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Asteroid mining and the future of the Yukon economy

Asteroid mining sounds like a crazy idea. But let's think in the long term. When my grandparents grew up a century ago in the Yukon, air travel was a novelty and space travel unthinkable.

Asteroid mining sounds like a crazy idea. But let’s think in the long term. When my grandparents grew up a century ago in the Yukon, air travel was a novelty and space travel unthinkable.

If we want to think about the long-term future of the Yukon, we have to keep the mining industry in mind. It is on most shortlists of industries that could contribute to an economically sustainable Yukon economy.

It is not surprising that mining is a hot topic among space exploration enthusiasts right now. Over the last few thousand years, hopes of mineral wealth has often been what lured humans over the next hill. Mineral exploration was a big part of European missions to explore Canada. Remember elementary school and the textbooks describing how excited Frobisher was when he discovered huge amounts of gold on Baffin Island?

Never mind that it turned out to be fool’s gold.

There are now several companies looking apparently seriously at asteroid mining. One is called Deep Space Industries and is based in California. Planetary Resources, based in Redmond, Washington, has big-name investors including top figures from Google. Both hope to launch prospecting missions in the next few years.

The idea starts with the fact that the Earth’s crust is relatively barren of valuable minerals, since most of them sank to the planet’s core as it cooled a few billion years ago. Volcanic eruptions and meteorite strikes since then have given us what we mine today. As any exploration geologist can tell you, these deposits can be hard to find and often in very low concentrations.

An X-type asteroid, on the other hand, can have incredibly dense mineral resources. Planetary Resources estimates that one of these, only about 500 metres across, could have enough platinum for almost 200 years based on our current consumption patterns and 1.5 times the known world reserves of platinum-group metals such as palladium, iridium and rhodium.

These companies claim that mining in space may be easier than you think, since the minerals are so densely packed and there is no gravity or need to worry about polluting an asteroid. It also takes less energy to send minerals from asteroids in near-earth orbit than from the Moon, since you don’t have to escape that body’s own gravity.

Mars missions have already shown that we can send probes with complicated equipment and run them successfully despite being so far away that it takes minutes for radio messages to travel to and from the probe. Picture a swarm of robots headed to a likely near-Earth-orbit asteroid with all the sensors and extractive gadgets required, as well as one robot making rocket fuel for the return trip out of water and solar power.

So what does this mean for the Yukon?

This is a classic “disruptive” technology, and has the potential to totally discombobulate the planet’s mining industry. It would certainly not be good news for Earth’s platinum mines if a year’s supply of the metal floated down out of the sky on parachutes one day. The bullish scenario involves an infrastructure of space ships and refueling stations orbiting the Earth, and robot or even human-led missions to nearby asteroids.

Of course, proponents have many problems to solve before this becomes reality. Boosters predict it could be happening on a small scale within 20 years. It may take longer.

One problem that has already been solved is ownership of the resources. Last November, President Obama signed a bill into law that recognizes asteroid resource property rights. It’s apparently one of the few things Obama and the Republicans in Congress could agree on. The idea is that space will be like the ocean. You can’t own the ocean, but you can own the fish you catch in it.

The Obama administration presumes the asteroids have no current occupants with title to the minerals. If Planetary Resources discovers the contrary, future generations of lawyers could be studying “Alien Title.”

You might be wondering about Canada’s position on asteroid property rights.

I don’t think Obama or the U.S. Congress are.

Asteroid mining could solve some big environmental problems on Earth. Carbon emissions could be much lower, since once the robots were launched the rocket fuel for travel to and from the asteroid and the energy for mining could be manufactured in space. Nor would we have to deal with tailings pond ruptures and acidic run-off.

However, there could be trouble if dense chunks of platinum started falling out of the sky in the wrong places or if a ship containing toxic minerals blew up while entering Earth’s atmosphere. Or if wilder schemes to move asteroids closer to earth got out of control. Imagine the YESAB application where the potential adverse effect is a kilometre-wide asteroid impacting the Earth at several thousand kilometres per hour.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is economic. Bringing a year’s worth of platinum to Earth would cause the price to collapse, causing a Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly (as rocketeers say) of the business case. The other threat is that the terrestrial mining industry keeps finding new deposits and continues its century-long success in reducing cost per tonne. Robots can work on Earth too, as experiments with driverless mining trucks have shown.

It’s way too early to say, and the threat to Yukon jobs is decades away at least. Mid-career Yukoners probably don’t have much to worry about. For those still in school, however, there’s probably a career in mining robotics waiting for you. It might even be on Earth.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He won this year’s Ma Murray award for best columnist. You can follow him on Channel 9’s Yukonomist show or Twitter @hallidaykeith