Environmental concerns may drive asteroid mining

Asteroid mining is one of those topics that sounds straight out of science fiction. But in recent years, with the development of low-cost launch options, mining space rocks could become downright economical. Additionally, obtaining critical resources from asteroids will help transition to cleaner environmental practices and technologies on Earth.

In a recent research paper, Dr. A team of academic researchers at the Colorado School of Mines, led by Maxwell Fleming, is researching the topic alongside Martin Stuermer, a member of the International Monetary Fund. Their work looks at various factors, including low launch costs, and asks, „What if these costs continue to drop, making mining from asteroids or the moon possible?” begs the question.

They analyzed the most relevant factors and used the Ramsey growth model to look at the cost savings and investment dynamics associated with the transition to Earth-based space mining. That model outlines a constant rate of economic growth based on labor, capital, and technology. For space-based mining, labor is an open question, as such operations are often robotic. Investment capital is not a problem, but the development of such technology has its challenges.

Modern coal mining in Germany. Courtesy Eickhoff Gruppe, CC BY-SA 3.0

After examining the costs of mining here on Earth – both economic and environmental – the answer is quite simple. They write, „We find that shifting mining from Earth to space would allow continued growth of metal use on Earth while limiting environmental and social costs. At the same time, encouraging investment in R&D for space mining may require an upper bound on environmental and social costs on Earth.”

Mining on Earth and Asteroids

Earth-based mining is an old and familiar concept. In the „old days”, it was much cheaper to mine minerals out of the ground. Miners dug up the ore and sent it to market. In modern times, most mines use automation in addition to some human labor. These days, the cost of extracting minerals has increased 60-fold over the past century. It is also incredibly harmful to the environment.

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Many minerals today are critical to the clean energy technologies needed for more efficient transportation, communications, and other aspects of modern life. A complete clean energy transition depends heavily on the availability of copper, cobalt, nickel, zinc, silver and others. Increased mining costs and the depletion of these resources are impacting the clean energy transition. And, of course, there are always environmental consequences of such mining.

Challenges of Space Mining

With this in mind, people are looking towards space-based resources. That means asteroids and possibly the moon. Asteroids are a particularly tasty target. They hang around there and seem to be rich in minerals. Of course, there are challenges in obtaining those minerals. First, the miners have to go to the asteroids. Or, we should develop robotic mining operations that work on asteroids in the harsh environment of space. Then, all those minerals must be transported back to Earth for purification and ultimately incorporated into our clean technologies. It will, in the long run, stimulate economic growth on the home planet.

„Who benefits?” Leave the questions. and „Should we be concerned about environmental impact on meteorites and near-Earth space?”, mining asteroids presents an interesting and lucrative challenge.’ There are lots floating around, and they seem to be rich in minerals. Of course, there are challenges in obtaining those minerals. First, the miners have to go to the asteroids. Or, we should develop robotic mining operations that work on asteroids in the harsh environment of space. Then, all those minerals must be transported back to Earth for purification and ultimately incorporated into our clean technologies. It will, in the long run, stimulate economic growth on the home planet. „Who benefits?” Leave the questions. and „Should we worry about environmental damage from meteorites and near-Earth space?”, mining asteroids presents an interesting and lucrative challenge.

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Challenges of Space Mining

A potential sticking point is basically „how do we know which asteroids are rich in minerals?” Although planetary scientists know a fair amount about these remnants of the solar system, there is still much that is unknown. For example, based on asteroid samples, scientists know that certain minerals in meteorites are more abundant than those found on Earth. For example cobalt, nickel and iridium are abundant in asteroids. But how much do we talk? It’s unknown because scientists don’t have good data on what „reserves” are in these materials. Of course, that knowledge base will change as NASA and others send more probes to asteroids. Ultimately, companies interested in mining can develop more concrete plans based on feasibility studies and missions (such as OSIRIS-REx) sent by space agencies.

Artist's impression of NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft preparing to touch down on the surface of asteroid Bennu.  This mission is an early precursor to possible asteroid mining.  Credits: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona
Artist’s impression of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft preparing to touch down on the surface of asteroid Bennu. This mission is an early precursor to possible asteroid mining. Credits: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

Another potential obstacle is the development of actual mining technologies. There are usability, safety and cost issues. Any equipment must continue to work in a low-gravity, near-vacuum environment. It’s one thing to send a small test robot to poke around an asteroid, which gives some initial ideas about mining equipment. But extensive mining will require a full-scale operation to solve some of Earth’s environmental challenges. Once those challenges are met, the paper’s authors expect that the space environment will not suffer. Also, they say, the costs of transporting minerals to Earth (or to Earth orbit) would benefit from better use of gravity. Many challenges in technology require solutions.

What do we get?

The study’s authors used a growth model to chart a possible plausible future for space mining. They came up with the following conclusions. First, and ultimately, there may be a shift from mining Earth resources to exploiting asteroid resources. This will affect the level of environmental damage on the house planet. Second, mining meteorites requires substantial investment in R&D. Third, costs should come down as companies use more technology to mine. Fourth, in the short term, costs may rise as the Earth’s minerals deplete, slowing the transition to clean energy. But if more minerals are available from space, the cost will eventually come down. This may indicate the speed of change.

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There is one important factor affecting future mining in space: Who owns the asteroids? Although the aim of the paper is to explore the economic model for space mining, the political and social aspects should also be explored. Property rights in space need to be clarified, especially in light of the Outer Space Treaty. Some countries and companies are so interested in exploiting resources that the treaty may or may not prevent them from doing so. In addition, questions about the market, public-private partnerships, taxation and other aspects of doing business also come into play.

„The authors conclude their study of the topic by asking how government can help „mitigate” risk to encourage private investment. What public-private partnership provides a fairer distribution of potential gains to all parties?” Future investors have the answers to decide.

For more information

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