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By Matt Williams
It has been said that within the next quarter century, the world’s first trillionaires will emerge. It is also predicted that much of their wealth will stem from asteroid mining, a burgeoning space industry where minerals and volatile compounds will be harvested from Near-Earth Asteroids. This industry promises to flood the market with ample supplies of precious metals like gold, silver and platinum.
Beyond Earth, there’s the long-term prospect of the Main Asteroid Belt, which would provide even greater abundance. This is one of the reasons why NASA’s Psyche mission to explore the metal asteroid of the same name in the Main Belt has many people excited. While the exploration of this body could tell us much about the history of the Solar System, it could also be a source of riches someday.
What makes Psyche 16 particularly interesting is its almost pure, metallic composition. According to radar observations, the asteroid has been determined to be made up of mostly iron and nickel. This separates it from most other asteroids, which are either primarily composed of silicate minerals (S-type) or carbonaceous compounds (C-type).
And while metallic asteroids (M-type) are known to exist, Psyche is the largest of the bunch – measuring about 225 km (140 mi) in diameter. This has led many in the astronomical community to the conclusion that Psyche is actually the remnant core of a planet. Therefore, studying it would reveal a great deal about planet formation during the early Solar System and the magnetic properties of rocky worlds (like Earth).
This is why NASA hopes to send a mission to this asteroid in 2022 – which would arrive by 2026 and spend the next 21 months studying it from orbit. But for futurists and the venture capitalists, this asteroid is interesting because it contains an estimated $700 quintillion (that’s 18 zeroes!) worth of precious heavy metals, which includes vast quantities of gold and platinum.
As Scott Moore – the CEO of the Toronto-based company EuroSun Mining – recently said about the future of the industry:
“The ‘Titans of Gold’ now control hundreds of the best-producing properties around the world, but the 4-5 million ounces of gold they bring to the market every year pales in comparison to the conquests available in space.”
Granted, these kinds of missions cannot begin until all the necessary infrastructure is built. That would likely entail the creation of orbital manufacturing facilities, refueling points on or around the Moon, Mars, and in the Asteroid Belt. It would also be wise to build foundaries in the Belt or in orbit so that minerals can be processed before being brought to Earth.
For a more detailed summary, there’s Roadmap to Space Settlement(3rd ed. 2018) produced by the National Space Society (NSS). As it states in Part 5: Asteroid Mining and Orbital Space Settlements:
“Telescopic observations will initially identify asteroids as Near Earth Objects (NEO’s), Earth threatening NEOs, main belt asteroids and other orbital groupings. Initial robotic missions to NEO asteroids of commercial interest will confirm the size and composition of different types of asteroids as being rocky, metallic or carbonaceous, and identify the actual abundances of minerals on each one.”
“The probes will also estimate the structure of the asteroids, as being apparent “rubble piles” of loose fragments, or made of solid, non-fractured rock and metal. Some missions may bring back actual samples of asteroid material for analysis. All this information will assist governments in planning planetary defense against threatening NEOs and will assist mining companies to decide which asteroids to focus on.”
Once that is complete, automated mining ships can be dispatched and asteroids harvested. As for how long this would take, there are some thoughts on that as well. As Professor John Zarnecki (the President of the Royal Astronomical Society) explained in a 2018 interview with International Business Times, asteroid mining could be happening within a quarter of a century:
“The timeline for space mining is the $64,000 question. My opinion is probably 25 years for a ‘proof of concept’ set-up, and 50 years for a commercial start. But there are so many uncertainties—mostly based around economics and the progress of space technology.”
A challenge, to be sure, and one which requires a lot of time and resources. But there is no shortage of nations and private interests looking to stake out a slice of the market – one which is already established. According to estimates by Allied Market Research, the global market for asteroid mining will top $3.8 billion by 2025.
Beyond that, asteroid mining is expected to be the focal point of the next industrial “boom”. It won’t begin in the Main Asteroid Belt, but it won’t end there either. All told, this burgeoning market could eventually reach from the inner Solar System to the Kuiper Belt, harvesting everything from metals and volatiles to helium-3 and rare Earth elements.
“What we’re doing on the ground now may be impressive, but like everything else, even gold exploration in space is only a matter of infrastructure,” added Moore. “We’ll get to it, eventually… This may be the Holy Grail of space exploration for gold, but it won’t be the first stop on this adventure.”
In the meantime, the Psyche mission promises to teach us a great deal about how the rocky planets of our Solar System came to be. Understanding its magnetic properties could also reveal how Earth has managed to hold onto its protective magnetic field while planets like Mercury, Venus, and Mars have not. In Mars’ case, this led to the surface changing from a warmer, wetter environment to the cold, dry and inhospitable place it is today.
As of June 11, NASA announced that the Psyche mission had been cleared to move to Phase C of its development. This will consist of the Psyche team finalizing the system design, developing detailed plans and procedures for the spacecraft and science mission, and completing the process of assembling and testing the spacecraft and its subsystems.
Phase D, which will include the final assembly and testing of the spacecraft before launch, will begin in early 2021. If all goes according to plan, the mission is scheduled to launch by August of 2022.
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