Space: Mining’s final frontier

 We’ve seen deeper into the reaches of space then we have explored beneath our own planet.

Planets that are made entirely of diamonds millions of kilometers away have been identified, yet scientists are still theorising what the earth’s core may look like.

But why?

Why do we know so much more about distant stars than the bottom of our own ocean?

Well, space may be the world’s salvation as the demand for materials continues to rise and grow exponentially as the earth pumps out its seventh billion human, fewer new minerals discoveries are made and the existing resources diminish.

So what is mining to do, as it’s less and less likely that there will be another Wittwatersand on the horizon. So where do we look for the newest materials?

Some have already begun mining on the seabed, uncovering mineral riches just laying on the ocean’s floor, with copper grades of around 14 per cent and more ready for the taking.

But not all are looking to continue tapping earth’s riches; some are looking to the sky and beyond to feed the ever increasing demand for minerals and metals.

It is no surprise either that we should consider asteroids or comets as source of minerals; according to Pravda, British and Swiss scientists say meteors (which are asteroids that have entered earth’s atmosphere) are behind some of the large precious metal deposits laying under the planet’s crust.

During the earth’s formation heavy precious metals such as silver, platinum group metals, iron ore and gold should have moved towards the planet’s core due to the force of gravity, geochemists believe.

However, there are still enormous amounts of metals resting just below the surface – so how did these get here if common sense says they don’t belong?

Potentially, meteorites.

These meteorites containing precious metals have rained down on earth, and increased the abundance of the planet’s minerals.

We already know that asteroids have a wide range of different make ups, some are like flying lumps of stainless steel, other contains significant hydrocarbons, while within some rock asteroids you are likely to find mind bogglingly high levels of platinum group metals, tens of thousand of parts per million.

“We do know now that there are materials of enormous economic interest available in space, any near earth object has a platinum group metals concentration greater than the best terrestrial ores,” according to Princeton’s Space Studies Institute director Lee Valentine in his article A Space Roadmap: Mine the Sky, Defend the Earth, Settle the Universe.

Recent meteors have even brought previously unknown minerals – Wassonite – to earth.
There is an increasingly diverse mix of minerals being found in these asteroids.

So now we have unknown tonnes of potentially valuable minerals floating in the vast reaches of space just waiting to be utilised.

And in here the problems lies.

There is no doubt that there is a huge supply of useful materials – if we can get to them, and know how to extract it correctly.

“Although there is a large body metallurgical knowledge on hand that has been developed for terrestrial purposes, that knowledge may not be directly translatable to the space environment,” Valentine states.

So how do we do this, and what might the outcomes be.

Speaking to Mark Sonter, who has written extensively on the technical and commercial feasibility of asteroid mining, he told Australian Mining that the potential for mining small near earth asteroids (NEA) and bringing them into earth’s high orbit is increasing as robotic and automated technology develops.

“There is no obvious showstopper that would impede mining in space,” Sonter said.

With the consistently growing number of near earth asteroids being identified, following funding boosts in the 90s, distance and accessibility is much better than many people would think.

He explained that there has been a growing interest in the feasibility of bringing small asteroids into near earth orbit for research and their potential resources for the construction of structures in space.

And here is where the value can be added, rather than by sending the minerals and metals back to earth.

“It is not really about bringing it back to earth but about using the ore in space for the growth of outer space facilities,” Sonter told Australian Mining.

“If we see the development of large scale orbital structures – factories, hotels, power stations and the like, then as soon as they begin to be constructed then we would probably use materials from easily accessible asteroids as a resource base.”

Valentine adds that “space has enormous advantages over planetary surfaces for construction of large structures. The full-time solar energy for electricity and thermal process heat is readily at hand and a hard vacuum makes possible processes that are extremely expensive to use on the earth”.

While this is a possibility in the future, it is all a pipedream until methods are set down for accurately identifying asteroids which have the potential to hold valuable minerals.

“It isn’t an issue of technology, it’s more about finding the right targets,” Sonter explained.

With increased investment by NASA and EURONEAR into identifying NEA “the number of potential targets has expanded and the number of small asteroids that have the potential to be brought into near orbit has grown”.

He added that bringing the NEA into earth’s vicinity would be easier and less time consuming than sending astronauts to the asteroids.

But what about mining a little closer to home – the moon perhaps?

Companies such as Naveen Jain’s Moon Express (MoonEx) have already looked into the possibility of lunar mining.

Speaking to FoxNews, Jain said “the moon has never been explored from an entrepreneurial perspective”.

The moon is understood to hold more than twenty times the amount of titanium and platinum than anywhere on earth, as well as the extremely rare helium 3.

According to Jain, MoonEx’s recent contract with NASA will allow the company to begin lunar mining operations in the coming years, possibly as soon as 2013.

However, according to Sonter “one-tenth of NEAs are easier to get to than the moon”.

So is it first come first serve, or can countries ‘claim’ vast regions containing unknown quantities of asteroids?

“Perpetual ownership of private of government assets in space or on other bodies is a well defined, documented and practiced aspect of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty,” explained Bob Richards, the CEO of Odyssey Moon, a company focused on commercial lunar exploration and space travel.

Sonter says that while UN laws prohibit any body from claiming these space rocks for a nation, there is “no prohibition on actually digging it up”.

Similar to most mining, the majority would be done by private companies with no intention to make nationalistic claims on the mined land.

Sonter added that the technology used to mine the asteroids would almost certainly be used to deflect any asteroids that were threatening to hit earth.

“What has become plain from the scientific results of Apollo and Mariner and Spacewatch is that the one thing that the human race must learn how to do in space is to defend our planet from catastrophic impacts with near earth objects,” Valetine states in his SSI report.

As juxtaposed as it sounds, mining could be saving the earth.

All these things are available for the taking, the minerals and metals – it’s just getting there.
Which seems light years away from reality.

But to put perspective on it all, humans first flew in 1903 and only 66 years later we stepped on the moon.

How long until we make a more permanent move into space?

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