Asteroids will be plundered for materials and fuel
A new era of space exploration began in January 2018 with relatively little fanfare. A tiny satellite – Arkyd-6 – was lofted into orbit on board an Indian rocket. Designed and built by US outfit Planetary Resources, it’s an asteroid scout tasked with searching out potentially mineable space rocks.
The thing about space exploration is that it’s a constant fight against the relentless downwards tug of Earth’s gravity. Taking everything you need with you from the outset means having to outrun our planet’s pull, and that’s super-expensive. It costs thousands of dollars to launch a single kilogram into orbit, even with the recent advances in rocket technology by companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Far better to launch light, harvesting what you need from space. And there are few places more enticing than asteroids.
As leftover building blocks from the formation of our Solar System, asteroids are rich in precious commodities such as platinum, tungsten and iron. The temptation they offer has triggered the cosmic equivalent of the famous California Gold Rush of the mid-1800s. Last year, Luxembourg became the first European country to pass a law that allows asteroid mining companies in the country to keep what they find in space. Meanwhile in the UK, Scottish aerospace company Asteroid Mining Corporation is currently trying to raise £2.3m to build satellites capable of identifying platinum on near-Earth asteroids. In the coming years, companies could send proof-ofconcept probes to explore some of the 17,000 asteroids deemed close enough to reach economically, with estimates suggesting that an asteroid would have to contain commodities worth in excess of $1bn to make the daring trip worth it. The potential rewards are huge: some commentators suggest asteroid mining could produce the world’s first trillionaire.
For now, though, asteroids offer something even more vital for future spacefarers: ice. Frozen water is the space equivalent of gold. Melt it and you have water to drink and wash with. But that’s only scratching the surface of ice’s potential: one look at its famous chemical structure – H2O – tells you it’s made of both hydrogen and oxygen. You can harvest breathable air from ice, as well as using the hydrogen for fuel. It means that asteroids could become the cosmic petrol stations of the future: dock, fill up and continue your journey. Mars, with its abundant ice in glaciers and polar caps, could also be a valuable pit stop.
“THE POTENTIAL REWARDS ARE HUGE: SOME COMMENTATORS SUGGEST ASTEROID MINING COULD PRODUCE THE WORLD’S FIRST TRILLIONAIRE”