SYDNEY -- The quest for rare earths vital to some of modern life's most indispensable technologies may see mining robots jet to the stars within decades, a world-first conference in Australia was told Wednesday.

Yttrium, Lanthanum and the other 15 minerals which make up the group of elements known as rare earths are crucial to everything from wind turbines and hybrid cars to cruise missiles and the ubiquitous smartphone.

As technology advances so too does demand for the elements which, although relatively abundant, require laborious and waste-intensive processing to be freed from surrounding rock.

They are a precious commodity -- so precious scientists are now looking beyond Earth's reaches for new supplies, with moon and asteroid mining becoming a lucrative prospect, according to researchers and tech firms gathered in Sydney for the world's first formal "Off-Earth Mining Forum."

"It's about joining the dots," explained conference convener Andrew Dempster from the Australian Centre for Space Engineering.

"I think we've got to the point where people are saying 'yeah, I think we can do this'."

A cross-section of the space and mining industry's top minds have gathered to swap ideas about the latest advances in space and mining technology, from Rio Tinto and Sandvik to NASA and Japan's space agency JAXA.

Rene Fradet, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory -- the organisation behind the current Mars Curiosity Rover mission -- believes space mining will be possible and economical within 20-30 years.

But Dempster thinks it could be quicker than that.

"Most of the technology already exists, but there needs to be a business case. It depends on making that business case."