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Space: the final mining frontier

Mining in space may be years away, but the countdown has started, and several companies are now seeking to be the first miners in the galaxy, writes the team at Sandvik.

Asteroid mining may sound like science fiction – but in fact, modern-day sci-fi films such as the Alien series and Moon, and a myriad of sci-fi books use interstellar mining as a background setting for their narratives.

But in the near future, this is likely to be no longer restricted to works of fiction with more and more companies – such as Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries – now focusing on mining large asteroidal specimens.

The goal is to find cost-efficient ways to access the precious resources within these floating cash cows, whose potential yields are estimated to be in the trillions of dollars.

Asteroids, the rocky-metallic bodies left over from the formation of the solar system and still orbiting the sun, are replete with water, platinum, nickel, cobalt and other minerals and elements.

While the benefits of mining scarce minerals such platinum are obvious, at the same time the water within asteroids can be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen for fuel and left in orbiting caches in space, solving one of the great problems of space exploration: fuel availability.

Accessing these floating deposits is another matter entirely.

The three most logical options for mining involve: bringing raw asteroidal material to Earth for use; processing the asteroids in space and bringing back only the desired materials; or transporting the asteroid into a safe orbit around the Moon, Earth or International Space Station.

And because not all asteroids are created equal, there’s also the problem of determining which ones are even worth mining.

Planetary Resources is attempting to solve this issue with space telescopes, small spacecraft (weighing 30kg to 50kg) that employ a laser-optical system which can be used to survey and examine near-Earth asteroids.

Recently, the company placed a small version of the telescope aboard the Antares rocket on an unmanned mission in October 2014, but unfortunately, the rocket exploded just seconds after lift-off, destroying the cargo.

Clearly, there is still a long way to go before asteroid mining is commonplace, but the first small steps are being taken now, and more likely than not they will end up being giant leaps forward.


Suitable asteroid types for mining in space 

 Spectral type Resources   Purpose
 Type C  Water, metals  Space fuel, metal for 3D printing 
 Type S  Platinum  Wide range of uses on Earth 
 Type M  Other metals  Manufacturing large hardware items 

This article first appeared in Sandvik’s
Solid Ground mining industry customer magazine. Sandvik Mining is a business area within the Sandvik Group, supplying equipment and tools, service and technical solutions for the mining industry. The offering covers rock drilling, rock cutting, rock crushing, loading and hauling, and materials handling.

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