Space Minerals: A New Frontier?5 min read

Thousands of meteorites plunge to Earth each year and to the untrained eye look remarkably like terrestrial rocks. But many of these ancient geological wonders originate somewhere in the vast asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Rarer ones are actually pieces of the moon or Mars itself after a meteorite hits the surface with such an impact that a lunar or Red Planet piece is ejected into space and eventually falls to Earth.

While some meteorites have a relatively low value, the ones that offer a glimpse of the moon or Mars or that are very large can fetch up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Asteroids in orbit can be laced with precious metals like gold, platinum, and tungsten. Because of this, space travel to mine these minerals hundreds of thousands of miles from Earth is under development. For now, geologists and meteorite hunters travel in a more down to earth way across our planet to uncover pieces of mineral-laden rock that have fallen from elsewhere in the universe

Falling to Earth

Rocky shards from asteroids or comets fall from the sky on a daily basis. Many are too small for their source to be recognized. With vast oceans and unpopulated deserts or forests, many meteorites go undiscovered. Many meteorites are composed primarily of iron, while others are made up of minerals that contain silicates, made of silicon and oxygen.

One metal derived from the carbon and iron in meteorites is tungsten. Its high melting point and strength, coincidentally, make it ideal for space travel, as well as everyday things like light bulbs. It’s also a popular substance for rings, as the slow cooling of meteorites over millions of years gives it a crystalline structure similar to gemstones.

The largest meteorite was discovered in Namibia in 1920. Called the Hoba meteorite, it weighs in at 119,000 pounds and is so gigantic it has never been moved. The largest crater from a meteorite is called the Chicxulub Crater submerged in the Gulf of Mexico near Yucatan. The gigantic meteorite that created this six-mile wide crater may have caused the extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago, many scientists believe.

Geological Tourism

Anyone can hunt for meteorites, but there are some caveats. If you’re on public lands, such as a national park, you won’t be allowed to keep any specimens you find. And if you’re on private land you’ll need to get permission from the landowner so you’re not trespassing

The best places to look are large pieces of barren land, the lighter color the better since many meteorites are black or dark-colored. Southern California’s Mojave Desert is an example of an area that makes spotting meteorites easier. Areas called “strewn fields” where meteors dispersed after breaking up when they entered Earth’s atmosphere are also good places to look. Several southwestern sites have yielded many pieces of meteorites, including New Mexico’s Glorieta Mountain and Gold Basin, Arizona.

Farther afield, there are many meteorites in Antarctica, where the frigid temperatures help preserve the minerals and keep metals from rusting. In 2013, a meteor exploded over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk,  injuring 1,200 people. Shards as large as four-feet long fell into Lake Chebarkul. More pieces are likely buried beneath sediment on the bottom of the lake and nearby. Geologists and amateur meteorite hunters visit the area to see what else can be discovered. A chunk of the meteorite is now housed in the Chelyabinsk State Museum of Local History.

Elsewhere in Russia, geological tourists are examining a meteorite found in 2016 in the Uakit region of Siberia that contains a mineral that has never been spotted on Earth before. Scientists dubbed the microscopic specks of the mineral uakitite after the name of the region. The rest of the meteorite is made of an iron-nickel alloy called kamacite, which is only found in meteorites.

Traveling to Russia to explore and tour meteorite rich regions has begun to get easier. Previously, visitors might have had to secure a letter from a Russian entity allowing them entry, but now you can secure a region-specific visa. That isn’t to say you still can’t be turned back at the border, in fact, 1,500 visitors were in the initial two months of the launch of the latest electronic visa.

It’s exceedingly important to make sure your documents are in the correct order. Looking for meteorites involves trips to isolated backcountry, so geological tourists also need to be prepared for all types of weather from blizzards to tornadoes, as well as have plenty of survival supplies, including food, water, and shelter, in case you are unable to return in the time expected or stuck in a specific region longer than you’d planned. In the Uakit region, weather can dip as low as -30 for prolonged periods of time.

Mining in Space

We’re still long ways from space-based adventures for geotourists, but scientists are making the first steps in that direction, and are now turning their sights from space rocks on Earth to the bounty of minerals and precious metals in outer space. This could be helpful for Earthlings for a number of reasons, including expanding the sources of hard-to-reach minerals buried underground, which can cause pollution and waterway contamination when mined. Someday not just the moon or Mars might be mined but also asteroids circling the sun.

In 2019, NASA approved a mission to visit the asteroid called Psyche 16, which astronomers think could be the core of a planet that collided with another space object billions of years ago. The solar-powered spacecraft to Psyche is expected to launch in 2022, arriving at the asteroid four years later, where it will study the Massachusetts-size hunk of rock and map its surface for 21 months. 

The impetus for mining in space is also the astronomical value of what might be found in the 600,000 asteroids. A 90-foot wide platinum asteroid could be worth $50 billion. While the minerals in Psyche are likely mostly nickel and iron, it’s possible it’s also studded with vast amounts of gold and platinum that some eager venture capitalists say could be worth up to $700 quintillion.

As Elon Musk’s SpaceX and other ventures look toward the vast universe for exploration, geological tourists may someday expand their horizons by millions of miles.

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