Nauru is a small island nation that was once the wealthiest country in terms of GDP per capita. Due to its remote location in an ocean, birds used the island’s grounds as a transit location. They would reach the island and drop off their excreta, which is rich in phosphorus. Over millions of years of such deposits, Nauru found itself standing upon the world’s largest phosphorus deposit. These deposits, at the time, made the country rich. Today, Nauru’s GDP has stumbled, and it barely passes as a middle-income nation with a GDP per capita of about USD 10,000. Compare that with the GDP per capita of USD 374,120 (Adjusted to inflation) of 1968.
We have 80 years left, after which all of our phosphate resources will run dry, and phosphorus will have to be extracted from the sea. This, in turn, will drive up the costs of phosphorous exponentially. This means exponentially expensive phosphate fertilizers, and that means exponentially expensive food production as phosphate is one of the most widely needed fertilizer.
The same is happening with other resources as well. We only have so much gold to fill 2 Olympic-sized swimming pools, and we need more gold than ever to fuel our hunger for microprocessors, which requires a lot of gold to be made.
We don’t have enough crucial resources like platinum to conduct all of our research, and even iron is getting expensive day by day. Right now, the biggest obstacle in our expansion as a species is the growing shortage of raw materials. And there are no islands left to discover, no mountain left to mine. Earth, as we know it, is not enough to fuel our expansion and development. We need to look beyond. We may need to start looking outward, away from the earth’s crust, and out into the skies.
A Possible Solution
Our universe is made up of different things, including but not limited to: The Sun, planets, moon, moons of other planets, comets, meteors, asteroids, and all the other stuff. In this article, however, we are only interested in asteroids, of which there are hundreds of millions in the solar system. Asteroids are rocky worlds revolving around the sun that are too small to be called planets. They are mostly found in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. But there are a lot closer to earth and are known as Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs).
But mining these asteroids needs to go through an extreme cost-benefit analysis. It doesn’t matter if an asteroid is made entirely out of gold near Pluto because we cannot bring it to earth at a profitable rate with current technology. So that narrows our list down to about 25,000 NEAs, with our understanding of their numbers growing every day with new discoveries.
These are the asteroids that can be reached and possibly mined with considerably less fuel. As we will explore in the upcoming part of the “Asteroid Mining” series there are ways in which these asteroids can provide a good return on investment (ROI) for anyone willing to take the risk.
Some of the NEAs useful for the discussion are as follows
The C-type asteroids make up about 75% of all asteroids in the solar system. They harbor resources like carbon and water that might not be precious enough to attract mining investments but they hold the key to making the idea feasible. This is because the price of sending one liter of water to space is USD2,500.
However ever we can use the water in these asteroids and break them down into hydrogen and oxygen for fuel and respiration in space. This can also help reduce the exploration price, as fuel would not have to be carried by spacecraft but be available on site.
Think of it as a fuel station where rockets can load up on hydrogen. That way, they don’t have to carry thousands of liters of fuel along their journey. This way, the space freed by not having to fill your gas tankers can be used to carry more load like people or materials. What’s the point of having a full gas tank if you can just fill it up in an asteroid fuel base? Especially when carrying the fuel requires extra fuel and that extra fuel requires even more fuel which costs a lot. This means that these asteroids could lower the cost for future exploration and help establish our stations in space.
The S-type asteroids contain a ton of minerals and makeup of about 17% of the total asteroids (almost 4,500 Near Earth Asteroids). Along with this, they also contain trace amounts of precious metals like platinum and gold. A single 10-meter-wide S-type asteroid could hold about 50 kg of platinum and gold. This has garnered the attention of companies like Planetary Resources, which plans to mine on an asteroid that contains more platinum than what has ever been mined on earth. These types of asteroids currently are the focus of the space mining industries due to their high value.
The M-type asteroids contain iron and nickel and are not in focus for asteroid mining due to their low return on investment. Although, future technology coupled with rising demand and dwindling supply might change that sooner than expected. If the price of extracting iron from asteroids proves to be cheaper than mining it here on earth, then it would be a pretty easy decision to go to space.
It isn’t a question of if we ever mine asteroids but of when. As we explore in our upcoming articles, we will take a look at the timeline of space mining progression, the technology used to extract these resources, its effect on the global economy, and the effects on human society. We will analyze the growing demands of metals and resources and see how companies find new ways of making money from this sector.
- “New NASA Mission to Help Us Learn How to Mine Asteroids,” National Aeronautics and Space Administration, August 8, 2013,
- “Asteroid Composition,” Planetary Resources, http://www.planetaryresources.com/asteroids/#asteroids-types-of-asteroids