Exploring asteroids: making space mining a reality

Awareness of our dwindling resources and the fragility of our planet have meant mining companies are turning their gaze outward – and upward – for alternative resources. Scarlett Evans explores space mining opportunities with Asteroid Mining Corporation CEO Mitch Hunter-Scullion

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For years experts have considered the possibility of mining the tens of thousands of asteroids orbiting Earth, though logistics have until now prevented this from becoming a reality. Now, a future in which we source water, minerals and fuel from space is within our grasp, and companies such as Asteroid Mining Corporation (AMC) are already planning for the lucrative industry of space mining.

Scarlett Evans speaks to founder and CEO Mitch Hunter-Scullion about AMC’s role in the budding space mining industry.

Mark Crowe, managing director at Brand Finance Australia. Credit: Brand Finance.

Scarlett Evans:

Why should we be pursuing space mining?

Mitch Hunter-Scullion: Space mining is currently described as a nascent industry, one that doesn't quite exist but is on the verge of becoming economically viable. Essentially, the 2020s are when it's all going to kick off and what we’ll be looking at is the next ‘gold rush’.

When you think of the economic value of the object in question – as an example if you have a metallic asteroid 50m in diameter, there’s about £5bn worth of precious metals inside one of them – you can see just how much economic potential there is in space mining. There are no limitations in space and once you find asteroids, you can find resources. So right now you have an almost totally unregulated industry with the greatest growth potential of any industry on the planet.

So far, we’ve only been held back by the fact that we haven’t had to look elsewhere for resources. But now, we’re starting to look around.

How do you think your company and the industry will grow?

I intend for AMC to be a central force in the global space mining industry. Our first mission: the Asteroid Prospecting Satellite One aims to conduct a compositional survey of 5,000 NEAs [near-Earth asteroids] in order to produce a Space Resources Database; forming the bedrock of the data infrastructure needed for the space mining industry to flourish in the 2020s.

This dataset would be commercialised in order to fund the development of space mining hardware; to allow AMC to be both 'shovel salesman and miner', to take full advantage of the current opportunities in the sector.

How can the UK compete with other countries in the industry?

I believe the UK will be one of the strongest nations in the global space mining industry. The UK has world renowned expertise in both mining technology and space tech; particularly in small satellites, which are critical to developing a low-cost space mining business model. The recent announcement of a Scottish Spaceport will also allow launches from the UK, providing an entire supply chain to be conducted within the UK – from design, to manufacture, to launch and operations.

Do you have any specific projects in the pipeline?

Our first project is the Asteroid Prospecting Satellite One (APS1), which will conduct a compositional survey of up to 5,000 near-Earth asteroids in order to identify platinum group metal deposits. The dataset will then guide the target selection for our second mission, APS2, which will visit the asteroid we have identified as having the highest concentrations of platinum.

APS2 will produce a global surface map of metallurgical, mineralogical and molecular components in order to select mining sites on the asteroid, while also examining the surface conditions of the asteroid in order to determine which attachment mechanisms and extraction techniques will be required to recover platinum from the asteroid.

Our short-term goal is to identify platinum group metals deposits on NEAs, this being critical to the development of AMC's business case going forward into the 2020s. Our long-term goal is to extract said platinum from an asteroid by 2030, therefore kickstarting the space mining industry and expanding humanity's reach beyond the Earth for the first time in history.

With our first satellite launch due for late 2020, I believe that AMC is positioning itself to be one of the major forces in the sector globally.

What challenges still need to be overcome before the industry can really take off?

In the UK, compared to countries like Luxembourg, the main obstacles to overcome are a lack of dedicated space mining regulations, as well as a lack of public funding for the sector, which is naturally highly capital intensive. However AMC, working with the International Institute of Air and Space Law, has drafted a UK Space Resources Activities Bill in order to provide an enabling legal framework for the sector. This is perhaps the most critical development required for the sector to flourish, as much of the technical innovation is already underway.

What skills are needed to be part of the industry?

It depends on what stage of the industry you're looking at. In the beginning we’ll need legal workers, economic engineers and astronomers, among others. It’s a very multi-disciplinary sector and there's not a fixed career path in it at the minute.

I wouldn’t say you would need the background of, say, an engineer or a miner, just the ambition to be an astronaut and to work in space mining. Because it's such a new sector of the economy, there are going to be so many new jobs created in so many different areas. Anyone with an interest in space and a level of technical understanding of the complexities involved in a different environment – there's probably a job for them in the space mining industry.

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