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Innovation on the final frontier – Mining Asteroids in Space

By Dr Adriana Marais
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For most, an area much smaller than the surface of the planet Earth is considered home.

For many, Earth is their favourite planet – as I once heard an astronaut say at an astrobiology conference.

But for those few who feel a curiosity, an affinity and indeed a sense of belonging with that overwhelming majority of what is beyond, Earth is but a pale blue dot in a universe of starstuff waiting to be known, says Adriana Marais.

OUR increasingly complex use of natural resources is making a strong call for fast-tracked exploration and mining in space. At the turn of the last century, fewer than a dozen materials were in wide use, among them wood, brick, iron, copper, gold, silver, and a few plastics.

Charge Forward

In contrast, a single modern computer chip uses more than 60 different elements of varying scarcity.

Increased societal demand and insufficient recycling of rare resources is putting pressure on local supply chains, which in future could slow down growth and expansion as demand outstrips supply.

Most importantly, there is only so much stress our unique biosphere here on Earth can take- all living systems share the same set of finite resources, while human population and associated material needs grows exponentially.

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Asteroid mining has been heralded as one of the world’s first multi-trillion dollar industries with the potential to transform the global economy in the 21st century.

One near-Earth asteroid that caught the eye of astronomers and prospectors, Anteros, is so packed with rare minerals that it has been valued at $5.57tn…

or more than twice the GDP of the entire African continent.

Global innovators reaching for the stars

Leaders in the aerospace industry including Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources among others, are making strides towards initiating an off-Earth economy, and the extraction of resources in space is an essential step towards this future.

Preparing for the next step

While bringing asteroid resources back home will contribute to the cost-effectiveness of initial missions, the real potential of asteroid mining is in realising humanity’s next great ambition:

the exploration and settlement of space.

In combination with technologies such as 3D printing, resources extracted from asteroids can be used to create tools, machines, and even habitats, making crewed space exploration and the establishment of the first extra-terrestrial research settlements feasible.

The most important resource for space exploration is water, which aside from its uses in life support and food cultivation also can be broken up into its constituent parts – hydrogen and oxygen – to create rocket fuel and breathable air.

This is an essential step to extending the range of crewed space travel: water currently costs around $50m per tonne to launch into space, so finding and extracting water found in space will essentially turn asteroids into fuel stops for crewed space missions.

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