Asteroids have a staggeringly high net worth and the United States needs to take advantage of this. Ryugu, a near-Earth object currently being visited by the Japanese probe Hayabusa-2, has an estimated value of USD$83 million. Davida, the 7th largest known asteroid, has an estimated value of >USD$100 trillion. These asteroids are so valuable because of their potential stores of minerals and water, supplies that would be critical to any long-term space colonization attempt.
We can launch, and are currently launching, these supplies into orbit from Earth. But just one liter of water from Earth costs $10,000! And platinum-group metals, a group of elements essential to current and emerging technologies, are very rare in the Earth’s crust. We need to develop celestial resources so that we can (1) increase the availability of supplies critical to space missions and (2) reduce delivery costs.
Approximately 1/2000 near-Earth objects are predicted to have platinum-group metals present in concentrations large enough to ensure a profitable return on investment. With over 20,000 near-Earth objects already discovered and more being found every day, there is already a sizable number of targets for metal mining. Carbanaceous asteroids, about 10% of near-Earth objects, are up to 10% water. These are incredible potential sources waiting to be tapped.
Nations are beginning to take notice at the potential economic boon that asteroid mining presents. The United States, Luxembourg, and the United Arab Emirates have all passed laws granting legal and regulatory protection to asteroid miners, granting them ownership of all material recovered. In 2017, Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates signed a memorandum of understanding to start bilateral cooperation on space activities with a particular focus on the exploration and utilization of space resources. Luxembourg has also invested in Planetary Resources, a firm preparing for a set of data-gathering missions that will visit multiple near-Earth objects to determine the location of the first mine.
The United State needs to rapidly ramp up activities to take the lead and capitalize on the most profitable asteroids. To facilitate the production of operational asteroid mines, the Unites States should promote research efforts into the improved remote determination of elemental compositions to enable the accurate targeting of asteroids without sending expensive probes. Landing on asteroids, particularly tumbling asteroids, is difficult and will require advanced engineering.
To encourage industrial attempts at asteroid mining, the U.S. should adopt a regulatory framework that protects miners’ ownership rights while acknowledging liability issues, and a taxation scheme that mimics that of terrestrial mining. A space-based military force should also be developed to ensure the security of U.S.-flagged mining operations with a space diplomatic corps to mitigate international issues.