September 24, 2017 at 9:32 pm

The first asteroid mining and resource transaction could take place in space within the next decade

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Nick Whigham @NWWHIGHAM


asteroid mining, space, resources, hydrogen, conference

With some of the Earth’s most valuable resources dwindling, space mining is looming large as the next frontier for prospectors.Source:News Limited

IT SOUNDS like a plot to take over the solar system and has authorities worried, but asteroid mining is about to change our pursuit for resources.

GLOBAL space experts, astronauts, entrepreneurs, technologists and researchers gathered in Sydney this week to discuss the big business of space mining.

As the global economy moves into space, asteroids, the Moon and Mars are being eagerly eyed off for the important resources they harbour.
On Wednesday and Thursday experts from NASA, the European Space Agency, the Luxembourg government, global asteroid mining companies and host of local researchers met to discuss issues surrounding the emerging space mining industry at the third Off-Earth Mining Forum at the University of New South Wales.

It may sound like science fiction but it actually won’t be long before galactic prospectors are populating the cosmos.
“It’s not that far down the road. The market is already emerging,” says Professor Andrew Dempster from the university’s Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research, who helped organise the event.

In fact, United Launch Alliance — a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Boeing Defense, Space & Security in the US — has already said it is willing to buy hydrogen and oxygen in space if someone can deliver it to them. “It’s not unfeasible that the first transaction could take place within the next decade,” he said. There’s even been some lofty predictions of missions to asteroids that are so valuable retrieving their resources could crash the world economy.

At this point the industry isn’t really talking about bringing resources back to Earth but is primarily focused on mining water from near-Earth asteroids and the Moon. Water will be a fundamental resource for humans in space and is used in a lot of chemical processes. “The main reason people are interested in water as the initial thing to mine is that you can separate it into hydrogen and oxygen and use it for rocket fuel,” Prof Dempster said. “We’re talking about an economy in space, so if it costs you $10,000 a kilogram to launch something, if you can produce a litre of water in space for less than $10,000 a kilogram then you’re ahead.”

Mining asteroids and returning the resources to satellites or space stations in Earth’s orbit is thought to be the best business case at the moment — and there are plenty of companies that would benefit from the technology. “Say you’ve got a satellite that can be fuelled by that propellent, the satellites that operate at geostationary orbit, there’s a huge amount of investment in those satellites, they’re worth millions,” he said.
“Every day the data they carry for television broadcasts and other data broadcasts earn those satellites a lot of money.”
Being able to refuel those satellites from mining missions in outer space could prove to be a huge economic boon.

Members from US company Planetary Resources were in attendance for the Sydney-based forum this week. The company has been one of the driving forces behind asteroid mining technologies and has a host of high-profile Silicon Valley shareholders including Alphabet executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, as well as Virgin founder Richard Branson.

In 2015, Planetary Resources launched its first satellite from the International Space Station to test its asteroid prospecting technology. But the emerging industry isn’t just the domain of private companies and space agency heavyweights like NASA and the ESA. “The government of Luxembourg is very interested in this particular topic,” Prof Dempster said. Last year the tiny European nation teamed up with Californian company Deep Space Industries (DSI) to become the first European nation to enter the emerging space race.

The partnership is working to produce a small 30cm spacecraft called Prospector-X which is designed to test some of the country’s asteroid mining technologies. The plan is to send the probe into low Earth orbit and if successful the mission will be followed by the deployment of asteroid mining spacecrafts to search for water and minerals in space some time after 2020.

In 2015 US president Barack Obama signed a controversial bill giving US companies legal ownership of materials they extract from asteroids, causing some to predict a galactic gold rush will soon take place.

Those concerned about an emerging space race have been quick to point out the uncertain legal position of the practice. Laying claim to a planet is outlawed in the 1967 International Space Treaty, but laws around resource extraction are far more ambiguous. But like the US, countries are increasingly taking the law into their own hands. In July the government of Luxembourg also passed a bill giving companies the rights to space resources they extract from asteroids or other celestial bodies.


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