Everyone is into asteroids nowadays. Space agencies in Japan and the United States have recently dispatched spacecraft to study, move or bring back samples of these speeding space rocks, and afterward a bumpy start, the space mining industry is on the rise again. Companies like AstroForge, Trans Astronautica Corporation and Karman+ are preparing to test their technology in space before venturing onto asteroids themselves.
It’s getting serious enough that economists have published one Series of essays on October 16, taking into account the growth of economic activity in space. For example one study by Ian Lange of the Colorado School of Mines looks at the potential – and challenges – for a fledgling industry that could reach significant scale in the next few decades, driven by demand for critical metals used in electronics, solar and wind power as well as electricity, car parts, especially batteries, are used. While other companies are exploring the controversial idea of extracting cobalt, nickel and platinum from the ocean floor, some asteroids could harbor the same minerals in abundance – and there is no wildlife to be harmed in their extraction.
Lange’s study, co-authored with an International Monetary Fund researcher, models the growth of space mining relative to Earth mining, depending on trends in clean energy transitions, mineral prices, space launch prices, and growth in capital investment and research and development. They note that in 30 to 40 years, the production of some metals from space could overtake their production on Earth. They estimate that metallic asteroids contain more than a thousand times as much nickel as the Earth’s crust, expressed in grams per ton. Asteroids also contain significant concentrations of cobalt, iron, platinum and other metals. And thanks to reusable rockets developed by SpaceX, Rocket Lab and other companies, payload launch costs have fallen several times since 2005 a factor of around 20 per kilogram – and they could fall even further.
One day, robots could mine minerals for use in space, such as building spacecraft or habitats for astronauts. But current refining methods that extract useful metals from dirt depend on fundamentals like gravity, Lange says. It might be better to find a way to bring these resources to Earth, he says – where there would also be great demand for them.
While no one has ever tried to put a price on an asteroid, critical metals are repriced by markets every day. Cobalt currently costs approx $33,000 per ton and nickel for $20,000 per ton. Electric vehicles and their batteries require about six times the minerals that conventional cars require, and they require both nickel and cobalt in significant quantities. Nickel is also needed for solar panels and cobalt for wind turbines. Demand for cobalt could increase sixfold by 2050, eventually reaching one million tons per year, while demand for nickel could quadruple International Energy Agency, depending on how seriously governments and industries try to achieve a clean energy transition. The demand for platinum group metals is expected to grow for both catalysts and fuel cells.
Lange’s study also highlights the social and environmental costs of mining on Earth. For example, the Democratic Republic of Congo accounts for 70 percent of cobalt production, 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. Child labor, forced labor and human rights violations are systematically committed at many mining sites in these countries. particularly for the cobalt supply chainaccording to the International Energy Agency. Indonesian nickel mining also have was blamed for it Forests are being cut down and water supplies are being polluted.