One Big Asteroid Could Ruin Your Mining Industry

While not literally ‘pie in the sky’, asteroid mining used to be science fiction.  Perhaps, it is no longer fantasy.   Various private space companies have focused on launching satellites, […]
Published on February 21, 2018

While not literally ‘pie in the sky’, asteroid mining used to be science fiction.  Perhaps, it is no longer fantasy.  

Various private space companies have focused on launching satellites, with hazy side-bets on future colonization ventures.  However, recent technological advances have brought the science fiction of mining asteroids closer to reality.

There are millions of asteroids in space, most orbiting between Mars and Jupiter.  Those closer to Earth tend to be carbon- or silica-based, like Earth’s crust, with only a few containing more valuable minerals. Some asteroids are iron-based with other elements. Some scientists speculate that there are many asteroids containing a high proportion of lucrative gold, platinum, rhodium, cobalt, and even rarer metals. These metals are used in electronics, metal alloys, permanent magnets, batteries, and in electric motors; importantly, the motors of electric vehicles.

Meanwhile, identifying asteroids that have these metals via radar and infrared detection has improved significantly. See:  https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1403/1403.6346.pdf. Assuming valuable asteroids can be identified, they could be captured and put into an Earth orbit, and eventually they could be brought down, perhaps in pieces, to land safely on our planet.

A few private companies are willing to attempt to capture these valuable asteroids, and, surprisingly, they are raising the funds from willing investors.  One of these companies is Planetary Resources, which plans to send probes to locate water-rich asteroids to resupply space vehicles while they are on their way to other planets.  This company also plans to locate and try to capture metal-rich asteroids. The investment could have a tremendous pay-off.

Just one 200 m-diameter roughly spherical rock with 80% iron by volume, the rest in more rare metals, could easily be worth an average of USD$100 per kilogram for the exotic, rare or precious non-iron elements, or about eight hundred billion dollars in total. If a spacecraft could snag this body and either mine it in space or bring it safely to Earth, it would be very profitable, even if expensive to do.

One of these asteroids could have a non-heavenly effect on the mining industry.  If such an object were landed safely and the contents refined, it could put a number of mining companies out of business by depressing the prices of the precious or rare elements.

Eight hundred billion dollars exceeds the five hundred billion dollars annual revenues of the forty largest global metals mining companies in 2016, the great bulk of which comprised non-precious metals such as iron, aluminum, nickel, zinc, and copper.  Platinum, palladium, gold, rhodium, niobium, vanadium, tantalum, and more exotic elements are difficult to find on earth and costly to recover, refine, and transport.   

Companies, such as SpaceX and Blue Horizon, are developing bigger and reusable rockets that could make searching for and recovering asteroids much cheaper–and more likely to happen in a few years.

Canadians might want to watch the skies because treasures may soon come raining down, but not everyone will cheer.

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