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Asteroid Mining: Will It Happen?
Asteroid mining shouldn't conjure images of a prospector with his pickaxe and donkey. Modern day mining is a very sophisticated operation here on Earth. But there are non-Earthly challenges to overcome in order to pull off mining an asteroid. Even if the technology comes together, will the costs be so high that asteroid mining is not viable economically?
Why Asterioid Mining May Happen
The value of mined materials will likely continue to increase as Earth's supply is depleted. A tipping point could be reached where mining asteroids makes sense. Already there is commercial interest in asteroid mining.
There are hundreds of thousands of asteroids “out there.” A huge supply of metals, and other materials, may be waiting for someone to put together all the pieces, so to speak. One such someone is Planetary Resources, a Washington based company who is banking on asteroid mining becoming a reality. Perhaps you’ve heard of some of their investors, such as Larry Page, Ross Perot, Jr. and Richard Branson. Another company working towards asteroid harvesting is Deep Space Industries. Both companies tout impressive leadership and team member credentials. These are not pie-in-the-sky dreamers, but serious scientists, aerospace engineers, entrepreneurs, and space industry experts.
On the government front, NASA is planning to launch its OSIRIS-REx spacecraft in 2016. The mission plans to bring back samples from the asteroid Bennu, as well as perform studies while there. These samples, along with the on site observances, could provide valuable information relating to the future mining of asteroids. Three types of spectrometers will be used on the spacecraft; visual, X-ray, and infrared, as various types of light can be used to evaluate materials.
It will take the NASA OSIRIS-REx craft just over two years to reach Bennu, not to mention the time it will spend there or the time it will take to evaluate what is learned. While the future mining of asteroids is not the primary mission, knowledge gained by OSIRIS-REx will be a step forward in asteroid exploration.
Are There Political & Legal Issues?
The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 recognized the need for agreement between countries regrading outer space activities. While sovereignty is addressed, much of its focus is on exploration and military use of space. it seems there will certainly need to be more detailed agreements regarding the mining of materials from outer space bodies.
Ideas about space legal issues have been discussed at the Space Resources Roundtable. Of course, any future agreements between countries are only as powerful as the range of included parties and the enforceability of the terms. Who knows what the state of international relationships might be at the point agreements need to be formed.
Sum It Up
Asteroid mining may someday occur, but it could be awhile. The fact there's investment being done and somewhat preemptive legal decisions taking place shows that it is a possibility. Things can happen quicker than expected as new technologies are developed.
New NASA Mission to Help Us Learn How to Mine Asteroids | NASA. Retrieved from http://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/new-nasa-mission-to-help-us-learn-how-to-mine-asteroids/#.UqtcFWRDuLc
Deep Space Industries Home. http://deepspaceindustries.com/#
Planetary Resources – The Asteroid Mining Company. http://www.planetaryresources.com/
Outer Space Treaty. Retrieved from http://www.state.gov/t/isn/5181.htm
ISRU Info : Home of the Space Resources Roundtable. Retrieved from http://www.isruinfo.com/index.php?page=srr_13_ptmss