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The Possibilities of Mining Asteroids and the Moon for Resources

written by: S.L. Bradish•edited by: RC Davison•updated: 9/11/2009

Is mining in space a real possibility or just a science fiction plot? It's not only possible, but will soon be "business as usual!"

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    Natural Resources in Far-Away Places

    When you hear the term “natural resources” the images that come to mind are the animal, vegetable and mineral things on Earth. Water, air and rocks are found abundantly on our native planet. Lately there has been a lot of talk about “renewable resources” with the idea in mind that we could run out of the natural elements we need to sustain life and continue to prosper on our home world. From petroleum products to building materials, we have a plentiful supply. But there is far more to be found in the Near Earth Objects and Asteroids (NEO, NEA) that travel through space every day. The universe if filled with potential for mining.

    Suppose we wanted to build a moon base. How would we get all the necessary materials to construct it? Loading the finished materials onto a ship or a shuttle would be a lengthy, arduous process. So would unloading it! What if, instead of hauling the sheets of metal and the beams and the glass needed to build living quarters or greenhouses, mining and manufacturing equipment were sent, instead? We have the technology to both mine and manufacture with automation that requires minimal human involvement. The same technology could be improved to include the mining of NEO’s such as the moon, Mars or an asteroid. Theoretically, we should be able to have mining operations on the moon by the time we’re ready to build the first base there.

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    Mining Meteroites, Asteroids, the Moon, and Comets

    Iron asteroids or meteorites are 91% iron (thus the name), 8.5% nickel and .6% cobalt. One large meteorite could produce a great deal of iron for manufacturing buildings. For example the 3554 Amun asteroid is a mile wide and by itself could give us more iron than mankind has processed in all its history!

    Stony asteroids and meteorites typically contain 36% oxygen, 26% iron, 18% silicon, 14% magnesium as well as smaller amounts of aluminum, nickel and calcium. With the proper refining technology a stony meteorite could produce plenty of other building materials (silicon and aluminum are used on Earth in construction projects of all kinds). Earths crust has oxygen, silicon aluminum iron and other minerals, so the processing of an asteroid wouldn’t require totally new technology, just a few refinements to account for gravity and other conditions particular to space mining.

    The Moon's surface is a treasure trove of NEO mining possibilities! From the 42% oxygen to 21% silicon to 13% iron, 8%calcium, 7% aluminum 6% magnesium and 3% of other minerals, we could do some serious mining, indeed! Mankind has been mining the Earth for thousands of years and not depleted the supply significantly, so the moon would be in no danger of being “over mined.”

    And how about comets? They race through the galaxy, sometimes coming quite close to the Earth. They are made of a combination of ice and space debris. The ice contains water that could be melted and used as water with a little filtering. It could also be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen, which are two main ingredients for rocket fuel. It is possible to capture a comet, mine it for its water and refuel a space ship for lengthy journeys. Not quite as convenient as visiting your local gas station, but a system that could turn comet ice into rocket fuel would improve with use and the technology would advance quickly.

    Ships large enough to contain metal refineries and mineral processors would be a combination of terrestrial industry and space technology and are within the realm of possibility by the time a moon base is established. Being able to “capture” asteroids or meteors or comets so they can be mined is theoretically possibly, according to some experts. They expect it to be a common practice sometime in the new century. NASA has charted several NEA’s that either precede or follow Earth’s orbit around the sun and is considering them as the first targets in their mining experiments.

    In the old days, people used what was available to build their homes and towns, mostly stone and wood from the immediate area where the building was to take place. In the space age, we can do the same thing by mining the comets, asteroids and meteors that are close enough to reach. The building materials and supplies are already there, just waiting for us to come after them. In the coming century it will be a commonplace thing to get water and fuel from comets, as well as to create habitable bases on the moon and Mars by using their own natural resources and our technology.