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By Matthew Lasley
For Metal Tech News 

Space, the final frontier for mining

Entrepreneurs eye $10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 asteroid

 

Last updated 1/21/2020 at 2:19pm

Space asteroid mining precious critical tech metals

SSL/ASU/P. Rubin/NASA/JPL-Caltech

An artist-concept of the spacecraft of NASA's Psyche mission approaching the target on this metal-rich asteroid.

Space, the final frontier... No, this isn't the opening credits of Star Trek; though that would be appropriate. Since man has set himself among the stars, he has wondered at the possibilities and the riches it might have.

In 1967, during the Space Race when no one was sure who would get to the moon first, the United Nations passed a resolution stating that no country could claim ownership of the moon. In 1969, the United States landed on the moon, planted a flag, and took some rock samples.

The world wanted to know what the moon was made of. They knew it was not a wheel of cheese, but what treasures does it hold? The samples pointed back to the creation of the earth and our common origin.

Over the last 50 years, our technology has accelerated in leaps and bounds. It took massive rooms of computers to send man to the moon, the same computing power can now easily slip into your pocket.

A large reason for this is rare earth elements (REE) which allow for stronger, smaller magnets which are vital in electronics and renewable energy. The "rare" in REE does not so much refer to rarity, but difficulty in retrieving it during the mining process.

Due to mining regulations and environmental concerns throughout the world, as well as the cost, more than 90 percent of REEs produced on Earth come from China. While no one really knows, it is estimated that China's reserves of these REEs could run out in 20 years.

Forward thinking entrepreneurs are looking to the future and space once again as a source of mineable material. While some set their sights on the moon, many are looking at asteroids.

In the last decade, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has sent two probes to study near earth asteroids. The Hayabusa-2 spacecraft recently wrapped up its exploration and is returning to earth with its sample from the asteroid Ryugu.

Probably the most ambitious exploration is being prepared by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the Arizona State University School of Earth and Space Exploration with a mission to the large metallic asteroid, 16 Psyche, to be launched in 2022. 16 Psyche is believed to be the metallic core of a dead or unformed planet.

Space asteroid mining precious critical tech metals

Denise Watt; NASA

The idea of mining asteroids has been around since the early days of space exploration. This painting depicts an artist's concept of a near-earth asteroid mining mission that was part of a NASA-sponsored study on space manufacturing held at Ames Research Center (ARC) in summer of 1977.

While this mission's primary purpose is to study the core of a planet to better understand earth's core. Its impact goes beyond that as it will demonstrate the ability to reach asteroids in the belt between Mars and Jupiter.

16 Psyche is an oblong metal asteroid that is 173 miles long, 117 miles wide, with a diameter of 140 miles. If it could be mined, it has an estimated value of over $10 sextillion (that is 21 zeroes). To put that into perspective, the annual world economy is about $74 trillion (that is 12 zeroes); which means with the current economy, it would take over 13,513,513.5 years for our economy to be equal in value.

No one is prepared to mine such an asteroid, but it does demonstrate that there is a lot of raw material in our asteroid belt alone. As the demand for resources grows with our growing population and advances in technology, new sources will need to be sought out.

As the cost of space travel is reduced and opportunities arise, governments and private investors are looking to the future and a possible space mining industry.

 

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