The iron ore space race

This is my Sunday column for the Feb. 3, 2013 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Below the jump you can learn more about plans to mine minerals from asteroids.

The iron ore space race
By Aaron J. Brown

Looking down from space through the night sky you see the bright lights of our modern world. From this we learn in a glimpse where people live, how many of them live there, and even guess what their lives are like.

On sites like Space.com, the eastern sea board of the United States beams like Orion’s Belt, teeming with traffic, skyscrapers and live theater shown to tourists. So, too, glow the perpetual flames of the Bakken Oil Fields in western North Dakota, where workers toil, awaiting their return to families in beleaguered Rust Belt cities hundreds of miles away. North Korea, home to millions, is dark. They don’t allow lights there. In each case, the light or lack thereof tells the story of a people.

Just northwest of mighty Lake Superior, a dull, gray slick seen from space, we find a jaunty slice of light through the heart of a dark forest. This is the Mesabi Iron Range of northern Minnesota. From the heavens one might wonder how these lights got here, but we know the answer. Below this dark canvas lies rich iron ore, astronomic rock that made the lighting of these lamps even possible. These towns were built for ore, and the people came here to mine it, and more.

We stay to keep the lights on.

Like many on the Range, I boast a long family history of mining. Like many local families, the Browns came here for the iron mines, after leaving somewhere else where iron mines were closing. Parts of my family have lived in mining regions around the world for as long as anyone knows, quite possibly back to the days of the Roman Empire. So, while I am a mere miner of words, my blood might have just a bit more iron than most (I really should get that checked; I hear that’s a thing).

But recent space news caught my attention. If my family is to continue its pursuit of iron, I just might have to outfit my boys with space helmets and advanced trigonometry classes. According to another article at Space.com, a company called Deep Space is exploring mineral mining on the hundreds of asteroids that pass close by Earth every year.

From the article:

“More than 900 new asteroids that pass near Earth are discovered every year,’ [Deep Space CEO David] Gump explained. “They can be like the Iron Range of Minnesota was for the Detroit car industry last century — a key resource located near where it was needed. In this case, metals and fuel from asteroids can expand the in-space industries of this century. That is our strategy.”

That’s right, just like the good ol’ Mesabi. Except for the whole space part. And the asteroid part. And the robots. Don’t forget the robots. It seems unlikely that thousands of unskilled eastern European immigrants will be hurled at these asteroids to mine them clean (though the company may try this for a while, until the unions set in).

A number of spellbinding pictures are shown in which spacecraft are latched onto craggy asteroids quite literally like ticks on a dog. The machines attach to smaller asteroids like a bar dart; larger rocks are tethered by cable. The largest asteroids would house mini-space stations where personnel reside in habitats. In location towns of the future you will buy Tang from the company store while floating upside down. The prices, not so good.

Here, we presume, Iron Rangers of the future would go. From the cliffs of Cornwall to the south shores of northern Michigan, to the red hills of the Mesabi, our people will chase iron ore to its very source, the cold vacuum of space, lit by stars that one day will swell, burst and expel more iron for us to mine in the future.

That is, of course, unless there’s more to life. Could it be?

Aaron J. Brown is an author and community college instructor from the Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts 91.7 KAXE’s Great Northern Radio Show on public stations.

More after the jump:

Find out about how mining the asteroids could work, in this SPACE.com infographic.
Source: SPACE.com: All about our solar system, outer space and exploration

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