A new study on asteroid mining has considered the potential and obstacles involved in taking this concept from a small-scale practice to a booming industry.
The report, authored by Ian Lange at the Colorado School of Mines, highlights the potential of “space mining” in reaching a significant scale in the next few decades. The endeavor is being driven by our demand for essential metals used in renewable energy infrastructure, such as wind and solar power, and electronics and electric car batteries.
One of the major benefits of asteroid mining, compared with mining the seafloor, as some companies are exploring, is that, in space, no wildlife exists to be harmed.
Lange’s study, co-authored with a researcher from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), utilizes models to show the growth of space mining versus Earth mining, depending on a number of variable factors such as mineral and space launch prices as well as clean energy transition.
The Future of Asteroid Mining
The authors found that in three to four decades, the production of certain metals from asteroids in space could surpass their production on our planet. According to the study, metallic asteroids have more than a thousand times as much nickel as the Earth’s crust in terms of grams per metric ton.
In addition, asteroids contain high concentrations of iron, platinum, cobalt, and other metals. Asteroid mining has also become exponentially more financially viable since reusable rockets have been developed by SpaceX, Rocket Lab, and other companies.
Lange has said that current refining methods, which extract metals from rock and dirt, depend on fundamental constants such as gravity. He added that it would be better to find a method to bring those resources to Earth, where there would be a high demand for them.
The Colorado School of Mine’s associate professor also highlighted the social and environmental costs of mining on Earth. In the study, Lange states: “The International Council of Mining and Metals has best practices for the environmental performance of mines, including plans for closures, water stewardship, effective tailing management, pollution prevention, and reduced energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.
“Overall, the literature suggests that environmental, social and governance factors are likely the main source of risk to metal supply over the coming decades, more than direct depletion,” he concluded.
Asteroid mining will come with its own social and environmental issues, too. For instance, there is currently no legal framework to regulate it. The closest structure thus far is the US-led Artemis Accords, a set of rules being created for exploration of the moon.
The Outer Space Treaty maintains nobody can claim territory in space. However, the accords will allow countries to set up ‘safety zones’ around lunar activities.