The Outer Space Gold Rush: Asteroid Mining Could Be The Next Big Industry In Space

By Ben Wolford on November 27, 2013 8:52 AM EST

Asteroid Mining
Some say asteroids could someday be like gas stations in space, offering mineral fuel to spacecraft. (Photo: Photo: Shutterstock)

If you go to the website for Deep Space Industries, there's a video that shows satellites attaching themselves to asteroids. "Our world is at its limits. And yet we all want more," the narrator says. "The same rocks that could fall from our skies also contain everything we could ever need. ... It's time someone seized the opportunity."

Deep Space Industries is one of several new mining companies looking to the sky instead of the ground for the next big deposits of valuable minerals and other resources, part of what some are calling the next gold rush. According to Reuters, two of those companies are planning prospecting missions to nearby asteroids within three years. And this month, a company executive in Nevada asked the Federal Aviation Administration to grant him property rights to mine the moon.

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"The time has come to get serious about lunar property rights," said Robert Bigelow of Bigelow Aerospace at a NASA briefing, according to National Geographic. Valuable resources, difficult to extract here on earth, are so common on asteroids crashing into the moon that Bigelow said lunar miners won't even have to dig. They'll find things like platinum, rhodium and iridium by "just walking around, picking stuff up from the ground."

Academics and scientists at NASA have not dismissed the ideas out of hand, either. Professors at the University of Alabama in Huntsville agree with their private-sector colleagues that asteroids could one day yield the water and minerals necessary to power long-term space explorations. "Asteroids coming near earth are probably more likely to be mined," said Luke Burgess in a press release in which the university compared asteroids to Stuckey's gas stations. "We already have a system to detect the ones that are coming close. Humankind has equipment in place to do this. It's just a matter of choice of investment."

The company Planetary Resources, one of the firms preparing for an upcoming prospecting mission, says mining in space isn't as crazy as it sounds. "It's not exactly easy, but the space environment is not inherently hard, it's just...different," they said. In some ways, they say, it's actually easier. There's no gravity, no corrosion or natural disasters.

But there is one obstacle that's not as prohibitive on earth: the price tag. According to Reuters, Deep Space Industries is preparing for a 2016 prospecting mission, powered by camera surveillance probes it calls FireFlies. The first phase alone could cost $20 million. The CEO told Reuters says it will pay for it through partnerships with government and research institutes, as well as corporate sponsorships. It also solicits investment on its website from accredited investors who don't mind the "risk of complete loss." In the promotional video (below), the narrator goes on to say, "This is a long game, perhaps the longest ever." But "when the first space colonies are built, Deep Space will be there."

Above photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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