Metals Notes

Asteroid Mining: Fact or (Science) Fiction?

By Douglas Trinder, Precious Metals Analyst

As our planet’s precious metal reserves tap out, big business and NASA are looking to the skies. The race to mine asteroids swirling around our solar system is on.

Space mining may sound like science fiction, but it’s real, and big developments are planned in the next decade.

Why mine asteroids for metals

Asteroids are essentially massive rocks that orbit the sun, and many are thought to consist of gold, platinum, iron and other useful metals.

A single mile wide asteroid could contain many times the Earth’s annual mining output of gold and platinum, according to recent research conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Conventional wisdom may be that going to space to bring back what is needed on Earth is not economically feasible.

Not necessarily so, analysts insist.

Asteroid mining could lower price of metals

A recent Goldman Sachs report states that “while the psychological barrier to mining asteroids is high, the actual financial and technological barriers are far lower.”

Proponents say before long robots could be traveling to asteroids to extract gold, platinum and other valuable metals to haul back to Earth.

A 2012 Cal Tech study suggests that it could cost $2.6 Billion to capture an asteroid and bring it into orbit near the earth, making human exploration and robotic mining that much easier.

The study also predicts the eventual result would be far lower costs, stating, “Successful asteroid mining would likely deflate the price of any metals successfully mined and returned to Earth.”

Current & future asteroid explorations

In 2016 NASA launched the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on a seven-year mission to a carbonaceous asteroid named Bennu.

The spacecraft will map the asteroid for over a year and then move in close to allow a robotic arm to extract several ounces of material to return to Earth for analysis.

OSIRIS-REx spacecraft asteroid mining mission

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is currently on a mission to an asteroid named Bennu. A robotic arm from the spacecraft will extract a small sample of material to bring back to Earth for study. [Image: NASA]

NASA also plans to launch a robotic mission within the decade sending the devices to explore asteroids near Mars and Jupiter. This mission is scheduled to launch in 2022 with a planned arrival at an asteroid known as 16 Psyche by 2026.

16 Psyche is supposedly a massive hunk of precious metals including gold, platinum, iron and nickel. Its potential value in the quadrillions of dollars has grabbed the attention of numerous entrepreneurs and investors.

Asteroids offer rich opportunities

What gives asteroid Psyche great interest is that it is made of exclusively metal.

Every world explored so far by humans (except for gas giant planets such as Jupiter or Saturn) has a surface of ice or rock or a mixture of the two.

Because we cannot see or measure the Earth’s core directly, asteroid Psyche and others offer a unique window into the violent history of collisions that created terrestrial planets.

It also may offer entrepreneurs and investors the opportunity of a lifetime, mining precious metal rich asteroids.