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04 May 2017

Prospecting in space 

Who would have imagined that the value of just one asteroid could be in the countless trillions of dollars?

Many of these boulders hurtling through space are, according to scientists, filled with platinum, iron and other precious metals. Indeed, a single asteroid could hold from $30-50 billion of platinum, 175 times more than is mined on earth in a year. One asteroid near our planet is even believed to hold more platinum than has been mined in human history.  

By comparison, the annual production of all raw metals on earth is worth a mere $660 billion. 

Over 50 venture capital firms invested in space mining in 2015, pouring more into the sector in that one year than in the previous 15 years combined. 

Governments – including from Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia – are racing to be at the forefront of this fast-rising industry. They have begun developing space programs and investing in nascent private space exploration initiatives. 

The list of big-name organizations, companies and investors that are interested in (or have already invested in) space mining is impressive: from NASA to Goldman Sachs to investors such as Larry Page of Google, Jeff Bezos from Amazon and Tesla’s Elon Musk. 

We are probably 10-15 years from such endeavors. However, as technology keeps improving (especially, for example, through the advent of reusable rockets), the prospect is becoming cheaper and easier to achieve. 

Consider that it formerly cost $35 million to send one person into space … and that Virgin Galactic will soon be sending tourists up there for just $250,000. 

That said, building and launching an asteroid-mining spacecraft is expensive. NASA’s plans to retrieve a modest sample from the surface of one asteroid will cost $1 billion.

The reality of developing a large-scale asteroid mining operation still faces many technical challenges, requiring robots, 3D manufacturing, spacecraft and other technologies that are either not ready or simply do not currently exist. 

Missions of such a magnitude could cost billions, even trillions of dollars – and profits, particularly at first, could be hard to come by. Although the risk of failure is serious, the potential dividends from a successful mission could truly be astronomical.