Sci-fi: How to make trillions on orphaned asteroids

(ORDO NEWS) — Earth‘s resources are limited, and questions about where to get them in the future are already arising.

The most appropriate answer to the growing demands of man is space, with its endless expanses and asteroids full of rare metals.

But who and how plans to mine ores on “space cobblestones”? And most importantly, is it even real?

The idea is not yesterday

Man from the very beginning of his history could not help but notice the activity in the heavens: in addition to the movement of the planets, comets flew past the Earth, asteroids pierced its atmosphere.

By celestial activity, they tried to make predictions and looked for a meaning for each event: what is even the idea of ​​the Bethlehem star, which, as it was believed, announced to the Magi about the birth of the King of the Jews, is worth.

The same was true of meteoroids, from meteors to asteroids, whose appearance in the night sky could indicate certain important future events. Now it seems a little ridiculous, but it’s not worth writing off meteorite falls completely.

Of course, it is wrong to put an equal sign between their appearance and a conditional solar eclipse, but at the same time, “heavenly stones” not only declared their existence, but often directly influenced a person’s life.

For example, it was the fall of a meteorite, according to a recent study, that could become the basis of the plot about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Another striking example of an “asteroidal” influence on the world is metals. As scientists have established, the dagger found in the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamen (lived in the 14th century BC) was forged using the metal that fell to Earth when a meteorite fell.

In other words, the usefulness of the resources that asteroids harbor is a truth that has been tested for millennia, and the idea of ​​​​getting to these resources is also not as new as it might seem.

One of the first mentions of the prospect of mining metals directly from a celestial body dates back to the second quarter of the last century, when the story “Golden Asteroid” by the famous science fiction writer Clifford Simak was published.

The story of space miners finding a gold-rich asteroid that caused it to collide with a space pirate was one of the first ever excursions into the subject of space miners, and over the years it has evolved rapidly.

From Isaac Asimov’s Catch That Rabbit and Robert Heinlein’s Rolling Stones to Daniel Suarez’s Delta-V (released in 2019), asteroid mining has captivated the minds of science fiction writers and continues to inspire people across the entertainment industry.

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An iron dagger from the tomb of Tutankhamun, found between the mummy’s bandages on the king’s right thigh, is exhibited at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (Egypt)

These are not only films like Armageddon or The Expanse series, but also video games. What is worth only the representation of mining in the Elite Dangerous space simulator, the ability to sell asteroids in Space Rangers and other projects.

And that’s not to mention the horror Dead Space, the entire action of which takes place on a ship specializing in mining.

However, if in books, games or films it takes minutes to “crush” an asteroid, then in the real world this is still a problem. But even the theoretical possibility of coping with them does not allow hundreds of people around the world to sleep peacefully.

Anatomy of space mining

In order to understand how a particular asteroid can be attractive, you need to determine what a person can extract from it. And here, scientists have already made significant progress, having learned to navigate the abundance of celestial bodies waiting for us in space.

They are divided into three types: class C carbonaceous asteroids, silicate, or silicon, class S asteroids, and metallic class M asteroids. The first two types occupy 90 percent of the total number of asteroids, but are of little interest for mining.

Metallic asteroids are only the remaining 10 percent, but they are of serious primary interest. These celestial bodies may have once been the metal cores of large cosmic bodies that were destroyed as a result of the formation of a star system.

Platinum, ruthenium, palladium, osmium are abundant on such asteroids – rare metals on Earth attract the minds of not so much scientists as businessmen who expect to make fabulous profits.

And there are exactly two good news for such enterprising people. The first is that, for example, the asteroid 2011 UW158 is “estimated” at about five trillion dollars, and the second is to extract part of the asteroid and return to Earth really now.

So, in 2010, the Japanese Hayabusa apparatus successfully delivered rock samples from the Itokawa asteroid to Earth, and in 2020 Hayabusa-2 already returned with samples from the Ryugu asteroid – yes, so far it brought only five grams, but the trouble is the beginning, and if not the development of space resources, then at least their exploration has already begun.

In 2023, by the way, the American OSIRIS-REx is supposed to deliver samples from the asteroid Bennu, and in the same year a NASA mission to the asteroid Psyche is planned – also to extract samples and deliver them to Earth.

The missions mentioned are scientific initiatives, during which, however, some technologies that will be needed later will be tested; in addition, they popularize the very idea of ​​asteroid exploration.

And business is not just connecting, but doing it actively: however, the first companies that intended to start mining on asteroids have already closed.

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Landing of an earth vehicle on an asteroid

These are American Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, which promised to start developing space resources: as in the case of scientific expeditions, all projects involve the use of robots.

But Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries failed to attract investors to their projects: the nascent industry has already managed to give birth to its mini-bubble, scaring away some of the overly optimistic entrepreneurs.

New generation companies such as Asteroid Mining Corporation are actively looking for partners. Startup AstroForge even succeeded: last year it raised $13 million in investments.

Such a flow, even despite the sad experience of the first wave of mining companies, can be explained: after all, according to Goldman Sachs, it is this industry that can give the world the first trillionaires .

But where there is money, there are always problems, and the asteroid mining story is no exception.

Big space – big problems

The first controversial moment in space mining is sewn up in the very essence of the extraction of metals, extremely rare on Earth.

For example, if the scenario of the already mentioned “Golden Asteroid” by Simak became a reality, such mining would radically affect the prices of the metal, and it’s not just about the fall in the shares of “earthly” gold miners, but about the collapse of the entire system related to gold: from jewelry to gold reserves and electronics.

The same will apply to other metals, which are extremely problematic to find on Earth.

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Earthlings are now experiencing a large shortage of rare earth metals, they are required in many areas of industry. In particular, these rare earth oxides are used as tracers to determine which parts of a watershed are being eroded. Clockwise from top center: praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium and gadolinium

Moreover, political risks should also be expected here. For example, today China supplies about 85 percent of the total mass of rare earth metals to the world market and can use its dominant position as an argument in trade wars or international conflicts.

It is difficult to imagine what will happen to such a position when the world is littered with space “rare earths”, but the fact that a new industry can create new points of tension is undeniable.

The ambiguous international status of mined metals may also exacerbate this tension. Today, the main document regulating space from a legal point of view is the so-called 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

It states that “outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation, either by declaring sovereignty over them, or by use or occupation, or by any other means,” this wording as close as possible to the topic of mining.

It follows from it that no one can appropriate the celestial bodies themselves, but not a word is said about their bowels and resources.

And this ambiguity is already making itself felt: the Russian Foreign Ministry is proposing to the world community to develop an international legal mechanism for the extraction and use of extraterrestrial resources.

At the same time, the United States and, oddly enough, Luxembourg have already officially passed laws allowing their companies to mine and appropriate the mined “space” resources. Such initiatives, as not without reason noted in Roskosmos, compromise international space law.

At the same time, it is not difficult to guess that if the scenario of the United States or Luxembourg attracts more and more countries, then at least the nervousness caused by the division of asteroids, satellites and planets can undermine not just industry, but all the mechanisms and norms of international law regarding outer space.

And if the risks on the part of the economy can still be resolved, for example, by strict regulation of the mass of metals imported to Earth and encouraging the creation of a production and business infrastructure separate from the Earth, then on the part of politics it will be increasingly difficult to find a consensus.

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The project of a robotic arm with micro-spikes at the ends of “toes-toes” to capture and secure a boulder from a large asteroid. As soon as the boulder is firmly grasped, the “legs” will push off and provide an initial lift without the use of rocket boosters

The very prospect of extracting useful resources is real, and the problems here are no longer so much of a technical nature as of a political and economic one.

If humanity manages to overcome disagreements (including, for example, on other resources – such as water at the poles of planets closest to the Earth, which will certainly be required during colonization), then mining will become the basis of progress.

In any of the scenarios, the colonization of even the nearest planets is impossible without using the resources offered by the Universe, and mining will inevitably become one of the main industries providing this process.

But how many failed companies, test trials and rounds of negotiations the world will see before an autonomous machine extracts the first ounce of platinum from an asteroid, no one knows yet.


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