Space mining: black holes await investors

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Space industry updates

To cynics, a mine is a hole in the ground with a liar at the top. Would-be space miners do not even have the hole as proof of concept. Yet with the predictability of an orbiting satellite, asteroid mining has reappeared on investor horizons. Other “blue-sky” themes such as flying taxis are attracting serious capital. Could the same be true for space resources?

Astronomical wealth is out there among the stars. Psyche 16, a 226km- diameter metal lump, is one possible target for miners. It is estimated to contain $10 quintillion worth of iron — about 100,000 times the world’s total economic output.

Nasa scientists plan to launch a mission to the asteroid next year. They are seeking clues as to how planets formed, including their mineral composition. Interest in space mining is likely to heat up as the probe approaches its 2026 rendezvous.

The Asteroid Mining Corporation believes that it will be able to open its first mine in a decade. The UK group plans to launch its first prospecting satellite next year. Planetary Resources, a rival, managed to get two test satellites into orbit. But it ran out of money before its first prospecting satellite made it off the drawing board. 

AMC says that the first mined asteroids will be those rich in precious metals. There are plenty orbiting closer to Earth than Psyche 16. AMC hopes to launch a mission to 1986 DA in 2027. The 2.3km-diameter object is estimated to contain minerals worth $4.7tn, according to asteroid database Asterank. Funding of some $400m is needed for the exploratory mission, which would precede the company’s first mining mission.

Japan’s ISpace thinks the moon is a better bet. The most vital commodity in space could be the same as on earth: water. ISpace plans to mine ice to supply hydrogen for fuel and oxygen to breathe on deeper space missions. 

In astronomy, anomalies are phenomena that current science cannot explain. Would-be space miners have to quell dissonance of a different sort. Shipping mining equipment into space and bringing back minerals is expensive and requires technology that does not exist yet. For now, the most reliable aspect of space mining is its recurrence as an intriguing idea.

The Lex team is interested in hearing more from readers. Please tell us what you think of space mining in the comments section below.

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