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Asteroid mining is purely conceptual at this time, but there are valuable minerals to be harvested out there. In addition to iron and nickel there is thought to be gold an platinum in some asteroids. Asteroids were formed in much the same way as the Earth, so it only makes sense that they contain many of the same minerals and raw ores as the Earth. In the future, miners will be asteroid mining.
Asteroids are classed in three types: More than 75% of them are C-type which are very much like the Sun, but less volatile. Then there are the S-type which contain iron, nickel, and magnesium for sure, but may also contain gold and platinum. Lastly, there are the M-type which contain iron and nickel. Astronomers know all of this by using telescopic spectroscopy, which analyzes light reflected from the asteroid’s surface, to find out what might be there. They also know that there is water and trapped oxygen on or in some of these asteroids. Asteroid mining would only be possible if miners could take advantage of the oxygen and water there. There is no other way to make a profit or carry all of the supplies that you would need for a long term project.
John S. Lewis, author of an asteroid mining book has said “…an asteroid with a diameter of one kilometer would have a mass of about two billion tons. One of these asteroids, according to Lewis, would contain 30 million tons of nickel, 1.5 million tons of metal cobalt and 7,500 tons of platinum. The platinum alone would have a value of more than $150 billion!”. The huge sums of money involved could one day induce mining companies to look towards the heavens. It may not happen until we have exhausted most of the Earth’s natural resources, but it will happen.
Asteroid mining may only be a concept for science fiction at this time, but it is a future probability. The problems lie in how to bootstrap along until the things needed for protection and daily living can be extracted from the asteroids themselves. Asteroid mining would not be a thing of glory. It would be a hard scrabble life that could end at any second.
We have written many articles for Universe Today about mining asteroids. Here’s an article about Asteroid 2009 BD, which might be a great place to set up a mining operation.