SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, the world’s most powerful rocket launched three weeks ago, could make the sci-fi dream of asteroid mining a reality.
According to Dr. Martin Elvis, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the Heavy’s disruptive power can make near-Earth asteroid mining possible. Elvis, who’s been studying the science behind extracting resources from space rocks, told an audience at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Austin, Texas, that Falcon Heavy has the capability to make asteroid mining a reality a lot faster than we think by increasing the number of asteroids we could potentially land on by a factor of 15.
“Instead of a few hundred, we may have thousands of ore-bearing asteroids available,” said Elvis, according to Gizmodo.
The staggering potential value of the minerals in these asteroids is expected to make scarcity a non-defining feature of human existence. While mining on Earth isn’t about to end, the reality is that mineral deposits containing non-renewable resources such as copper and zinc are finite. Some studies even suggest that if demand continues for common and precious metals like aluminum, platinum or silver, these reserves will be gone in about 15, 20 and 80 years, respectively. Likewise, sources of materials like lead, zinc, tin, and certainly gold, are expected to be used up within 50 years.
On the other hand, the iron alone found in the ‘M-type’ (metallic) asteroid 16 Psyche (pronounced SYKe-ee), which is around 200km (120 milles) in diameter and made up of iron, nickel and a number of other rare metals, including gold, platinum and copper, is worth an estimated $10 quintillion. According to NASA, if we could extract all of the minerals from 16 Psyche, one of the ten most massive asteroids in the asteroid belt, the total value would be enough to give every individual on Earth about $100 billion.
Obviously the 16 Psyche ‘roid – the only core-like body in the solar system – is not the only rock that’s been found to contain some extremely precious minerals. Other giant space rocks that encircle the inner solar system and which range in size from just a few feet across to hundreds of miles in diameter, may also become convenient targets for mining operations, providing not only hydrogen, carbon, or water (to help hydrate other off world ventures like a Moon or Mars colony) but also materials we could use to construct objects such as space stations, while in space. If all these resources, including transforming asteroid water (plentiful in carbonaceous chondrites) into rocket fuel, can be acquired from off-planet sources, then the speed of any planned colonization project would be dramatically increased. In fact, companies including space colonialists Deep Space Industries, Kepler Energy & Space Engineering, Planetary Resources (which counts Google’s execs Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, Ross Perot Jr. and Charles Simonyi among its investors) and countries like Luxembourg have already started to pursue these ideas in earnest.
If Dr. Elvis is right and Falcon Heavy has what it takes with its 5 million pounds of thrust to deliver tons of mining equipment to asteroids ripe with precious minerals, then asteroid mining as one of the most challenging and exciting new frontiers of space exploration – is much more than helping humanity extend its footprint out into the solar system or make its pioneers trillions of dollars rich. As Planetary Resources’ Eric Anderson once said, “At its very core, this is about creating an economy in the solar system…this is about creating a pathway for humans to colonize the solar system.”