Space mining on asteroids could eventually surpass Earth mining

TORONTO – Asteroids headed for Earth might strike fear into many hearts, but there are others who see business opportunities in the giant space rocks.

There were even predictions at a conference this week that mining on asteroids could become a dominant industry in the future.

Arny Sokoloff, the head of the Canadian Space Commerce Association, said that mining off the planet will eventually become one of the driving forces in the development of space.

“I have no doubt that, someday, space mining will surpass Earth mining,” he told the group’s annual conference Thursday. The CSCA comprises 50 Canadian companies involved in the space industry.

Sokoloff also pointed out that extra-terrestrial mining was featured in the recent federal Emerson report on space policy, commissioned by the Harper government.

He said that what the government has to do to encourage the industry, “in the very least,” is give space companies some of the kind of tax benefits that Canadian mining companies get.

“I believe it will be a dominant industry,” he added, “but this dominant industry is in the far future.”

Sokoloff quickly pointed out that “a few brave souls and some far-seeing (space) agencies have already started on this path.”

Among them is Moon Express, a U.S.-based company whose CEO is Bob Richards, a Canadian who moved to Silicon Valley.

He said in an interview that he left Canada for California because “that’s where the capital is and that’s where the appetite for risk is.”

Moon Express is just one of several American companies that have announced plans to mine asteroids — whether in space or on the moon.

Richards predicted that space mining will take off within one and three decades.

He said the current decade will be one of discovery where technologies will be used to prospect and explore the moon and identify “hot spots.”

Richards noted that precious metals mined on Earth, like gold and platinum, came from space originally.

“All of that came from asteroid bombardment of the Earth in its early history, so we really have been mining asteroids on the Earth for a long time now,” he said.

The problem is because the Earth was molten for much of its early history a lot of the valuable metals sank to the centre of our planet.

“What we mine today are just minute remnants that are near the surface,” he said. “All of this is available in infinite quantities in space.”

Richards explained Moon Express wants to do lunar mining because the metal-laden asteroids that bombarded the Earth were also bombarding the moon.

It just so happens that the moon is an embodiment of everything we need. It’s got metals, it’s got precious metals, it’s got water,” he said.

Richards said that in light of the amount of mining activity in this country, Canada is particularly well-positioned to take advantage of the opportunity.

Gordon Osinski, who chairs planetary geology at Western University in London, Ont., seems to agree. He hopes that once people realize the potential, space mining will take off in Canada.

“If those in government are watching things around the world and paying attention, this really is a potential niche area for Canada (to) take the lead,” Osinski said.

“We have the expertise from a scientific perspective in mineral extraction and we have world expertise in space robotics and we just need to put the two together, really.”

A federal panel, led by former cabinet minister David Emerson, concluded in a sweeping report that Canada’s space program had foundered over the last decade because of a lack of priorities and predictable funding since the last long-term plan in 1994.

Osinski noted that, in the U.S., NASA provided seed funding so that space companies could take hold: “If that happened in Canada, you’d then see private entrepreneurs come on board too,” he said.

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