​Asteroid Mining – Fact Or Wild Science Fiction?

The SpaceX launch could be more significant than merely signalling the beginnings of private space travel!
It costs Elon Musk less than $3,000 per kilo of payload to have his rocket orbiting the solar system. Back in the day, it used to cost the US government close to $55,000 per kilo, putting it out of reach of everyone but governments. And billionaires. Today it's attainable for a lot more enterprises, including those with an eye to potential profits. In fact, Elon Musk claims that eventually his reusable rockets could cost as little as $2 million to launch. That definitely makes them economically viable so long as there is a way to recover the expense.

The problem is that making a profit from space ventures is somewhat limited. Space tourism is currently the most likely option, and it could well become 'a thing'. However, when you consider that Elon Musk, and others like him, are also on the lookout for ways to invest in cleaner, greener supply chains for their other ventures ie battery minerals for electric cars, space interest takes a different turn. 

Nickel is looming as one of the most significant minerals over the next half century obviously because it's a so-called battery mineral. Unfortunately, it's also a mineral dogged by politics and supply chain problems. The Philippines and Indonesia have been tussling for the title of the world's biggest nickel supplier for years, with the Philippines generally coming out on top. However, the shutdown of over half that country's nickel mines in 2017 because of environmental pollution concerns allowed Indonesia to race to the lead. In 2018 nickel overtook palm oil as Indonesia's biggest export earner.

Now Indonesia is, not surprisingly, looking at ways of 'value adding' at home rather than exporting the raw product and has put an embargo on the export of nickel ore. This has tightened global nickel ore supply, although the situation has eased slightly as some of the Philippine's mines come back into production after cleaning up their acts. Nevertheless, with many of the globe's top 10 nickel producers being countries that are either politically unstable, or with poor environmental records, ongoing supply of this increasingly valuable mineral remains a concern. Small wonder then that thoughts are turning to alternative sources, one of which is located in space.

The Fascinating World Of Asteroids And Comets

Asteroids and comets are very large 'rocks' that orbit the sun. Both were formed during the earliest stages of our solar system and are some 4 and a half billion years old. They provide vital clues about the origins of the solar system. Some of them are several kilometres wide.

The difference between them lies in their composition. Asteroids were formed closer to the sun than comets so any ice has melted, leaving behind silicates, rocks and metals. Comets on the other hand formed far enough away from the sun that they retained ice along with the dust and rocks. However, comets do get their name from the fact that when their orbit brings them closer to the sun some of the ice vaporizes, leaving the characteristic tail.

Asteroids, Meteoroids, Meteors, Meteorites – What Is The Difference?

Asteroids (and comets) frequently lose chunks and those chunks are called meteoroids. Meteoroids can be anywhere from the size of a grain of sand to a very large boulder. They continue to orbit around the sun until or unless they get drawn into the earth's atmosphere, at which point the majority of them vaporise. When they vaporise, they're called meteors. Meteoroids that manage to get through our atmosphere intact and hit the earth are called meteorites. The smallest of these are about the size of dust particles, and they have yet another name – micrometeorites.

Scientists estimate that around 50 tons of meteoritic material lands on our planet every day. About 99% of it is just space dust ie micrometeorites. However, every now and again much larger meteorites hit us. One of the largest ones we know about, the Chicxulub impactor, left the Chicxulub Crater on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. The inner ring of this crater measures some 180 kilometres in diameter whilst the outer one could be as much as 300 kilometres in diameter. The impact area of the crater itself is some 30 kilometres deep so it was clearly made by a huge meteorite!

Indeed, it's estimated that the meteorite must have been between 11 and 81 kilometres in size. The crater is submerged under 600 metres of sediment and extends out into the Gulf of Mexico. The timing of the impact corresponds with the max extinction event that brought about the demise of the dinosaurs, along with around 75% of the rest of the earth's flora and fauna at the time.

Types Of Meteorites – Stony, Iron, And Stony-Iron

Scientists have categorised meteorites into 3 groups based on their composition. Stony meteorites consist mostly of silicates along with smaller amounts of nickel and iron. They are further classified into 2 major types – chondrites and achondrites.

Chondrites in turn can be ordinary or carbonaceous. Around 86% of the meteorites that have hit earth are ordinary chondrites so they're reasonably common. They originated as part of some of the earliest asteroids in the solar system, which are made up of the dust and other small particles of matter that would have been floating around the young solar system. The distinguishing feature of ordinary chondrites is their embedded chondrules (hardened lava droplets). Ordinary chondrites are themselves classified into further groups (H, L & LL) based on the amount of iron in them.

Carbonaceous chondrites are nowhere near as common as ordinary chondrites. It's thought this type of chondrite comes from asteroids that developed a long way from the sun. They contain carbon, commonly as organic compounds like amino acids. Additionally they often have water, or water shaped material, in them. Carbonaceous chondrites are also further categorised by their mineral content.

Achondrites lack chondrules and are rare. Only around 3% of known meteorites are achondrites. Based on their composition, it's known that they originated as part of the outer layers of asteroids.

Iron or metallic meteorites are composed primarily of nickel and iron but may also have other metals including gold, platinum, palladium, iridium, osmium, rhodium and ruthenium. Moreover, these metals, when present, are several times more concentrated in asteroids than they are on Earth. They also provide a clue that the meteorites originated from asteroid cores rather than the outer layers.

Their high mineral composition is also the reason they can withstand their fiery entry into earth's atmosphere without shattering. That means most of them are huge, dense, and incredibly heavy when they land. The Hoba meteorite in Namibia, the largest we've found, has never been moved because it's just too big and heavy. Iron meteorites make up around 5% of meteorites and are the biggest ones yet discovered.
Stony-iron meteorites are a combination of the first two. Most of them seem to be around 50/50 silicates and metal. One type of stony-iron meteorite called pallasites likely originated from the core-mantle boundary of an asteroid that broke up when it hit the earth's atmosphere.

Now, you've probably noted the mention of 'nickel' in relation to meteorites and asteroids. The Iron Meteorites are full of it, as would the asteroids they come from. If we can't get enough of this mineral here on earth, it's logical to think that maybe we can get it by mining asteroids instead. However, there is one small obstacle in the way. A 1967 treaty, called the Outer Space Treaty, makes it illegal for any nation to claim sovereignty over anything that isn't part of Earth.

More precisely, it states that "The moon and other celestial bodies" are "not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means." But, as any good space lawyer will tell you, 'national appropriation' and 'private property rights' aren't necessarily one and the same thing.

There's also a whole new field of law, called 'space law', opening up. Once only really of academic interest, space law is definitely now 'a thing' as interest in asteroid mining becomes more and more formalised. Private equity funding for the sector for example has ramped up considerably over the past year or so, with a staggering $1.7 billion US committed to start-ups looking into space exploration in just the first quarter of 2019.

The world's foremost mining school in Colorado, the Colorado School of Mines, now offers a study program for those interested in asteroid mining. Likewise, NASA is keenly interested in research into asteroid mining and is actively funding it. The US further now has the 2015 Space Act that allows US companies to claim what they find on 'celestial bodies' like asteroids. The writing is indeed on the wall. Space exploration, or more precisely, asteroid mining, once considered part of the realm of science fiction, is now very much feasible.

What would we mine?

Obviously, the primary target is the metals, and notably the nickel. However, companies would also be looking for water within carbonaceous asteroids so that they could produce hydrogen fuel to get equipment back to Earth. It's cheaper than carting all that fuel up there with them. A small 7-metre asteroid of this type for example could contain nearly 95,000 litres of water.

We already know the whereabouts of nearly 1 million asteroids. Many of them are located in the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars, which could actually have closer to 2 million extremely large (over a kilometre in diameter) asteroids alone floating around, plus millions of smaller ones. Then there the some 10,000 near-Earth ones, 861 of which are over a kilometre in diameter. Moreover, almost 1,500 of these near-Earth asteroids are currently being monitored because they pose a threat to us.

One of these is asteroid 1986 DA. This is a huge 3 kilometre chunk of rock floating close to earth that has an estimated worth of some $6–7 trillion in nickel, iron, platinum and gold resources. And there are millions of asteroids out there!

To provide some further insight into the staggering mineral resources out there: an iron asteroid around 25 metres wide could potentially produce over 30,000 tons of metal worth many millions of dollars. There could be at least $50 million just in platinum.

Ripe For The Plucking?

Whilst bigger asteroids like Vesta and Ceres would probably be classed as 'celestial bodies' under the Outer Space Treaty, smaller ones are likely to be considered mere chunks of rock, albeit valuable ones, rather than real estate. With no laws in place currently to regulate this aspect, that could make them fair game when the rising tide of space mining technologies reaches the point where it's actually feasible and possible to stake out, then mine, an asteroid.

Is asteroid mining a good thing? Time will tell but one thing is for sure and certain. If we thought man landing on the moon was something remarkable back in 1969, we're going to be gob smacked by the types of technologies about to be developed and the frontiers we're about to push.
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