Is it worth investing massive deposits of money into the prospect of asteroid mining and potentially huge profits, or is it too impractical to be anything more than a mere prospect? Or, is there something else we can do with these giant deposits of valuables in space?
by Maanas Shah
The idea of asteroid mining has been around as long as the discovery of their resource-rich cores. The current most valuable of these cores in our solar system’s asteroid belt, Davida, has been valued at 27 quintillion US dollars (that's 27 followed by 18 zeros!). Of course, mining asteroids is not as simple as it may seem. There are many impracticalities to the idea which explains why we have not attempted it yet. While many argue caveats may make the task near impossible for many centuries to come, some believe in its potential and the need to invest. However, is there nothing else that we could do with these massive deposits of valuable ores rather than just bringing them back to earth or ignoring and wasting them? That’s where the idea behind using the asteroids as supplies for extraterrestrial construction comes from.
These three stances are what combine to form the Trilemma around asteroid mining: should we invest in it, is it too impractical, or is there something else we could do?
Asteroid mining is the future:
Asteroid mining has the ability to bring about huge benefits and could revolutionize humanity’s reach over key metals and materials. As we’ve already seen, it is well known by researchers that asteroids can be worth incredible amounts of money. Davida, the asteroid covered previously, was not a mere outlier either; there are dozens - maybe even hundreds - of asteroids full of precious metals that surpass the trillion and quadrillion dollar mark.
However, in addition to merely their monetary value, these asteroids can be host to high concentrations of rare Earth metals such as platinum, gold, iridium, palladium, osmium, ruthenium, and rhodium. These resources are becoming increasingly rarer on Earth as they are being used up, so being able to harvest and replenish them from an off-world source is another added benefit brought about by asteroid mining. These increased reserves could then be used in the creation of more products which may be currently limited due to the scarcity of these resources or their exorbitant prices, which would benefit everyone with more access for all.
While some may argue that such a feat is impossible for humans to ever achieve, it is important to remember what else was previously thought impossible, but was made possible. We believed that it was impossible to send humans into space, or land on the moon, yet we can now achieve this relatively effortlessly. With time, research, and investment, humanity has shown itself to be capable of achieving the “impossible” time and time again, so with enough investment of time, effort, and funding, this daunting task may also be easily achievable one day.
Asteroid mining is just fiction:
While the benefits to asteroid mining may seem glaring, any hopes of reaping such benefits is likely to be extinguished upon taking a closer look at the situation. The whole idea of asteroid mining is simply impossible at the moment. Currently, we do not have the capability to be able to feasibly bring back such a large quantity of these heavy metals. Of course, we can invest in the technology to do so, but even if we were able to bring back the metals to Earth, there are still many other troubles along the way.
First of all, the pathway to the asteroids is blocked by a crucial issue: how are we supposed to get there? While these asteroids have been photographed and observed from telescopes, it's extremely difficult to distinguish between them and locate the targeted one. Thus, we would need to have developed technology that allows us to locate the resources once in space, which is another seemingly impossible task currently.
However, an equally difficult problem arises when these resources are actually brought back to Earth. Assuming that we have somehow been able to harvest even a portion of these asteroid’s materials, it would have a devastating effect on the economy. Flooding the metal markets with massive amounts of it (potentially more than even on Earth) would be akin to printing its equivalent value (possibly trillions and quadrillions) in cash all at all once. Similar to an economy hyperinflating, the value of these respective metals would diminish instantly and their markets would immediately crash. As a result, there would be severe implications on the world’s economy and a decrease in the profit of the haul, which was one of the initial goals of the trip. Thus, even if all the technological demands were somehow met, asteroid mining would still hardly be feasible.
Another application of asteroid mining:
While the impracticalities and issues brought up by the opposing side may seem undeniable, is there really nothing we can do but leave these massively valuable chunks of material alone to waste? Well, that is where this third stance comes in: mining and using the asteroids, but not actually bringing them back to Earth. It may seem ridiculous to go through the effort of harvesting these metals only to not retrieve them all the way, but that is where we must consider the true value of these resources.
The true value of these metals are not just cash; it is what they are capable of being and what they can be a part of. They are valuable tools to humanity that can be and are used in almost everything we create, so having a huge source of it in space might be more valuable than bringing it back to Earth. These resources could be used to create space stations or off-world colonies in the future. This would negate the issues of bringing them back to Earth or having to worry about transporting large quantities as all operations would take place and stay in space, and could thus be repeated as needed. Additionally, it would eliminate the need to waste Earth’s precious resources for space construction and the need to devise a way to even bring those resources off-world since they are very heavy and would require some sort of future spacefaring technology.
Thus, asteroid mining is potentially an important area to invest into - perhaps not in a typical fashion - but, instead, using these asteroids to further humanities operations in space rather than to bring it back to Earth along a windy problem-filled road.