- Slooh Community Observatory
It sounds like something straight out of science fiction: mining for natural resources on an asteroid hurtling through space at tens of thousands of miles an hour. But in as little as five years, asteroid mining could become a reality.
On Thursday, asteroid mining company Deep Space Industries signed an agreement with the tiny European country Luxembourg to further its plans to drill nearby asteroids for resources like water and minerals.
Of the many resources housed within these big hunks of rock and metal whizzing by our planet, ice will be the first resource to be mined, ideally to help provide water for the space industry.
How to mine an asteroid
Deep Space Industries plans to send Prospector-X, a tiny spacecraft, into low Earth orbit (about 1,000 miles above sea level). Prospector-X will try out some of the technology the company hopes to use to probe asteroids in the future. It will clear the way for the next generation of spacecraft that might just be able to tap into the wealth of resources buried beneath the surface of asteroids.
Ever since February, when Luxembourg outlined its Space Resources initiative and announced its goal to become a leader in asteroid mining, the country has been on the fast track to becoming an international force in the development of asteroid mining technology.
Water, the oil of the 21st century?
Companies hope to develop technology that can harvest metals like gold and platinum and water from asteroids.
NASA has said that the materials frozen in asteroids could “be used in developing the space structures and in generating the rocket fuel that will be required to explore and colonize our solar system in the twenty-first century.”
Today’s space economy currently spends billions of dollars on rocket fuel to get and keep spacecrafts in their final orbits.
Because of its high value for space exploration, water will likely be the first resource to be mined. Once it’s mined, water can be broken down into hydrogen- and oxygen-based rocket fuels. Water also plays a critical role in helping to keep astronauts hydrated in space. Plus, it can help provide oxygen for life support and serve as a shield against harmful radiation in space, Planetary Resources says on its website.
Mining asteroids, a.k.a. “the most abundant and accessible source of water in space,” would help make space exploration cheaper because it could eliminate the need to ferry water from Earth into space, which is extremely costly due to the huge amounts of energy and fuel needed to launch the rockets carrying the water.
“Water plays a profound role in so many activities in space – and it will be far less expensive to produce it there than to bring it up from Earth,” Chris Lewicki, Planetary Resources chief executive, told National Geographic. “Water will define the 21st century in space, as oil defined the 20th century on Earth.”
Finding a loophole
But the future of asteroid mining hinges on interpretations of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which declares that no country, and by extension no company, can own even part of a planetary body.
There is one potential loophole in the treaty though: It states that “outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States.” If mining asteroids for resources qualifies as “use,” the companies could get the green light to go ahead with their plans.
Luxembourg isn’t alone in the asteroid mining race. Last November, President Obama signed an act that gave US mining companies the right to own natural riches they extract from asteroids, but not asteroids themselves, Popular Science reports.
Between perfecting technologies and finding ways around existing regulations, both Luxembourg and the United States still have a long way to go before bringing the dream of asteroid mining to life.