Extraction of minerals in space: Obama allowed everyone, but does it make sense?

Barack Obama recently signed a bill that grants the right to private companies to own the materials they extract from asteroids and the Moon.. In fact, this law completely contradicts the international treaty on outer space, but people are already actively discussing the topic of mining from other celestial objects. Let’s talk about how relevant it is, and whether your Russian company should also «fly» into space for fossils.

Some asteroids can contain significant amounts of rare metals such as platinum, rare earths, and other materials. Even water is now a valuable resource and it is in outer space. In addition, it is very valuable in space, because it can be used to create space fuel, and it is extremely expensive to transport it from Earth to space..

US President Barack Obama’s law gives American private companies the right to explore asteroids and satellites, and even makes it easier for them to build spaceships. Nevertheless, the US bill completely contradicts the Space Act, which states that the diggers can build rockets and fly into space, but they cannot claim ownership of land and anything else in space. Other countries can challenge Obama’s law, but let’s leave all the legal aspects aside and talk about the possibilities of industrial space exploration by private firms and the difficulties they face..

Building rockets is still difficult. Even reaching the relatively low orbits where the satellites and the ISS are located requires sophisticated rockets and a lot of money. Private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin have made some progress in successfully launching private rockets into Earth orbit. And they even sent the LADEE probe to the moon. But getting to asteroids is much more difficult and expensive, because asteroids are a moving target..

On the positive side, potential space miners will not have to fly to the main belt, the zone of the solar system between Mars and Jupiter, where most of the asteroids «live». First, it will be possible to send a spacecraft to near-Earth asteroids, which revolve around the Sun closer than Mars. Some objects even cross the Earth’s orbit. Astronomers monitor them constantly to make sure they do not pose a threat to Earth..

Asteroids are potentially easier to master than the moon or other planets. Simply because, asteroids have less gravity. The main cost of building a rocket is related to its weight — the more mass you need to lift, the heavier the rocket (both load and fuel). It will take less effort to lift a rocket from an asteroid than to lift a rocket from Earth and the Moon. (Seriously, many asteroids have such weak gravity that you can just jump off them and never land again).

But mining on asteroids will be difficult. Most asteroids are a collection of bulk material, not solid rock. Small particles are weakly held together by gravity. Water, platinum and other valuable substances are mixed with materials such as iron, silicon and carbon compounds. Now it is difficult to say how easy it will be to extract useful materials and what materials will be useful in general (it is also not clear how many useful materials will be on the asteroid).

However, the question of useful materials on asteroids can be answered by special space probes, which are already being developed, for example, OSIRIS-REX and Hayabusa 2.

Asteroid mining can be profitable if all the money is not spent on sending people to the asteroid and then returning them to earth. In other words, there will be no space miners, at least until we learn how to send astronauts into space cheaply. Nowadays, too much money is spent on living people in space, because they eat, drink, need air and space in a spaceship. All this requires a huge load of devices and the maintenance of many functions. In general, at the moment, the only way for a company to profit from mining in space is to develop schemes that do not require human participation. And again, none of this makes sense unless the asteroid probes prove there is something worth paying for. Even if there is platinum and rare earth materials, it may not be profitable for us to mine them in space, because it is much cheaper to mine them here on Earth..

Thus, the gold rush in the field of mining in space is still in the future, but this does not mean that it will not happen. People are inventive, and if they overcome technical difficulties, if desired and stimulated, they will go en masse into space and start mining something there. In the meantime, we are waiting for the launch of the first missions to study asteroids and their results..