Why hasn’t the $100,000 quadrillion asteroid been tapped for mining yet?

Why hasn’t the $100,000 quadrillion asteroid been tapped for mining yet?

Key Takeaways:

  1. Celestial bodies like 16 Psyche hold immense monetary value, potentially containing rare elements crucial for industries.
  2. Advancements in equipment development bring asteroid mining closer to reality, although funding remains a critical hurdle.
  3. The forefront of asteroid mining efforts is likely to be led by private companies due to their flexibility and innovative drive.
  4. Convincing investors of the significance of asteroid mining is crucial, with potential benefits including space development and rocket fuel production.
  5. Despite similarities in resource availability, the moon’s proximity offers logistical advantages over asteroids, impacting the choice of mining targets.

On the 13th of October, 2023, NASA embarked on a voyage towards 16 Psyche, a colossal celestial body abundant in metals, situated approximately six years away, with the intent to delve into the genesis of planetary interiors.

This asteroid boasts an astonishing monetary valuation estimated at $100,000 quadrillion, owing to its status as a literal treasure trove, harboring rare elements indispensable for automotive and electronic industries, such as platinum and palladium.

Venturing into space and potentially establishing habitation mandates the utilization of extraterrestrial reservoirs for resources. Enterprises such as AstroForge and TransAstra have initiated investigations into establishing mining operations on asteroids like Psyche. However, the question lingers: How close are we to exploiting these celestial riches?

From a technological standpoint, significant strides have been made, as articulated by Philip Metzger, a planetary physicist at the University of Central Florida. The divergence between mining activities on asteroids and terrestrial terrains solely lies in the necessity for equipment capable of enduring low-gravity, high-radiation environments. Additionally, the equipment must operate autonomously, as communication delays could extend up to 20 minutes or more, especially when celestial bodies are positioned on the opposing side of the sun.

Although the requisite technology has been conceptualized and tested in laboratory environments, it is not yet ripe for practical application, Metzger explained. On the NASA Technology Readiness Levels spectrum, which ranges from 1 to 9, the current equipment for space mining falls within the spectrum of 3 to 5.

“The technologies demand advancement, approximately to levels 6 to 7, before undertaking mission implementation,” expressed Metzger in dialogue with Live Science. “Presently, the primary constraint is the lack of financial backing.” Metzger suggested that with an influx of funding, the prospect of commencing small-scale asteroid mining within five years could materialize.

Any progress in asteroid mining endeavors is anticipated to emerge predominantly from private enterprises, posited Kevin Cannon, an assistant professor specializing in geology and geological engineering at the Colorado School of Mines’ Space Resources Program. However, a notable impediment looms: the necessity to justify asteroid mining to potential investors.

It’s a legitimate inquiry. Transporting materials back to Earth presents economic uncertainties, remarked Cannon to Live Science. The endeavor would incur exorbitant costs, especially considering that the prices of platinum group metals are currently in decline. Nevertheless, asteroids could serve as vital resource reservoirs for space development, he added.

“For instance, by extracting water from a water-abundant asteroid, we could decompose it into hydrogen and oxygen, which could serve as rocket propellants for spacecraft refueling,” elucidated Cannon. Furthermore, metals extracted from asteroids could be fashioned into substantial structures within the expanse of space.

Artist concept of the Psyche spacecraft, which will conduct a direct exploration of an asteroid thought to be a stripped planetary core. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

This proposition invites another query: Why not focus on lunar mining? All the materials sought after in asteroid mining are also present on the moon, albeit in diminished concentrations. Additionally, the moon is significantly more accessible.

The moon’s advantage lies in its proximity, affirmed Cannon. “Even with near-Earth asteroids under consideration, when factoring the duration required for orbital alignment between the asteroids and Earth, which is imperative for return journeys, the timeframe extends to numerous hundreds of days.” Psyche, with its monumental $100,000 quadrillion worth, necessitates years of travel, with initial contact forecasted for 2029.

Despite the unpreparedness for asteroid mining, scientific intrigue persists in the exploration of these celestial bodies. Shortly before the Psyche mission’s commencement, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft concluded its mission to the asteroid Bennu, returning with specimens in tow. In 2020, the Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa2 retrieved samples from the asteroid Ryugu before embarking on expeditions to explore two additional asteroids: 2001 CC21 and 1998 KY26. Additionally, in October, the European Space Agency is slated to launch a mission to the asteroid Hera.

None of these missions are explicitly geared towards mining activities. Both OSIRIS-REx and Hayabusa2 were driven by research objectives aimed at enhancing comprehension of ancient Earth’s geology and chemistry, whereas Hera’s focus lies in advancing planetary defense technology.

“There exists no arcane technology necessitating invention for asteroid mining. We possess the requisite technology,” affirmed Cannon. “It’s a matter of fortitude and allocating resources towards this pursuit.”

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