It has been said that the world’s first trillionaires will be the ones who make their fortune in mining… asteroid mining! Over the years, this eventuality has been predicted by people like famed futurist Peter Diamandis, astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson, and financial firm Goldmann Sachs.
While the concept has been the stuff of science fiction for decades, it is only within the past few years that it has become treated as a serious possibility.
And with multiple companies emerging for the express purpose of asteroid prospecting, exploration, and mining, it is clear that the idea is moving from the realm of science fiction into the world of science fact.
What are Asteroids?
In order to answer that question, a little refresher on the history of the Solar System seems in order. Roughly 4.6 billion years ago, our Sun formed from a nebula of gas and dust that experienced gravitational collapse at the center.
According to one common model, having consumed most of the material from the solar nebula, the rest of the gas and dust formed into a large, flat disk around the Sun’s equator – a circumsolar accretion disk. Over the next few eons, this disk gradually condensed in place to form the planets.
Asteroids, according to our current astronomical models, are the material leftover from the formation of the Solar System. In this respect, asteroids and planets like Earth formed from the same starting materials.
On Earth, gravity pulled most of the heavier elements (like iron and nickel) into the core during the Achaean Eon – roughly four billion years ago. This process left the crust depleted of much of its heavy metals and heavier elements.
One model hypothesizes that, during the Heavy Bombardment Period, around 4.1 to 3.8 billion years ago, a disproportionately high amount of asteroids collided with the terrestrial planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars). These impacts would have then re-infused the depleted crust with metals like iron, nickel, gold, cobalt, manganese, molybdenum, osmium, palladium, platinum, rhenium, rhodium, ruthenium and tungsten.
Other researchers hypothesis that bombardment was constant over time.