Asteroid mining - will it ever happen? It seems so far fetched, but with a look back in time, perhaps it will help us look to the future.
Back in 1888, a trapper named Granger found some brassy coloured rocks in the Britannia mountains north of Vancouver. Understanding they could be valuable he took them to a Vancouver based prospector called Dr. Forbes and together they headed back to the area to look for more. They succeeded in finding chalcopyrite in the ground and although it was over a decade before investors took interest, they had essentially found the ore body that was to be mined at Britannia.
Back then, their tools probably included not much more than the likes of shovels, hammers and chisels. Their transport would have been by canoe and by foot. If it was put to them the idea of prospecting for mineral deposits by using flying machines that carry tools to map beneath the earth's surface without even breaking ground - today's helicopters with radar sensors and magnetometers - this would surely have seemed like pure fiction.
So it is on this that I reflect when I consider the news stories about asteroid mining. My first response in 2012 when I heard about James Cameron's involvement in a new asteroid mining venture was skepticism. How do you land on a small chunk of rock or metal travelling around 25 km per second, let alone mine it? Wouldn't the value of the metal be significantly less than the cost of mining the metal and then returning it to earth? It all seems like pure fiction...science fiction.
Yet there are now not just one, but two companies that have sprung up in the last year to develop asteroid mining. They understand the potential for asteroids to provide more metals like platinum, gold and cobalt than we could ever possibly mine here on Earth. They have worked out that the asteroids could provide water, and therefore hydrogen and oxygen, that could be converted into rocket fuel. They have plans to develop tiny prospecting spaceships to take samples and bring them back for analysis. And they believe this could all be possible within the next decade or so.
There are many scientists, engineers and economists that are very skeptical of the claims and understandably so. Apparently an upcoming NASA mission to return just 60 g of material from an asteroid will cost about $1 billion. But back in 1888, how would Forbes and Granger have perceived the cost of developing and building a helicopter or the other technologies we use today? It makes sense to think that they may have thought the costs involved to be too great compared to the value of metals in those days. So yes, the current claims on asteroid mining do seem like science fiction and economically impossible, but with an eye on the past, I think it does make it easier to look to the future.