When asteroid 2012 DA14 whizzed past the Earth three months ago, scientists were closely tracking its path from NASA's observatory. The 150-foot wide asteroid-estimated to harbor $65 billion of recoverable water and $130 billion in metals-may have resulted in a close call for our planet, but it clearly pointed to a wealth of asteroid riches that symbolizes the next frontier in mining.
According to reports, the global population is predicted to rise to more than nine billion by 2050. As the demand for finite resources from a burgeoning population soars, it becomes increasingly difficult to sustain the rising levels of consumption using the current models of production. Moreover, excessive exploitation of resources by developing economies is fast depleting essential minerals on earth. As a result, metals like zinc, tin, lead, copper and gold that are crucial to a modern industry are expected to be exhausted within the next 100 years while a rare metal like platinum may run out in the next 20-30 years.
Also, with the current ore bodies maturing, lesser tier-one surface deposits are now being found. This is forcing mining companies to develop new techniques to discover very large ore bodies in order to meet the supply challenges.
To compound matters further, the mining industry around the world is battling increased environmental controls, tighter licensing procedures, stringent safety penalties, regulatory burdens, growing energy and tax costs. Clearly, to meet expectations there is a need to have a framework that is sustainable for the long term. For this, miners must address the environmental, economic, health and social impacts and benefits of mining throughout their life cycle.
Due to the mounting pressures involved in terrestrial mining, the need for technological advances and newer solutions in mining becomes all the more imperative. As one such solution, space mining is an effective alternative that provides us with economic access to platinum group metals that are essential for the progress of our high-technology industries.
Geologists believe that asteroids contain tons of precious metals, such as platinum, iron ore, nickel, and other metals in much larger quantities than those found on the Earth. A NASA report estimates that the mineral wealth of asteroids in the asteroid belt might exceed $100 billion.
A host of private companies are already outlining plans to harvest space rocks using cost-effective exploration technologies. Providing resources from beyond the Earth is now being seen as a logical step forward. As such, asteroidal metals like platinum and cobalt can be mined and sent to Earth for its benefit and they also accelerate human exploration of the space frontier.
Metals including iron and nickel could prove valuable to the space-based manufacturing industry engaged in building spaceships and human habitats in outer space. In addition, large amounts of water extracted from asteroids can be converted into rocket fuel for powering satellites and spaceships. It is predicted that Mars exploration could become cheaper and more efficient if the fuel is picked up en route.
Evidently, the proposed plans point to building a long-term future without relying on earthbound resources. Harnessing valuable minerals from an infinite reserve will not only establish human presence in space, but also bring stability and prosperity to Earth. Indeed, we are drawing nearer to developing an economy off the planet. Do you think asteroid mining will usher in a new era of sustainability?