It’s a fact of life in the space age. As vital resources become depleted on Earth, an infinite, inexhaustible treasure trove awaits us — from beyond.
Space mining, the harvesting of minerals and other substances from near-Earth asteroids, has traditionally been the realm of science fiction. But now, an innovative company of opportunists is actually trying to make this happen.
“Everything is science fiction, right up to the point where it’s science fact,” says Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer of Planetary Resources. “Our approach is to keep our eye on the goal of space resources, and the development of an economy off the planet. There are a number of things that really have only coalesced in the last few years that I think make this a great time to be considering this challenge.”
Fuelling this is the discovery of literally thousands of near-Earth asteroids in the past decade. These space-borne hunks contain huge amounts of iron and water, as well as valuable rare metals such as platinum.
“These asteroids have only a very slight amount of gravity,” Lewicki explains. “You don’t really orbit them as much as you dock with them — like a space craft visiting the International Space Station. The ability to leave that asteroid also doesn’t take much energy.”
Space exploration requires metal and water in abundance. But they’re heavy, and it costs tens of thousands of dollars to lift even one pound of material from Earth into space.
The short-term goal of asteroid mining is to reach for the stars with materials that are already out there.
“We can take something as basic as water, and turn it into rocket fuel. And the ability to refuel in space will be critically important for travelling around the solar system. And the iron you find in space is so pure, it has many of the properties of stainless steel.”
This is a whole new level of sustainability — a long-term future built without relying on Earthbound resources.
“We’re looking to make space exploration common place,” Lewicki says. “We’ll end up with a prospecting spacecraft in Earth’s orbit — maybe as soon as five years from now.”
For more info: planetaryresources.com
By the numbers
1,500. The number of mineral-rich asteroids close to Earth that spacecraft can reach using less energy than a trip to the moon.