Beyond Jewelry

Someday, Some Way, Platinum May Be Mined in Space

Artists concept of the Psyche spacecraft, which will conduct a direct exploration of an asteroid thought to be a stripped planetary core. Credit: SSL/ASU/P. Rubin/NASA/JPL-Caltech

It may seem like science fiction today, but countries and companies are vying for the opportunity to mine platinum—along with many other natural materials—analysts report that this might become a reality within the next few decades.

These rich, new mineral claims will be found in asteroids—those large, football-field sized balls of rocks and other celestial matter that soar throughout the heavens, sometimes grabbing our attention when they become perilously close to Earth.

Renowned NY-based investment bank, Goldman Sachs, is confident about the future of asteroid mining. In a 98-page report to its clients, Goldman aerospace and materials analyst Noah Poponak told investors that the industry could be worth tens of trillions of dollars in the coming years. Planetary Resources, one of two of the leading U.S. based space mining companies, estimates that just one asteroid measuring 30 meters in length could carry up to $50 billion of platinum along with other platinum group metals (palladium, iridium, rhodium).

Asteroids are filled with ice, ore and other minerals that have long been mined on Earth. As a matter of fact, some platinum deposits are believed to have come from asteroids that crashed into our planet long ago. Prospecting in space requires the same exploration techniques done by today’s Earth-bound miners, but with a high-tech twist: mining in space will largely rely upon robotics.

With millions of dollars worth of venture capital behind them, Planetary Resources and the Silicon Valley-based Deep Space Industries are in varying stages of development to build the identification and extraction methods needed for space mining. Both companies are beta testing small robot-operated “prospecting crafts” that will—in theory if, not yet, in practice—first ascertain an asteroid’s content and then remove the wealth from within. According to a January 2017 article in Wired, Deep Space Industries’ prototype will lead to an actual mission in 2020. It may, however, take decades for the extraction of any precious materials after discovery.

But platinum won’t be the first element these ambitious programs pursue. Water, when broken down into its component parts of liquid hydrogen and oxygen will be turned into rocket fuel in space. With the number of probes, satellites and prospecting crafts expected to increase over the next decades, the ability to find fuel for long-term missions will be as vital to exploration as gas stations are today.

Who will own the material mined in space? The participants in the commercial space race want to make sure their investments are protected. In the United States, the Commercial Space Launch Competitive Act, signed by President Obama in 2015, states that U.S. citizens—including commercial entities—may claim ownership from any resources extracted from space. Because of this legislation, venture capital has flowed to space prospecting ventures.

On the government level, NASA is moving forward with its plans to explore two asteroids as a part of its Discovery Mission. Though not commercial ventures, the research will be invaluable to all those involved in space mining explorations. The Psyche Mission will launch first in 2022, according to NASA officials. The asteroid, located between Jupiter and Mars, is believed to be composed largely of iron and promises to give scientists more data about the forces that created our Solar System.  The Lucy Mission will explore the so-called Trojan asteroids near Jupiter. It, too, is expected to return data on the early formation of the planets.

Deep Space Industries Harvestor™ as shown in an artist rendering by Bryan Versteeg

U.S. companies aren’t alone in the race for the commercialization of space. China recently announced its plans to mine its first asteroid in 2020, according to a May 2017 report in the South China Morning Post. Luxembourg, a small country with a big appetite for banking and the commercial use of space (it became an early leader in satellites, and the partially government-owned SES is the world’s second largest purveyor of satellites with over $2 billion in annual revenues), is fervent to become the epicenter of the asteroid mining industry.

It remains to be seen when—and if—precious metals space mining will actually happen. But it’s exciting to this industry in its infancy. What’s more, though commercial ventures appear to be leading the way, scientists believe it will open the door for more space exploration—which has suffered brutal budget cuts in Washington over the past few years. Without government support, commercial ventures will play a leading role in future endeavors, says astrophysicist Martin Elvis of the Smithsonian. “My basic goal is just to revolutionize our exploration of the solar system, of the universe,” he said during a recent address at the Dawn of Private Space Science Symposium at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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