The universe is infinite, and so likley are its resources. One of the earliest thinkers of the modern space-mining is John S. Lewis, the current professor emeritus of planetary science at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. He wrote his book, Mining the Sky, as early as 1997. According to Lewis, asteroid mining could be the “biggest game-changer in human economic history”. Our solar system is filled with asteroids. They are the left-overs of the formation of the solar system. Little bits of rock that never made it into planets or moons.
They are also rich in iron, nickel, and valuable platinum-group metals such as platinum and iridium – and of course diamonds. Every year something like 200 tonnes of platinum is extracted from the Earth’s surface — to the tune of about $6bn (£4.6bn). But according to some estimates, the value of these platinum- group metals in all of the asteroids “close” to the Earth is valued at $700trn (£541trn).
There is one particular mile-wide rock named 3554 Amun that is alone thought to contain $20trn (£15.7trn) worth of valuable metals and diamonds. And unlike on Earth, these precious materials are not buried under the surface, they are practically lying on top, waiting to be extracted.
So it is perhaps not surprising that so many companies are scrambling to get up there. A further motivating factor is Goldman Sachs’ claim that the fortune of the first individual trillionaire is to be made in asteroid mining.
Mining beyond earth — Projects in the works
Today there are both private and government- sponsored attempts to capture the resources of near-Earth asteroids. And indeed there have already been successful landings on asteroids such as the missions completed by NASA’s Osiris- Rex and Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Hayabusa2 in 2018. More recent developments include NASA’s ‘Innovative Advanced Concepts’ programme — that goes by the acronym NIAC — which is entering the third phase of its existence.
This is the moment when its scientists will begin working on aerospace architecture, mission concept designs, and more to help with the rapid surveying and modelling of celestial bodies for raw materials (among other things). This particular project within a project is known as project Skylight. In addition to Skylight, NASA is also working on the complimentary Mini Bee, which aims to locate the resources, extract and then deliver them home. NASA’s scheming aside, private ventures are probably more numerous than you might imagine. Enough for journalists to excitedly dub asteroid- mining as a new space race.
Notable companies include Japan’s ispace, US-based Planetary Resources and OffWorld, and the UK’s Asteroid Mining Corporation. The latter company is launching Project El Dorado — named after the fabled lost city of untold riches in Spanish colonial America — in 2023.
Investing in diamon extraction from space
Asteroid-mining as an idea still half lies in the realm of science fiction. So of course investing in diamond extractions from space will be financially risky. According to the journalist Gordon Dillon, writing about asteroid mining in his book Fire In The Sky, asteroid mining today is a little like the internet in 1986. As he put it, “for people willing to take the risk, it could be the equivalent of buying Amazon stock at eighteen bucks a share”. There are also opaque laws in place.
Laws that may well soon be overturned, but were written at a time before asteroid-mining was even thought possible. For example the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 specifically states that no nation can own an outer-space object, such as an asteroid. International law has almost nothing to say on the private exploitation of them. Although some attempt was made to pave the way for American private expeditions with the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act of 2015 for asteroid mining, as long as no biological life was on the asteroids themselves. Right now it still isn’t economically viable or technologically feasible to mine and therefore invest in diamonds from space.
Although it is thought we will be at that viable and feasible point almost tomorrow. Some overly optimistic, pre- coronavirus targets included 2020 in their calculations. But it will be more like another decade from now before we start seeing real progress. Yes, some companies are boldly declaring mission dates like 2023, but we shall see. So in short, if the Internet looked like a good prospect in the 80s to some, then so should outer-space diamond mining today. That there are untold riches out there is not in doubt, but they are millions of miles away and travelling through the solar system at colossal speeds.
Although that needn’t really be much of an obstacle. It has already been done. As anyone who followed the activities of the Rosetta spacecraft knows, in 2015, after a 10 year flight, the European Space Agency successfully, after travelling 6.5 billion kilometres, dropped a lander on to a comet.
Concerns, opportunities and the future of asteroid minning
But there are concerns. Some people have said that diamond extraction in this way could destroy the economy here on Earth. Obviously if you were to bring too much back from an asteroid the market price would collapse. It would be something akin to De Beers finding a million-ton diamond in South Africa, cutting it up and putting all of the pieces on to the market at once.
Suddenly a diamond would be worthless, and jewellery stores would be displaying ever-more engagement rings encrusted with sapphire or emeralds to their customers instead. But this problem could be avoided by dishing out the space-extracted diamonds in small, non-market collapsing quantities.
Actually, this is what De Beers does today – and is almost certainly what will happen. Yet at the same time, romanticising the process of extraction, and detailing the nature of how the diamond was extracted, could help to retain value even in the case of oversaturation — and make the diamonds more valuable in that regard. After all, they might both be diamonds.
But which would be more appealing — one mined from Earth or the other from outer space? The same logic of thinking is why many guitarists pay more for California-made Fender guitars over Mexican-manufactured ones. No matter what happens, this is an exciting time. And my bet is it will be the start of a great new age for luxury diamonds and their customers.
Byline by Mark Kaufmann of Watch Repair Piccadilly