Raw Material Mining: A Space Odyssey

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First, mining companies found metals in them thar’ hills. More recently, they decided to dive headfirst into the waves and excavate metals beneath the ocean floor. In a few years, mining companies might have the opportunity to explore infinity — and beyond.

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Forget about about global sourcing. How does intergalactic sourcing sound? Last week, the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp. hosted the “Asteroid Mining ËœX’ Seminar,” a gathering for leading scientists to discuss the feasibility of space mining. In discussions last week, the participants agreed that the technology to mine asteroids isn’t difficult, although the exceptional costs make it harder. But if a private company wanted to front the fees and look for new materials or sell asteroid-derived fuel to governmental space rockets, Earthlings could be up, up and away, and space mining in as little as four years.

On Earth, precious metals are located near the core of the planet, making them difficult and expensive to mine. Asteroid impact sites, on the other hand, tell a different tale about metal recovery. One asteroid alone can host billions of dollars worth of platinum, and the process to recover the platinum is far simpler than the average mining scheme. Scraping, or strip mining, could easily uncover platinum. It wouldn’t just be platinum, either: Copper, nickel, magnesium, iron, gold, water and oxygen are also readily available in some asteroids, depending on the asteroid type.

A NASA report said that the “mineral wealth” of asteroids in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter could exceed $100 billion for each person on Earth. According to HowStuff Works, “An asteroid with a diameter of one kilometer would have a mass of about two billion tons. There are perhaps one million asteroids of this size in the solar system. One of these asteroids … would contain 30 million tons of nickel, 1.5 million tons of metal cobalt and 7,500 tons of platinum.” Looking beyond asteroids, the moon and Mars could also be (figurative) gold mines for helium-3 and various metals.

John S. Lewis, professor emeritus at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and author of Mining the Sky, told the Lexington Herald-Leader that reaching an asteroid to mine shouldn’t be a problem, as long as the government doesn’t dominate the projects. “The technology is here,” said another attendee, Neville Marzwell, manager of Advanced Concepts & Technology Innovations at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The issue is, how can you make it profitable?”

With billions of dollars sitting on each asteroid, we’re sure someone will solve that puzzle.

–Amy Edwards

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