The concept of commercializing space has become quite popular among entrepreneurs who sense that there are many possible profit-making opportunities awaiting adventurers willing to attempt exploitation of the last frontier. Over the past half-century few private companies have successfully exploited the space environment.
The obvious winners so far have been communications companies that have established constellations uniquely suited to take advantage of outer space in order to provide services to customers on Earth. Many others have tried and failed to create businesses that lead to profits.
One of the areas of space adventure that appears to be receiving increasing amounts of interest and funding is asteroid mining, i.e., the exploitation of raw materials from asteroids, meteors and other celestial bodies. Mining activities could be designed for in-situ utilization for made-in-space construction, rocket propellants and other applications. Extracted materials such as gold, iridium, silver and platinum may be sent back to Earth for commercial sale.
It is true that our Earth has limited raw materials and some of these are getting harder to find. So, the idea of using space objects to supplement our minerals may seem to be interesting and desirable. However, any serious consideration must start with a cost-benefit analysis.
The first hurdle will surely be the high costs of space transportation, extraction machinery and labor. Add to these the uncertainties associated with object selection and material content of asteroids and other celestial bodies that may be practically reachable for mining.
Recent analyses regarding known terrestrial reserves in light of increasing consumption of raw materials around the world have led to the conclusion that certain key elements needed for modern industry and food production might be exhausted sometime in the next half century.
While it is true that, based on limited knowledge and speculation, one can make an interesting investment case for the development of asteroid mining operations, it is difficult to imagine a scenario for which early private-sector investment can be justified.
History is littered with disruptive innovations that have changed the course of projected devastating events, resulting in the avoidance of costly alternatives that once appeared unavoidable. While asteroid mining may eventually evolve into something useful and competitive, its current potential for profitability seems far, far away.