Space is starting to look like the best mining operation

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A truck transports nickel ore away from a mining site.
Enlarge / Metallic asteroids contain more than a thousand times more nickel than the Earth’s crust.

Everyone likes asteroids these days. The space agencies of Japan and the United States recently sent spacecraft investigate, pusheither bring samples of these falling space rocks, and then a difficult start, the space mining industry is once again on the rise. Companies like AstroForge, Trans Astronautica Corporation and Karman+ are preparing to test their technology in space before venturing to asteroids.

It’s getting so serious that economists published a series of articles on October 16 considering the growth of economic activity in space. For example, a study by Ian Lange of the Colorado School of Mines, considers the potential (and challenges) of a nascent industry that could reach significant scale in the coming decades, driven by demand for critical metals used in electronics, solar energy and wind, and electric car componentsparticularly batteries. While other companies are exploring the controversial idea of ​​extracting cobalt, nickel and platinum from the seabed, some asteroids could host the same minerals in abundance, and they don’t have wildlife that could be harmed during its extraction.

Lange’s study, co-authored with an International Monetary Fund researcher, models the growth of space mining relative to terrestrial mining, depending on trends in the transition to clean energy, mineral prices, space launches and how much capital investment and R&D are growing. They find that within 30 to 40 years, the production of some metals from space could exceed their production on Earth. According to their assessment, metallic asteroids contain more than a thousand times more nickel than the Earth’s crust, in terms of grams per metric ton. Asteroids also have significant concentrations of cobalt, iron, platinum, and other metals. and thanks to reusable rockets developed by SpaceX, Rocket Lab and other companies, since 2005 payload launch costs have plummeted by a factor of 20 or so per kilogram, and could fall further.

One day, Robots can extract minerals. to be used in space, such as to build spaceships or astronaut habitats. But current refining methods, which extract useful metals from the earth, rely on fundamentals like gravity, Lange says. Maybe it would be better to try to find a way to bring those resources to Earth, he says, where there would also be a lot of demand for them.

While no one has ever attempted to put a price on an asteroid, markets revalue critical metals every day. Cobalt currently costs approximately $33,000 per ton, and nickel per $20,000 by Ton. Electric vehicles and their batteries require approximately six times more minerals than conventional cars, requiring nickel and cobalt in significant quantities. Nickel is also needed for solar panels and cobalt for wind turbines. Demand for cobalt could increase six-fold by 2050, eventually reaching one million tonnes per year, while demand for nickel could quadruple, according to the International Energy Agency, depending on how seriously governments and industries try to achieve a clean energy transition. The demand for platinum group metals is is expected to grow thus, both for catalytic converters and fuel cells.

Lange’s study also highlights the social and environmental costs of mining on Earth. The Democratic Republic of the Congo represents 70 percent of cobalt production, for example, while nickel comes mainly from Indonesia and the Philippines, and Russia and South Africa have most of the world’s supply of platinum group metals. Many mining sites in these nations have been reported to systematically use child labor, forced labor, and human rights abuses. especially for cobalt supply chainaccording to the International Energy Agency. Nickel mining operations in Indonesia have too been blamed for cutting down forests and contaminating the water supply.

While deep sea mining could represent the next frontier in extracting these metals on Earth, that implies Environmental risks such as the alteration of aquatic life, noise and light pollution and damage to ecosystems. Even the most arid area of ​​the ocean floor is teeming with life compared to asteroids, which, as far as scientists know,They are lifeless rocks. Lange argues that asteroid mining will be a more publicly acceptable trade-off: “This (space) rock is not going to look the same as it has for the last X million or billion years,” he says, but few people will care. yes No wildlife at stake.

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