(Credit: Detlev Van Ravenswaay via Science Photo Library)
by Rida Fatima
Asteroids are the remaining crumbs from the formation of the planets, the remains of the youthful exuberance of our solar system. Much of the space period was spent ignoring asteroids in favour of the Moon and the much more glamorous planets. The asteroids, which are dark, irregular rocks that are difficult to see and locate, have long passed unnoticed by us. However, that was a misstep. They are essential to the destiny of our species; in fact, asteroids are linked to humanity’s survival and advancement, three options are listed ahead. They carry messages that date back to the formation of the solar system, long before our Earth existed, and where we are heading depends on how we got here. They are also stores of resources that could help us avoid shortages in the future. Last but not least, a small point: We could all be wiped off the face of the planet by an asteroid.
Asteroids are the byproducts of collisions between some of the first protoplanets, or “planetesimals,” which formed in large numbers when the solar system was only a few million years old. Many asteroids are therefore nothing more than heaps of fragmented debris kept together by their own weak gravity, which is around a million times weaker than the gravity we experience on Earth. Because asteroids are untainted messengers from those violent early times, unravelling the solar system’s volatile history is made easier by their presence. In contrast to the planets, the asteroids have not undergone significant change in the last few billion years. There are millions of them, and the vast majority of them orbit the Sun in a region known as the “Main Belt” that lies between Mars and Jupiter.
OPPORTUNITIES IN ASTEROID MINING
Asteroid mining is largely a speculative concept due to its enormous expense. While precise costs of commercial mining are still unknown, comparisons can be made with NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, which aims to collect samples from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu. The mission is anticipated to take 7 years and cost over US$1 billion, even though it is only expected to return 400 grammes to 1 kilogramme of material. In order to cover such significant development expenditures, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries were unable to raise the necessary funds. In 2018 and 2019, respectively, other companies bought out both enterprises. Because of the incredibly costly minerals that asteroids have, despite its enormous expense, the development of asteroid mining technology may very well be a successful business. According to Asterank, which calculates the potential value of the roughly 6,000 asteroids that NASA currently monitors, mining just the top 10 most profitable asteroids—those that are both closest to Earth and have the most value and would result in a profit of around US$1.5 trillion. Additionally, there is enormous opportunity for growth. It has been estimated that one asteroid, 16 Psyche, holds US$700 quintillion in gold, or nearly US$93 billion for every person on earth.
Such technologies might also directly affect the environment. The utilisation of traditional underground mining methods, which result in acid mine drainage and leak dangerous substances like lead and arsenic into streams, would be completely replaced by asteroid mining. It may pave the way for the creation of solar-powered satellites, a potentially dependable source of renewable energy. The majority of the advancements in asteroid mining technologies have been made in the area of water extraction, reflecting worries about the global water crisis. Small-scale mining (ASM) enterprises that are not run by larger mining companies would be particularly affected by this. The use of child labour and deadly accidents within Congolese ASM activities has revealed the need for considerable change.
The implications of asteroid mining on the global economy are both positive and negative. On the one hand, it could produce substantial wealth for individuals; astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson claims that the first trillionaire will be a businessman engaged in asteroid mining. It could also destroy the global raw materials sector, which is currently valued at about US$660 billion.
All raw commodities would swiftly lose value as the market would be inundated with asteroid mining resources. Researchers from Tel Aviv University modelled a comparable scenario. They predicted that there would be a tremendous “global struggle for riches and power” in a society that mined asteroids. They arrived at this conclusion after performing a simulation in which one shipment of space minerals reduced the value of the price of gold on Earth by 50%. Notably, the Tel Aviv researchers also predicted that developing countries would suffer greatly from this battle because they rely heavily on the export of minerals and lack the resources to set up their own asteroid mining operations. This perspective, though it might be a feasible one, is not covered in great detail in the economics of space mining literature that is currently available. Asteroid mining might give one company dominance over the trading of a single natural resource, putting at risk the countries that currently rely on resource exports. For instance, some asteroids have platinum inside them that might be worth $50 billion. The leading producer of platinum in the world, South Africa, produced only 4.3 million ounces of the metal in 2018, worth about US$3.8 billion, at an average price of US$882.18 per ounce. The utilisation of South Africa’s platinum riches as well as its numerous other natural resources has considerably helped the country; the sector now employs over 451,000 people and accounts for 8.2 percent of its GDP. Future asteroid mining would become commonplace, which would have a negative impact on many South Africans’ ability to support themselves.
Zimbabwe, another big producer of platinum, would struggle significantly more if mining operations were seized. A wide range of developing economies are in danger as research is being done to find out how much other elements, like cobalt, reside on other asteroids. While, the people currently operating in dangerous mining conditions would probably be safer, but they would also lose their jobs. More significantly, those who lost their jobs would not be able to find new employment in the asteroid mining sector, especially low-income individuals who lack the necessary skills. As a result, these crucial low-skilled occupations for those in desperate need of money would be permanently lost.
There are a few possible solutions to this problem. The first would entail increasing access to asteroid mining technologies for emerging economies so that more would be able to compete in a future space-oriented economy. Given that such activities would likely be significantly influenced by private enterprises, developing nations may need to sponsor the presence of such companies within their borders or support educational initiatives that would enable the establishment of similar companies domestically. The second choice would necessitate the diversification of economies, as many of them are currently quite dependent on mining technologies. However, given that this process is already occurring and moving very slowly, technology advancements that exclusively benefit wealthy countries would make it slower.
A third option would be to create a system through which wealthier countries that employ the technology would compensate less wealthy countries, as was outlined in the Tel Aviv University study. The last option is for legislators to work on responsible production regulation. This would guarantee that materials would only be produced at a rate that is equivalent to current production, even if mining asteroids in enormous quantities became feasible. This would also lessen the possibility of a situation known as a tragedy of the commons, in which excessive consumption depletes a resource’s availability. It is high time to bring all countries to the asteroid mining table; asteroid mining operations must also involve countries that stand to bear the brunt of its negative economic impacts so things will be divided and managed fairly, producing a less hectic result.
- Economics of the Stars: The Future of Asteroid Mining and the Global Economy. (2022, April 8). Harvard International Review. Retrieved October 29, 2022, from https://hir.harvard.edu/economics-of-the-stars/
- Asteroid Mining. Retrieved October 29, 2022, from https://web.mit.edu/12.000/www/m2016/finalwebsite/solutions/asteroids.html
- Asteroid mining could pay for space exploration and adventure | Aeon Essays. (2021, July 2). Aeon. Retrieved October 29, 2022, from https://aeon.co/essays/asteroid-mining-could-pay-for-space-exploration-and-adventure