Economics

Asteroid Mining? It's Not As Crazy As It Sounds.

For most people, the idea of asteroid mining sounds about as sci-fi as light-speed travel and teleportation. Well, billionaires aren't most people. A growing number of entrepreneurs have crunched the numbers and arrived at a surprising conclusion: asteroid mining makes economic sense.

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Artist's concept image of the Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV) Crew Cabin module on a near-Earth asteroid mission.

There's Platinum In Them Thar Hills!

In April of 2017, Goldman Sachs circulated a 98-page note for its clients saying, basically, space mining seems daunting but it actually makes a lot of sense. "While the psychological barrier to mining asteroids is high, the actual financial and technological barriers are far lower," it said, according to Business Insider.

Here's how they came to that conclusion: thanks to the efforts of SpaceX and other private space ventures, the cost of space travel is plummeting. It used to cost $35 million to send a single person into space; now, companies are hoping to send people to space aboard reusable rockets for as little as a quarter of a million dollars. And a CalTech report states that an entire asteroid "capture and return mission" could cost about $2.6 billion.

Meanwhile, according to a 2012 Reuters interview with Peter Diamandis, co-founder of the asteroid-mining venture Planetary Resources, a single 98-foot-long (30-meter) asteroid could contain $25–$50 billion worth of platinum. Compared with the cost of a mission to the asteroid, that's a return on investment by an order of magnitude.

This painting shows an asteroid mining mission to an Earth-approaching asteroid.

Cue the "Armageddon" Soundtrack

Sure, companies want to mine asteroids. But how exactly will they pull it off? For Deep Space Industries, another company chomping at the bit to start space mining, it's a multi-step process. First, they'll send out tiny spacecraft to scout for good asteroid candidates. Once they find one, they'll send specialized robotic spacecraft to start the mining process, then return the resources they harvest to a vessel in near-Earth orbit for processing.

There's one small problem with space mining: politics. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, an international agreement that lays out the rules of space travel and exploration for planet Earth. It specifically states that "outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means." Whether that applies to mining for raw materials is a matter of some debate, but if we don't settle it soon, the first haul from an asteroid mine could become embroiled in a legal battle.

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