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Asteroid minerals mining to be achieved within five years

By Nilima Choudhury
Published: Friday, 14 March 2014

As minerals on Earth deplete and miners are required to dig deeper to extract resources, asteroid mining will become an economically feasible technique.

Asteroid mining could become a reality sooner than we think. Source: Richard Fifer

Asteroid mining could become a reality within the next five years, if financial and technical obstacles can be overcome, according to Planetary Resources.

Speaking to IM, chief engineer Chris Lewicki said the single biggest challenge his company is having to overcome is convincing people that asteroid mining will happen sooner than they think and be cost-effective.

“The cost of going into space is either on par or cheaper than going to a subterranean mine,” said Lewicki.

Firstly, the energy required to extract minerals from an asteroid is considerably less than to extract from the Earth, or even the moon, said Lewicki, because in space there is no atmosphere to oxidise or salt to corrode, no weather, no gravity or friction to oppose transportation, dissipate energy and waste heat and unlimited heat from the sun and coldness in space for refrigeration, creating the “perfect vacuum,” as he calls it.

And secondly, Lewicki said asteroid mining will, in the first instance, be focused on extracting minerals for rocket fuel, like borax, said to be the most important boron mineral of industrial use, and is concentrated in the US and Chile, which would mean resources would be transported to nearby space stations and not back to Earth.

He said his “junior engineering asteroid mining company”, which has backing from several billionaire investors, including Google's Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, software executive Charles Simonyi and filmmaker James Cameron, has already completed the first step to putting together a business plan for private investors that Earth-based mining companies are required to fulfil.

“Some of that prospecting is already done for us through astronomy and telescopic data, the meteorite database and even some government space missions,” said Lewicki.

“We are creating a commercial and private capability to continue doing that to create robotic geologists and send them out to several more asteroids that we think are economic interest as opposed to scientific interest and to characterise that asteroid as a resource,” he added.

To advance its prospecting plans, Planetary Resources has joined up with US space agency, NASA, to recruit programmers who can help identify asteroids in images taken by ground-based telescopes.

The Asteroid Data Hunter contest, scheduled for launch on 17 March, will offer $35,000 over the next six months to citizen scientists who develop improved algorithms that can be used to identify asteroids.

As resources deplete, and humans will be required to dig deeper and deeper into the earth’s crust to extract the minerals required for survival, asteroid mining will gain in popularity.

Asteroids are lumps of metals, rock and dust, sometimes laced with ices and tar, which are the cosmic "leftovers" from the solar system's formation about 4.5bn years ago. There are hundreds of thousands of them, ranging in size from a few yards to hundreds of miles across.

Technological advancements

To carry out asteroid mining extractions, Lewicki said companies would not need to invest in new technology development, but instead adapt existing technology.

“Space mining equipment probably bears no resemblance to earth mining equipment – we’re not going to have drills and conveyor belts because you’re dealing in a completely different environment,” he explained.

“In the case of extracting hydrogen and oxygen it might look more like a seawater distillation plant than a mining plant – here you’re using some technologies which have been developed and demonstrated in NASA missions in the late 80s and early 90s,” Lewicki added.

“There’s nothing about the laws of physics that says this can’t be done and we’re just working to create that,” he said.

“We hope that our timing is good and the trajectory that we’re on will makes this happen. Whether it’s us or someone else I do think this is an inevitable future,” he concluded.

Learn more about new mining technologies at the IM22 Congress in Vancouver, 1-3 April 2014.

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  • Jens Frederiksen | 17 Mar 2014, 1:31 PM

    Seabed and now space - mining is fun!