It is no secret that NASA, as well as private space companies like SapceX and Blue Origin are attempting a trip to Mars in the not so distant future. Less glamorously, NASA has been launching a series of missions to nearby asteroids using unmanned probes. These missions are immensely expensive, and their value is not obvious. There is no chance to discover organic life or liquid water on the cold, dead worlds. They could however hide something nearly as worthwhile.
The technology we use today is made possible by the interaction of many intricate parts made of complex materials. To make these materials, specific elements are required. Rare elements like neodymium, platinum and palladium. These metals are used throughout your smart phone and computer. It is projected that the planet may run out of such elements in a matter of decades, making modern technology as it exists now, no longer possible. As it turns out, instead of being the harbingers of doom, as they have often been portrayed, asteroids may in fact be our salvation. These metals can be found in abundance in many known bodies located in the asteroid belt, which follows a solar orbit between Mars and Jupiter. Projects initiated to mine these asteroids could be among the first economically profitable space missions in history.
Mining asteroids is an exciting prospect in its own right, but there may be ramifications that make it even more attractive. If wealthy investors realize that there is money to be made by sending people or robots to mine space rocks, more than enough funding will flood into space programs without a dime of taxpayer burden. As space exploration meets capitalism, we are likely to see several space mining companies emerge and compete in the marketplace. Market competition will drive innovation in spaceflight for the first time in history, improving spacing technology unilaterally. If humans are used instead of unmanned vehicles, the space miners will need a place to live, so asteroid colonies may emerge. It is much cheaper to launch a spacecraft from the moon than from the earth so we might see the development of a lunar base before long. The technology used to establish these settlements could then be used to spread humanity across the Solar System and maybe someday across the stars.
None of this can happen unless we explore the asteroids for resources now, using government funded programs. So, when it comes to NASA’s asteroid missions, there can’t be to many.