Could mining in outer space solve our environmental problems?

Space is full of precious metals and resources that the Earth's economies could take advantage of at a low environmental cost. While the exploration of space continues, could space mining become a reality?

On October 13th, NASA launched a spacecraft that would explore the asteroid Psyche, orbiting in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. But while the metal-based asteroid has a stunningly high monetary value, reaching $100,000 quadrillion, there is no technology that could make use of it on planet Earth.

However, there's another celestial body full of resources much closer to us. Moon mining is recently gaining momentum, as small and large companies – along with academia – are speculating on the potential models of lunar economics.

Exploring space mining could be an answer to the continuing growth of metal use across various industries, while limiting the environmental and social costs of extraction on planet Earth. A group of scientists estimated that it could be a feasible solution.

Green energy needs massive amounts of metals

Over the past century, the extraction of mineral resources has increased more than 60 times. According to scientists, the shift to clean energy will demand a significant boost in the use and production of critical metals such as copper, cobalt, and nickel. This could lead to price rises, potentially slowing down the clean energy transition.

For instance, an electric vehicle uses roughly three times the amount of copper as a traditional car. The overall use of lithium and cobalt might surge by over twenty and six times, respectively. Meanwhile, nickel consumption could quadruple.

asteroid geological composition
Average abundance of minerals in metallic asteroids and on Earth | Source: Research paper "Mining in space could spur sustainable growth"

Celestial bodies like asteroids are rich in metals. According to estimates, the average geological abundance of certain metals, including critical minerals like cobalt and nickel, as well as precious platinum-group metals like iridium, is far higher in metallic asteroids than on Earth.

However, the exact geological composition of asteroids is still to be researched, and so far, there are no declared mineral reserves. Numerous missions, including the Japanese Hayabusa missions, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx, and the Psyche missions, are aiming to conduct further investigation.

The cost of rocket launches is declining

One of the main catalysts in the future of space mining is the drop in the cost of rocket launches. Over the past decade, private space companies such as Blue Origin and SpaceX have slashed the price of rocket launches to just 5% of what they used to be.

The launch costs to low-earth orbit have been continuously decreasing since 2005. The main factors are reusable rockets, improved manufacturing, and optimization of launch operations. This could mean good news for the exploration of space-based mineral resources.

Mining in space might have much lower environmental costs compared to Earth due to the vacuum environment and gravity-assisted transportation. However, the extent of the ecological impact hinges on the frequency of rocket launches and the choice of fuels for transporting mining and processing equipment into space.

Space mining is bound to grow

The calculations and growth model provided by the scientists suggest that in the future, there is going to be an inevitable shift with more mining taking place in space than on the surface of our planet.

The mining industry on Earth is well-established, while space mining still requires additional research and technology to extract minerals in the challenging space environment. Inevitably, the transition is expected to be a gradual process.

Space mining
Source: Research paper "Mining in space could spur sustainable growth"

The key driving factors for the switch is going to be environmental concerns and policies that might impose a carbon emission ceiling, as well as the increasing efficiency in space exploration.

According to the model, capital investments in space mining research and development are going to increase, together with the tightening environmental regulations fighting climate change. At the same time, the Earth-based metal production techniques are going to face a sharp decline in investments.

Environmental policies need to pressure the industry

While the numbers and dropping cost of space exploration provide a hopeful response to the ecological problems that our current economy is causing, the future of space mining is still vague. If environmental policies don’t put enough pressure on industries to search for alternative resources, the switch to space mining might never happen.

Another question that's inevitably bound to arise is the question of property rights in outer space. As a legal base is still to be made, the mining of celestial bodies might be influenced by legal regimes and governments in power.

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