The scarcer supply of critical raw materials is leading to ever new record prices. The mining of extraterrestrial resources on asteroids or moons is becoming correspondingly more attractive, despite the high costs of space transport. As early as the 1970s, the first ideas about space mining emerged. The necessary technological infrastructure for the exploitation is now available.
Asteroids as Trillion-Heavy Raw Material Paradises
Near-Earth asteroids in particular are in focus as potential sources of raw materials. In addition to rare earths, they usually also harbor raw materials such as nickel, copper and gold. For several of the more than 16,000 celestial bodies close to Earth, researchers have already analyzed the raw material deposits by spectral analysis and calculated the mining potential. Psyche 16, a 210-kilometer asteroid in orbit between Jupiter and Mars, holds ores and rocks worth $700 trillion, according to American space agency NASA. The recently discovered asteroid 1986 DA is valued at $11.6 trillion by researchers at the American Astronomical Society. Due to its greater proximity to Earth, it would be much easier and faster to reach compared to Psyche 16. From a scientific point of view, this makes it a “possible target for asteroid mining in the future.”
The importance of rare earths for the economy is shown by the Netflix film Don’t Look Up, in which a comet the size of Mount Everest is rushing towards Earth. Both NASA and the U.S. president are feverishly looking for ways to prevent the collision. Rockets are supposed to knock the celestial body off course. However, when an American tech billionaire realizes that the comet contains trillions of dollars’ worth of rare earths, he launches a plan for interstellar resource extraction. Using his company-owned drones, the comet is to be crushed in order to secure the high-value resources via the individual rock chunks. His arguments that this would create jobs and boost the economy are quickly heard by the government. The comet is thus transformed from a global threat into a hope for recovery and economic strength.
Mining Rare Earths in Space Could Soon Become Reality
Nations such as the USA, China and Russia, but also Luxembourg, are already making specific plans for the exploration and mining of extraterrestrial raw materials like rare earths. For the time being, the focus is on the moon. According to the plans of the Russian space agency Roskosmos and the Chinese space administration, a joint research station is to be built on the Earth’s satellite by 2027. The mission is expected to test technologies for mining local raw materials and the manufacture of goods with 3D printing.
The U.S., which is also striving to reach the moon for economic reasons, is committed to regulating the exploration and exploitation of extraterrestrial resources through an international agreement. These so-called Artemis Accords provide that governments and commercial companies may establish safety zones on the moon or other celestial bodies, which other parties are prohibited from entering. The agreement also covers the commercial exploitation of the raw materials found.
In addition to the above-mentioned superpowers, smaller states such as Luxembourg are also attracted by space mining. In cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA), the Grand Duchy supports startups that are looking for technical and economic solutions for mining rare earths in space.
No Space Exploration without Strategic Metals
While governments and commercial enterprises are examining ways to extract extraterrestrial raw materials, scientists are using rare earths and technology metals to explore outer space. For example, technology metals such as indium and tellurium are built into astronomical research instruments. The most recent example is the James Webb Telescope, the most powerful space telescope to date. At the end of 2021, it started its 1.5-million-kilometer journey into deep space and after four weeks of flight reached its destination at the so-called second Lagrange point (L2). This research project, which is scheduled to last ten years and involves NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), is intended to provide further insights into the early days of the universe and the Big Bang. The first images are expected in summer 2022.