foreignpolicy | To evangelists of asteroid mining, the heavens are not just a frontier but a vast and resource-rich place teeming with opportunity. According to NASA, there are potentially 100,000 near-Earth objects — including asteroids and comets — in the neighborhood of our planet. Some of these NEOs, as they’re called, are small. Others are substantial and potentially packed full of water and various important minerals, such as nickel, cobalt, and iron. One day, advocates believe, those objects will be tapped by variations on the equipment used in the coal mines of Kentucky or in the diamond mines of Africa. And for immense gain: According to industry experts, the contents of a single asteroid could be worth trillions of dollars.
Kfir pitched me on the long-term plan. First, a fleet of satellites will be dispatched to outer space, fitted with probes that can measure the quality and quantity of water and minerals in nearby asteroids and comets. Later, armed with that information, mining companies like DSI will send out vessels to mechanically remove and refine the material extracted. In some cases, the take will be returned to Earth. But most of the time, it will be processed in space — for instance, to produce rocket fuel — and stored in container vessels that will serve as the equivalent of gas stations for outbound spacecraft.
This possibility isn’t so unrealistic, Kfir said. Consider the recent and seismic growth of the space industry, he suggested, as we climbed the stairs to DSI’s second-floor suite. Every year, the private spaceflight sector grows larger, and every year the goals become grander. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and the space exploration company Blue Origin, has spoken of the day “when millions of people are living and working in space”; Elon Musk’s SpaceX is expected to reveal a Mars colonization plan this year.
“But how are they going to sustain this new space economy?” Kfir asked rhetorically. He nudged open DSI’s office door. “Easy: by mining asteroids.” Bezos, Musk, and the other billionaires who plan to be cruising around space in the near future won’t be able to do so without celestial pit stops.
In his book, Asteroid Mining 101: Wealth for the New Space Economy, John S. Lewis, professor emeritus of Cosmochemistry and Planetary Atmospheres at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and DSI’s chief scientist, envisions a future where “ever more remote and ever more massive reservoirs of resources” take astronauts farther and farther from our planet. “First to the Near Earth Asteroids and the moons of Mars, then to the asteroid belt, then to…[the] Trojan asteroids and the outer moons of Jupiter, then to the Saturn system and the Centaurs,” and so on, to infinity.