We live in a world of finite metals.
What happens if we run out?
When it comes to commercial metals that make our cellphones and other devices function, the world is facing impending shortages that worry governments and businesses around the world. Demand for these strategic metals, such as gold, lithium, or rare-earth metals (those that are too dispersed to be mined in an economically feasible way), strains supplies. Political instability in countries where the metals are mined, in addition to trade tensions, further complicate the issue.
If we run out, there’s no rushing next door—say, to the moon—to borrow more. Or is there?
The idea isn’t as far-fetched as it might sound. The asteroid belt and the moon are brimming with metals. Dozens of spacecraft have already landed on the moon and Mars. Apollo missions brought back 382 kilograms (kg) of rock from the moon. In 2005, a spacecraft from Japan landed on an asteroid, collected samples, and brought them to Earth.
Big costs—bigger payoff?
To be clear, space mining would require overcoming major technological obstacles. But the challenges haven’t deterred ambitious entrepreneurs from forming dozens of private companies to set up mining operations in space.
While such ventures would be extremely costly and high risk (some have already gone under), the pay-off could be worth it. According to NASA estimates, the industry could generate revenues of $700 quintillion. That’s about 100 million times more than the total annual revenue of global mining in 2017, which was $600 billion.