How much would you pay for a space rock? If you’re anything like the Washington-based asteroid mining company known as Planetary Resources, you might be willing to shell out a lot of money for a bunch of rocks that can still be found on Earth anyway. And you wouldn’t be the only ones.
Why Asteroid Mining is Important
“The economic arguments for mining asteroids are overwhelming,” says Peter Marquez, the vice president of Planetary Resources. “On Earth, we sit at the bottom of a gravity well, and it takes enormous energy and expense to pull anything out into space. About 10,000 dollars per pound to break free of Earth’s gravity. That’s 10,000 dollars for a can of Coke.”
Asteroids provide the perfect solution to this problem, providing us access to resources which are rare on Earth but abundant in space, such as platinum-group metals used in the manufacturing of high-tech electronics. Asteroids are also rich in metals like nickel, iron, and cobalt, which can be used to make steel for spacecraft, or just about anything else.
Another lucrative resource that is present on many asteroids is water, which is plentiful in a type of rock known as carbonaceous chondrites. In addition to drinking, water is used as radiation shielding, and its constituent elements can even be used as rocket fuel.
Although asteroid mining would drastically cut the cost of manned space exploration, the program’s biggest draw is creating a budding space economy, and potentially creating the framework to colonize outer space!
How Is It Done?
It is hard to tell what is inside an asteroid. Before investing time and money into sending an actual spacecraft to an asteroid, it is important to know if what is inside that asteroid is useful. Not all asteroids are made equal.
Planetary Resources are currently assembling the first in a line of privately-owned space telescopes, called the Arkyd 100 series. These telescopes are smaller and cheaper than previous government funded telescopes, such as the Hubble Telescope, because they only need to view objects in our solar system.
After finding a suitable asteroid, Planetary Resources plans to send out an interplanetary probe, which would scan the asteroid for water and metal content, and relay the information back to Earth.
All of this may sound like science fiction, but Planetary Resources have predicted that asteroid mining could become a reality as early as the 2020s.
What is Stopping Us?
The biggest problem so far is not technological; it is legal. In 1967, 104 nations –every nation with a space agency at the time– signed the Outer Space Treaty, which disallowed any nation from laying claim to any resources outside of Earth.
More recently, however, President Obama signed the Space Act, offering US citizens and companies legal rights to claim space resources, such as asteroids. This act may seem to directly invalidate the previous 1967 agreement, but such is not the case. Essentially, parties are disallowed from laying claim to extraterrestrial resources, but are not disallowed from actually owning them.
Furthermore, as far as the United Nations is concerned, U.S. is not binding in space, just like it isn’t binding in international waters or other countries. These are just the basics of a complicated legal conundrum that is being debated, even though asteroid mining will not be viable for another 10 years by the most liberal estimate.
Don’t update your resumes just yet. Although asteroid mining will probably become a legitimate enterprise in our lifetimes, it is too early for most of us to start thinking about a career change.
This article was written by The Hearty Soul. The Hearty Soul is a rapidly growing community dedicated to helping you discover your most healthy, balanced, and natural life.