Advancing Together With Barrick Gold

Mining 5 things you should know about asteroid mining

Mining has played a pivotal role in the overall advancement of our civilization on Earth. Now it will take us a step closer to becoming an interplanetary species.

Seeking new ideas and challenging assumptions are at the core of Barrick’s quest to innovate. That’s why the Company’s Innovation Team recently welcomed Chris Lewicki, CEO at Seattle-based Planetary Resources, and his team for a knowledge-exchange session. They learned about our underground mining practices, and we learned about their interstellar mining goals.

Planetary Resources is an asteroid mining company led by Lewicki—an aerospace engineer by training that has been at the helm of several major NASA projects, including the Mars Spirit and Opportunity missions.

“Engaging with Planetary Resources is part of a larger strategy to infuse Barrick with bold ideas and exponential technologies,” says Tyler Godoff, Manager of Innovation Partnerships at Barrick. “We intentionally choose partners who challenge our thinking and encourage us to be unconventional.”

Lewicki and his team visited Barrick’s Hemlo mine in Marathon, Ontario, where they learned about Barrick’s mining processes and heard from our teams on the ground. The next stop was the Company’s Toronto office, where Lewicki shared Planetary Resources’ bold vision and how they intend on achieving it. Here are five key takeaways from his presentation.

1. Space rockets are disposable

Today, rockets are expensive machines that are no longer usable once they reach orbit. Earth’s strong gravitational pull requires an entire rocket worth of fuel to carry a relatively small payload (~1 percent of the total rocket weight) into space. Once reaching orbit, rockets ‘run out of gas’ and are disposed of as there are no sources of fuel to refill its tanks. This makes material transport from the surface of the earth very expensive. According to NASA, delivering a single kilogram of material into orbit costs US $10,000, 25 percent the cost of the same amount of pure gold! Harnessing resources in space for construction or refueling purposes is a high priority for modern space-based companies.

2. Planetary Resources wants to solve that problem

Planetary Resources’ vision, as Lewicki described it, is “to be the leading provider of resources for people and the products they’ll need to make in space.” One of those key resources is rocket fuel, which is abundant in the form of water on many near-Earth asteroids, Lewicki said.

Planetary Resources’ plan is to set up a mine to extract hydrogen and oxygen from near-Earth asteroids, allowing for the refueling of small space-based ships. The purpose of these vessels is to haul payloads in low-earth orbit to the International Space Station, the moon, and other planets in our solar system.

3. We need to use local materials to set up shop in space

Setting up human colonies, or fueling stations, or anything else in space requires the use of local materials. We can’t ship concrete and other construction materials from Earth because of its exorbitant cost.

There are three kinds of high-value resources on asteroids: industrial metals (iron, nickel and cobalt), platinum metals, and volatile gases (e.g. water). To give an example of how rich these asteroids can be, just one 75-meter, water-rich asteroid could fuel all 135 Space Shuttle launches conducted over the past 30 years. And with the use of cutting-edge 3D printing technology, the supply of construction materials becomes nearly limitless.

4. The prospecting phase in asteroid mining is complete

Today, scientists have been able to identify 760,000 asteroids travelling in our solar system. Planetary Resources was able to narrow down its mission target list to less than 50 asteroids based on distance from Earth, resource content, orbit, timing, and mission constraints.

5. No matter the planet, the objective of mining remains the same: advancing humanity

As the saying goes, if you can't grow it, you have to mine it. Mining has played a pivotal role in the overall advancement of our civilization on Earth. Now it will take us a step closer to becoming an interplanetary species.