How asteroid mining can meet Earth’s demand for resources

How asteroid mining can meet Earth's demand for resources (Photo: Asteroid Mining Corporation via BBC News)

How asteroid mining can meet Earth’s demand for resources (Photo: Asteroid Mining Corporation via BBC News)

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“They basically hold on to the asteroid as tightly as possible as it transits the solar system.”

Mitch Hunter Skullion describes a six-legged robot named Scar-e (Space Capable Asteroid Explorer), which he intends to send to an asteroid to prospect for precious metals such as iron, nickel and platinum.

The race for “metals of the future” that could endanger national security

In addition to being increasingly necessary to make phones, laptops, and cars, some metals like platinum will also be needed to help produce hydrogen as we transition to greener energy.

With the limited supply of these ores on Earth, there is an ever-increasing demand in space to meet this demand.

This is where the Scar-e comes in. Its powerful claw, designed in partnership with Tohoku University in Japan, needs to catch an asteroid in space before it floats away.

It was inspired by the way tarantulas hang from walls. “They’re clinging to the side of the asteroid as it moves through the solar system.”

The inspiration for this robot's paw comes from the way tarantulas cling to walls (Photo: Space Robotics Lab via BBC News)

The inspiration for this robot’s paw comes from the way tarantulas cling to walls (Photo: Space Robotics Lab via BBC News)

“I’m terrified of spiders, so I thought it was a perfect fit,” Mitch says.

Mitch is the founder of Asteroid Mining Corporation (AMC). He admits that such a feat remains elusive.

It will not only land the robots on a rock, but also build the infrastructure for remote mining and somehow send the material back to Earth.

But it’s easy to see why he and the others wanted to try.

A new rush for gold (or platinum)?

Asteroids are made of the same material as the rest of the rocky planets in our solar system – meaning that they’re also rich in some of the precious minerals that we look for a lot here on Earth.

Finding large deposits of platinum on an asteroid, for example, says Mitch, “will allow humanity to start innovating in a way we haven’t done in a long time.”

Getting resources from asteroids is a different challenge than getting them on Earth, according to Professor John Bridges, a scientist at the University of Leicester involved in the Hayabusa2 mission.

That’s because these tiny space rocks haven’t gone through the same geological processes as their terrestrial cousins.

“They didn’t go through melting, volcanism, or mountain formation, which ended up concentrating some elements in certain parts of the crust. That’s why we can have mine on Earth.” [em um determinado lugar] To extract rare earth elements.

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On the asteroid, “all the elements will still be there,” he says, “but they will be scattered all over. Nature hasn’t had a chance to concentrate them in the veins of ore, for example.”

This means that asteroid miners will have to process a huge amount of material for the attempt to be worthwhile.

Professor Bridges believes that commercial space mining is a “cool territory,” but doubts it will solve the world’s resource problem.

The trick, Mitch says, is finding the right asteroid. Here comes the role of expert Natasha Stephen and her electron microscope.

The rock that fell to the ground

I never thought I’d touch a piece of the moon, but that’s what I have in my hand at the Electron Microscopy Center in Plymouth, a city in England.

It is a small piece of meteorite that fell to Earth in the Sahara desert and was identified as a piece of moon rock that was launched into space after hitting the moon’s surface.

A piece of moon rocks found by residents of northwest Africa (Image: BBC News)

A piece of moon rocks found by residents of northwest Africa (Image: BBC News)

Many meteorites do not come from the moon but from asteroids, and Natasha uses electron microscopy to catalog the elements they contain.

As the search for meteorites continues, the target now goes to the “mother asteroids,” rich in the needed elements.

Viewing natural elements on a computer screen (Image: BBC News)

Viewing natural elements on a computer screen (Image: BBC News)

“If we find a concentration of platinum in one of our meteorites, we can tell the folks at AMC…” It’s up to you now, she explains. Go and look for that kind of asteroid in the data. “

Who owns the space?

Once a promising asteroid is identified, there is a difficult question of who owns it.

Dhara Patel of the UK’s National Space Center explains that when it comes to clarifying ownership issues, space law is not enough.

Nothing has been settled yet on whether a country or company can claim ownership of an asteroid, parts of the moon, or the riches beneath the surface.

And when the rewards run into the trillions of dollars, it’s easy to see how disputes, legal battles, and even actual wars can arise.

“Space exploration has come a long way” since the Outer Space Treaty was drafted (Image: National Space Center via BBC News) Dara Patel of the National Space Center says

In 1966, the United Nations (UN) drafted the Outer Space Treaty, which attempted to define what would be a misuse of space. The document was signed by more than 100 countries.

“Space is an area of ​​particular importance to all of humanity,” says Dara. The problem is that it lacks details.”

“We use a treaty that was formed over 50 years ago, and space exploration has evolved a lot since then.”

NASA, which is now planning a return to the Moon, has developed the Artemis Agreements – a more detailed set of principles focused on exploration of the Moon, Mars, and other celestial bodies.

But the document remains ambiguous if a company or nation claims ownership of the extracted resources.

Several countries have signed the Artemis Agreements, but Dara believes we need a global approach.

“It probably starts with the UN as a basis, ensuring that the policies we implement are at the international level.”

Spencer and Dara pose for a selfie with a legal document sent to the moon (Image: BBC News)

Spencer and Dara pose for a selfie with a legal document sent to the moon (Image: BBC News)

However, Mitch is confident that under the current principles, there are existing rules that protect early miners.

“Whoever comes first comes first.”

So whoever gets there first gets it first, basically. We can have the old gold zeal.

All of this, of course, is decades away from reality, and whether it will be entrepreneurs like Mitch, mega-billionaires like Elon Musk or entire countries that will eventually become the big miners.

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