In the latest Daily Dispatch from Casey Research, Robert Ross looks at the future possibilities in this field. If you're a geek like me, and have any background in mining and resources, it's a fascinating article. Here's an excerpt.
Planetary Resources has a three-step plan, with an aim to mine asteroids for water and precious metals. More specifically, the company intends to create a swarm of robotic spacecraft that can use artificial intelligence to coordinate complex mining operations without a human presence.
The whole thing may seem like a bunch of eccentric billionaires getting together to throw hoards of money at a project with little possibility of success. But it's not. According to the company's president and chief engineer Chris Lewicki, Planetary Resources is already cash-flow positive:
"When we started the company, one of the first things we did was to identify the roadmap that would get us from now until we got to the asteroids. That way, we could identify who would be interested in the things we'd be developing along the way. We already have contracts with NASA, some private companies, and even a few private individuals."
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Planetary Resources claims that the initial space-resource development projects will focus on water-rich asteroids. By focusing on water – which can be used in space for hydration, breathable air, radiation shielding, and formulating rocket fuel – the company hopes to enable large-scale exploration of the solar system.
The company has a few ideas on how the actual mining operations will take place. One advanced technique mentioned by Lewicki is to harness the energy generated by the heat and cold differential on an asteroid; this is generated by sunlight hitting part of the asteroid while the rest is in shadow.. In theory, this should provide the energy needed to extract the targeted resources.
Apart from making science-fiction fans cheer, mining asteroids has many implications for life inside and outside our atmosphere. It could make long-term space travel more feasible, since astronauts would not have to return to Earth to resupply certain essential resources, such as water, gas, oxygen, etc.
Another attractive opportunity is the plethora of rare-earth metals – such as scandium, cerium, and gadolinium – contained in certain near-Earth asteroids. It's speculated that a relatively small, 1.6-km diameter asteroid with the right physical characteristics could contain more than $20 trillion worth of industrial and precious metals. For example, near-Earth asteroid 16 Psyche is believed to contain [enough] nickel-iron ... to supply current world production requirements for several million years. Not too shabby.
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Of course, the scientific community is not without skeptics. Former NASA aerospace engineer Louis Friedman says it would take "hundreds of millions of dollars" to get started. This shouldn't be a problem considering Planetary Resource's wealthy stakeholders and friends, not to mention the private sector's ability to innovate and cut costs.
It's also worth noting that upcoming NASA mission OSIRIS-Rex will be engaging in some asteroid mining of its own. The mission's goal is to harvest two ounces of material from an asteroid and return to Earth at a cost of about $1 billion. But we all know how efficient government-funded projects are.
There's more at the link. Recommended reading.