Why are companies interested in space mining?

Raw materials in space: Deep Space Industries reaches for the stars

The raw materials market could be faced with upheaval in around ten years. So far, the price of precious metals in particular has been influenced by their limited occurrence. But for some time now there have been serious plans to mine rhodium, palladium, platinum, iridium or gold in space as well. According to the current state of knowledge, asteroids offer ideal conditions.

Raw materials in space - Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources at the start

Deep Space Industries or Planetary Resources want to mine raw materials in space. When the two private American companies presented their plans to the public a few years ago, it became clear that it was not science fiction. The ideas may seem futuristic, but enormous sums of money have already been invested in special technologies.

Deep Space Industries (DSI) from California and Planetary Resources, based in Washington State, have one goal, but pursue different concepts. While Planetary Resources wants to mine resources and transport them to Earth, Deep Space Industries also plans on-site processing. The Californians recognized the potential that Planetary Resources showed in 2012 and founded their own company a year later.

Asteroid with more platinum than on Earth

The potential is a multi-billion dollar business with the treasures hidden in asteroids, especially precious metals. Experts assume that a single celestial body 500 meters in size contains more platinum than has been mined on earth to date. Of the approximately 9,000 known, 1,500 are so close to earth that the effort involved is like a moon mission.

Before the actual mining begins in five to ten years, a small exploration satellite first looks for suitable asteroids. This is followed by a small spacecraft that takes soil samples there. In the long term, a space factory should convert some of the raw materials into usable material that is shaped with the help of 3D printers. Work is already underway on printers and conveyor technology that will work under weightlessness.

Production factories in orbit

Raw materials are processed on site and are used to set up communication platforms that replace previous satellites. Solar power plants with mirrors are supposed to supply the earth with energy. And fuel depots with raw materials and water from the asteroids should facilitate further space missions, because then the costly transport from Earth will no longer be necessary. The aim is to build an entire fleet of spacecraft that can produce fuel from asteroids and mine precious metals.

The two companies Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries expect total start-up investments that are likely to exceed billions. Concrete numbers are difficult because of the unpredictability in space. Well-known investors at Planetary Resources include Google boss Larry Page. In addition, there are initial partial financing by the US government, institutions, advertising and sponsorship agreements.

Legal security and potential for conflict

Incidentally, the costs for such orbit ventures should fall as more and more companies discover the future market. The Space Act passed at the end of 2015 is intended to provide the necessary legal security. In Europe, Luxembourg is pushing ahead with a legislative initiative. With simultaneously funded research and development as well as a cooperation with Deep Space Industries, the small country attracts know-how.

But as tangible as the extraction of raw materials in space appears, whether everything goes according to plan will also depend on others who want to have a say. Russia and Brazil have already appealed against US mining rights. There are still some hurdles to overcome in international law. Everything is still in its infancy and can only be seen in exciting animations.

Lots of open questions

Correspondingly many questions are open. The influence on the earthly market price of precious metals so far is a great unknown. Will it sink with the new deposits? What effect do higher funding costs possibly have? And will it all really be worth it? As far as market prices are concerned, not much should change before 2020 for private investors and precious metal fans.

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