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These Aussie Scientists Want To Mine Asteroids For Gold

The possibility of mining asteroids is not as far off as you might think.

A team of scientists from the University of Adelaide is developing a process of mining asteroids that could make this science fiction concept a reality in the near future.

The team are perfecting an extraction technique to mine minerals and metal in zero-gravity. Professor Volker Hessel, head of the research team, is perfecting a method of 'continuous-flow' extraction that is far faster than current processes, and could help obtain platinum, nickel and cobalt from asteroids.

Hessel told 10 daily that the technology itself is actually old, and has been used in the pharmaceutical industry for over a decade -- but he said his team was the first to apply it to mining.

Asteroid close to Earth. Source: Getty.

The technique uses a chemical reaction and temperature to force materials to move in a continuous stream, and the precious bits are then separated from waste using a solvent.

This method will allow miners to target certain materials accurately in the asteroids, which is important because the composition of these giant hurtling rocks is very different to the Earth.

Importantly, continuous-flow technology can also work in vacuums and zero gravity.

Image: AAP

The race to begin mining asteroids has been in motion for several years now. Globally, there are multiple privately-funded space companies developing technology to extract valuable material from these celestial bodies.

The United Kingdom has the Asteroid Mining Corporation, Japan has ispace (which is planning on mining the moon before anything else), Luxembourg have Kleos Space and the United States has Planetary Resources.

Hessel's team are partnered with a Kentucky-based startup known as Space Tango, which is focused on research and manufacturing in low- or zero-gravity.

asteroid
Asteroid with moon. Photo: NASA.
Okay, so why would anybody want to mine an asteroid?

While this might sound initially complicated and improbable, Hessel said there are asteroids closer to Earth than Adelaide is to Alice Springs.

"Advances in space exploration mean that these bodies which contain nickel, cobalt, and platinum as well as water and organic matter, are now within reach," he said.

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Asteroids are made of either silicon, carbon or metal and there are around 17,000 of these lumps circling close enough to Earth to be targeted by space exploration technology in coming years.

Based on data collected from fragments of asteroids that have fallen to Earth, a small percentage of asteroids (around four percent) are thought to contain high concentrations of minerals and metals such as platinum and gold.

The Australia Telescope Compact Array radio telescope at Paul Wild Observatory Narrabri (Image: Getty)

Asteroids have never been sampled directly, but NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission is due to return with a sample from an asteroid called Bennu by 2023. Currently, scientists can tell the composition of an asteroid using a spectrograph, which analyses the sunlight that bounces off the surface.

Hessel said mining asteroids is not simply a matter of developing the technology, however -- it's also a matter of money.

"Exploitation of the wealth locked up in asteroids will only become a reality when other disruptive elements come together and it is economically as well as technically viable," he said.

According to Harvard University astrophysicist, Professor Martin Elvis, any asteroid needs to have a market value of at least $US 1 billion in order to be worth mining.

This leaves about 10 asteroids in striking distance of Earth that scientists can target.

However, Hessel stresses that even one of these asteroids will contain "more platinum, more copper or more gold than the whole Earth has".

However, for the moment, Hessel believes "there's hardly anybody in the world with the full picture" of this venture and it may be ten years before it's a viable source of materials.