The earliest mention of asteroid mining might be in a story from 1898 titled “Edison’s Conquest of Mars,” by Garrett Serviss. In that story, Martians attack Earth, killing tens of thousands and destroying New York City. Earth retaliates and sends an armada to Mars. While travelling, the armada comes across an asteroid that the Martians are mining. The asteroid is a rubble pile of gold nuggets.
A conversation breaks out among the crew.
“Phew! Won’t we be rich?” exclaimed a voice.
“How are we going to dig it and get it back to earth?” asked another.
“Carry it in your pockets,” said one.
“No need of staking claims here,” remarked another. “There is enough for everybody.”
Their conversation was a prescient hint of things to come.
The idea to mine asteroids incubated in the background until more modern times, when the realities of the space-faring age brought the idea into focus.
Starting in the 2000s, asteroid mining—or at least its potential—gained momentum. Private companies were starting to send spacecraft into Earth orbit, though it was tentative at first. People started to wonder about mining asteroids. Who owned them? How could it be done?
Japan’s Hayabusa brought a sample of asteroid Itokawa back to Earth in 2010. Wealthy people formed companies with the intent to mine asteroids. In 2015, the US Congress passed the Space Act that gave US companies the right to mine asteroids and other bodies in space, though it stopped short of claiming sovereignty over any bodies in space.
Companies popped up and talked about mining asteroids. They calculated the value of asteroids and started developing robotic explorers to operate on asteroids. One company called the Asteroid Mining Corporation worked with a Japanese University to develop the Space Capable Asteroid Robotic Explorers (SCAR-E).
An illustration of SCAR-E, the Space Capable Asteroid Robotic Explorers being developed by AMC and Tohoku University. Image Credit: AMC/Tohoku University.
The initial fervour of the past couple of decades has died down, but the idea is still there. And as our knowledge of asteroids grows and our space-flight capabilities advance, the idea of asteroid mining will never disappear.
There are a number of reasons why asteroid mining is desirable. The materials in asteroids represent an enormous financial value, which always attracts capitalist activities. Some materials needed for our modern technological devices are in short supply on Earth but are available on asteroids. And mining on Earth carries an environmental burden that mining on dead asteroids doesn’t.
One day asteroid mining might be possible, profitable, or even necessary. We’re not there yet, but scientists are still thinking ahead about how it could work, even though there are a whole host of obstacles in the way. We’re accustomed to spacecraft being launched on far-flung missions into the Solar System. But space travel is complicated, risky, and expensive. Even sampling asteroids is challenging.