It’s quite an aspirational idea – to even look at mining asteroids in space. It may feel like it’s something unreachable, something that’s always going to be put off to the future. But the creation of a new company Planetary Resources is real, with financial backers and with a significant amount of money behind them. We’re currently in transition. Government, and particularly the U.S. government is minimizing its operational capacity for space missions, while the commercial sector is being encouraged and growing. For example, Sir Richard Branson’s, Virgin Galactic, as well as other organisations are working toward real affordable (if you’re rich..) space tourism and by extension commoditisation of space access in general, bringing down prices and showing investors that space isn’t just for science anymore, you can make a profit.
I recently read a pessimistic article, one where the break-even price for space mining is in the hundreds of millions of dollars for a given mineral. One needs to be realistic, however in this article, I think the author is being way too dismissive. You see, there are many concepts in the pipeline which could significantly reduce the cost of earth-space transit. My most favored is the space elevator, where you don’t need a rocket to reach kilometers above the earth (although you would likely still need some sort of propulsion to accelerate to hold in orbit).
But as well as being across technology, a critic needs to also be open to other ideas. For example, why bring the minerals back to Earth? Why not attempt to create an extra-terrestrial market for the minerals? It may well cost much more to launch a large bulk of materials into orbit, than to extract materials from an asteroid (in the future). With space factories building cities in space.
Of course, I still think space mining is hopeful at best, let’s balance despair with hopeful ideas.