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Asteroid mining is almost reality. What to know about the gold rush in space

Mining resources from asteroids may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but — at least if you believe some very smart people — it’s well on its way to becoming science fact.

What will be mined? Why would anyone want to do this? And who are the main players in this (literal) space? Read on for a beginner’s guide to all things asteroid mining.

I’m still not convinced. This is seriously a real thing?

Well, with that attitude it won’t be! To answer your question: no, it’s not happening yet — but don’t count it out, either. With resources on Earth set to become increasingly scarce, it makes sense that we look further afield.

Asteroid Mining
Artist’s illustration of Deep Space Industries’ Harvestor-class spacecraft for asteroid mining. Deep Space Industries

Depending on their type, asteroids can contain everything from water (useful for long-term space exploration missions) to nickel and cobalt or even valuable metals like gold or platinum. These are often in much higher concentrations than we would find on Earth.

Around 9,000 known asteroids are currently traveling in orbit close to the Earth, and some 1,000 new ones are discovered each year. According to estimates, a one-kilometer diameter asteroid may contain up to 7,500 tons of platinum, with a value of upwards of $150 billion. That’s a reason to get excited in itself.

So is this going to be the next gold rush?

With that kind of money to be made, it certainly could be. While the upfront investment costs means this won’t be quite the free-for-all of the famous 19th century gold rush, there are plenty of big names — ranging from Elon Musk to Jeff Bezos — who are very, very interested.

Think of it as panning for gold, except with the pans replaced by multimillion dollar space launches.

Isn’t that cost a limiting factor?

It very well could be. Simply put: the pricey part of this isn’t the R&D that goes into working out how to do asteroid mining. Nor is it the launches that take place to actually the achieve the goal. Instead, the really expensive bit is getting the materials back to Earth once we’ve mined them.

Given the astronomical amount of expenditure this will involve, there needs to be something seriously valuable to offset the cost of transporting it.

That’s without mentioning the fact that introducing a surplus of new precious materials on Earth would have the effect of greatly lowering its market value.

Who are the big players in this field?

Considering the price tags attached to this mission, a surprisingly large number of companies are currently working in this field. Alphabet’s Larry Page is backing Planetary Resources, although it’s worth mentioning that earlier this year the company was forced to make layoffs and delay its proposed 2020 prospecting mission after failing to raise much-needed money.