Planetary Resources Inc., a closely-held firm financed partly by Google Inc. Chief Executive Larry Page and Chairman Eric Schmidt, as well as billionaire Richard Branson and Charles Simonyi, who has gone into space as a tourist. Branson's Virgin Galactic organization has already conducted sub-orbital test flights, and the firm's advisors include MIT's Sara Seager, a Toronto-born astrophysicist who was awarded a $625,000 "genius" grant by Chicago's MacArthur Foundation for her extraplanetary work.
Planetary Resources' team, with many former U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) officials, was originally in search of rare, valuable metals such as platinum, which could be mined by space robots and shuttled back to Earth.
The idea was to have a staged operation; first, send up a collection of small telescopes, some as light as 13 kilograms, to check out thousands of asteroids looking for mineral riches. These would be followed by larger, unmanned spacecraft with robotics that could scoop out the minerals and return home.
Now they have a different goal: to look for water that could be used to provide fuel for more extensive space travel and exploration.
"Everyone can appreciate the value of platinum. It can be far more difficult to appreciate the value of fuels in space," says Chris Lewicki, Planetary Resources' president.
"If you can find water and crack it, you've not only got oxygen but also hydrogen for fuel. You don't have to take as much fuel with you and you can travel farther," says Prof. Delaney.
Lewicki points to a day when people will travel as space tourists, or leave Earth altogether to set up colonies in space. They will need filling stations when this happens, which many experts believe is inevitable. But Lewicki thinks the need for astro-fuel will come sooner. "You may be surprised to learn that the business of mining asteroids for fuel is built upon the present-day space economy's industrial needs."
Challenges to mining asteroids include their distance, their size and the relatively haphazard nature of their orbits, says Prof. Delaney. "You always know where Mars is, but asteroids can be zipping in close to us and then go far away on completely different time scales," he says.
Recovering material in zero gravity is another challenge, he adds. In 2012, the Keck Institute for Space Studies at California's Jet Propulsion Laboratory launched an "Asteroid Mission Return Study" that hopes to retrieve a tiny asteroid (between two and five metres in diameter) from outer space and bring it closer to Earth, within our gravitational pull.
The moon may be an easier bet, Prof. Delaney says. The Russian Space Federation announced in 2006 that it seeks to mine helium-3 on the moon, with the goal of setting up a permanent moon base. While this may run afoul of international law governing lunar mining (there are treaties), we have a better picture of what is on the moon than we do of asteroids.
There is potential for recovering aluminum, platinum, helium, magnesium, silicon, iron and rare earth elements (REE) from the moon.
"Yes, we know there are local concentrations of REE on the moon," Carle Pieters, a Brown University planetary scientist and principal investigator for NASA's Moon Mineralogy Mapper experiment, recently told the Txchnologist blog. "We also know from the returned samples that we have not sampled these REE concentrations directly, but can readily detect them along a mixing line with many of the samples we do have."
Meanwhile, Prof. Delaney says that helium-3 is a potentially valuable material to bring to Earth, adding: "None of this has ever been done, but there are a lot of people out there who believe it can be viable."
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