Mining in outer space is a step closer to reality, as Japanese scientists prepare to launch a new probe to conduct mineral exploration on asteroids.
The Haybusa-2 probe will be sent on a four year voyage to an asteroid dubbed 1999JU3.
The project is run by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).
The exploration satellite will arrive at the asteroid in 2018, when it will fire a projectile into the asteroid to blast off material, gather the loose material and then return to Earth.
The arrival of Hayabusa-2, barring unforeseen mishaps, should coincide with the Tokyo Olympic games in 2020.
1999JU3 is a spherical asteroid, about one kilometre across, and is speculated to contain organic matter and water.
The first Hayabusa probe was only able to collect dust samples from the surface of the asteroid, which may have been altered by exposure to energy sources in the universe.
Jiji press reported that project leader Hitoshi Kuninaka was grateful that the new probe was nearly complete.
“Of course, I hope things will go smoothly,” Kuninaka said.
“We have had many difficulties in the process of developing the new asteroid probe. Space is never an easy place.”
Last year an American company called Deep Space Industries announced it would build a fleet of asteroid mining space craft to exploit the mineral riches of space (or deep space, as the case may be).
The company claims the first of its exploration probes, said to be as small as toasters by CNBC, will be launched in 2016.
Chinese scientists have also developed a keen interest in mining on the Moon, which contains various minerals such as iron, gold, platinum and tungsten, as well as the incredibly rare Helium-3, which is valued at up to $90,000 per ounce.
Although the earth contains the lighter-than-air Helium-4 (in itself a finite resource), Helium-3 is extremely rare, and is believed to have the capacity to generate amazing amounts of power, such that 40 tonnes would be able to power the US for a year.
Helium-3 is emitted by the Sun, and abundant on the Moon, however only a few hundred kilograms are thought to exist on Earth as it is protected from entry of certain elements by an atmosphere.