Features, Future Please

Future, Please: Asteroid Mining

September 6, 2013

space bucket

With otherwise credible, intelligent players lining up behind real-world asteroid mining ventures, it’s worth a look at how well this beloved SF industry makes the transition to an economic and engineering reality. Is it worth mining the asteroids? How practical is it to retrieve extra-planetary resources for terrestrial consumption?

Perhaps most importantly, however, what happens if someone really pulls it off?

Asteroid Mining in Fiction: Our Beloved Belters

Asteroid Mining History

Asteroid mining is a fictional staple, from its first appearance in Garret Serviss’s 1898 Edison’s Conquest of Mars (in which Thomas Edison invents space travel, disintegrator rays, and interplanetary conquest). Mining in the asteroid belt was a mature fictional industry by the Golden Age of science fiction. Asimov’s “Catch that Rabbit” (1944) was set in such an operation, as was Heinlein’s The Rolling Stones.

Many of these early tales were either unapologetically triumphalist (in Serviss’s case) or used the background of asteroid mining to recapture and update the “boy’s own” adventure tales of the Gold Rush era. Heinlein’s The Rolling Stones, for example, was first serialized in Boy’s Life and built around the familiar commercial tactic of “selling shovels to the miners”. Miners in the asteroid belt were rugged, independent, and somehow free of national or corporate control. This grew into a broader movement among writers to place libertarian enclaves or bastions of political independence among the asteroid miners; one of the most telling story cycles in this mode is perhaps Poul Anderson’s, where a federation of miners and space-dwelling protagonists almost directly re-fight the American Revolutionary War (the “Asterite War of Independence”).

With changing social contexts, however, our future in the asteroid belt grew far less rosy. The Xenomorphs of the “Aliens” franchise get their first taste of human flesh from employees of dystopian corporate masters, and the grim future of asteroid mining was established enough by 1991 for Jerry Pournelle to subvert in “Tinker”. The idea that so much wealth could ever remain free of corruption or corporate control was rendered cartoonish by economic reality in the age of aggressive financialization. The miners, themselves, would be employees, slaves, or lunch.

In every case, the consistent driver is the specter of unlimited wealth. Out there, in space, is every metal, mineral, and resource we require back home, on Earth. With a single, M-Type asteroid holding enough precious metal to permanently disrupt international economies, a determined mining effort (and political conflict) is assumed to be inevitable.

As with many assumptions, reality is not so simple.

 

Is Asteroid Mining Worth It?

As any mining engineer can tell you, whether or not a given metal deposit is worth retrieving depends on two factors:  market price and ease of access. Many known mineral and metal deposits are simply too difficult to access, or require too much refining, to be exploitable at present. As market logic changes, exhausted mines become viable, or lucky strikes become footnotes on a survey map.

Keeping this in mind, it’s important to greet claims of imminent resource depletion with a grain of salt. In 2007, for example, it was predicted that global reserves of terbium would be exhausted by 2012. It’s true that the majority of our planet’s mineral wealth is out of reach, for all practical purposes, as heavier metals sank to inconvenient depths during Earth’s formation. What isn’t as clear, however, is that we are at imminent risk of mineral depletion; new deposits can be opened, or formerly impractical finds exploited, as prices change, and aggressive recycling programs can return much of our global supply to circulation to meet demand.

This is not to say our supply is infinite, of course, nor that these mechanisms will always be sufficient to meet demand. As new, developing economies come on line, or new technologies (such as gallium arsenide solar cells) alter demand, the supply side of the equation could undergo drastic change.

Whether it will be drastic enough to justify the cost of asteroid mining remains to be seen. The current per pound cost for lifting equipment out of the gravity well is prohibitive and key competencies limited to a few existing space programs. While manufacturing advances may soon allow certain elements of a refining operation to be constructed beyond the gravity well, a fully automatic, bootstrapped mining operation on the (relatively) cheap presents a significant engineering challenge.

As a theoretical exercise, let’s assume it’s possible to bootstrap such an industry within the next decade or two. A partially automatic mining and refining platform is launched, tethers itself to one of the dozen or so most promising targets, and sets to work. For our purposes, we’ll use the refine-in-situ model, where processing takes place onsite for later transfer to NEO.

Then what?

 

So You’ve Captured an M-Type Asteroid

Refined and ready to go, you now have all of the raw materials from M-type asteroid 1986 DA in near-earth orbit. Congratulations! The metal content of 1986 DA was once estimated to be 10 billion tons of iron, 1 billion tons of nickel, 100,000 tons of platinum, and 10,000 tons of gold. Surely, your investment in building a new space-based infrastructure from scratch is about to pay off.

As of this writing, the current market rate for platinum is 1,521 USD per ounce.  There are 32,000 ounces in a ton, making the platinum haul alone worth 4.8672×10¹² USD.

Yes, you’ve just made enough money that I’ve switched to scientific notation.

It’s not that simple, however. One of the reasons platinum is worth as much as it is, per ounce, is that it’s fairly difficult to find and extract. The concentration of platinum in Earth’s crust is 0.005ppm and global mining output in 2010 was approximately 192,000 kg, around 211 tons.

You’ve just brought 473 years worth of platinum home at a shot. Platinum prices, once dictated by scarcity, collapse, and you have to switch back from scientific notation to count your earnings.

It’s entirely possible to avoid the commodities price collapse by doling out small amounts at a time, despite the fact that you’ve serious investors to pay off. Building a space program isn’t cheap, however, and the expanded time horizon to return on investment might not go over well.

Unless you’ve some particularly far-sighted investors. You see, capturing and mining that asteroid might not have been entirely about selling the raw materials here on Earth.

Consider, for a moment, the resources you now have at hand:

  • The ability to launch and return payloads from Earth’s gravity well
  • Semi-automatic, space-faring robotic factories and refineries
  • A readily-accessible supply of raw materials (metals, minerals, water, and fuel), in near-earth orbit
  • An organization of engineers and technicians with proven space mission experience
  • The ability to move NEOs about at will

Given the price to lift, say, a pound of steel screws into orbit, why wouldn’t any interested party just buy your screws? If you can manufacture robotic platforms in space, sell fuel you’ve refined outside of the gravity well, and keep any further space exploration/exploitation ventures supplied with raw materials and expertise, how could you fail to outbid any ground-based operation?

While you started out as a mining venture, your position is much closer to that of the railroads in the early 20th century. No matter what anyone wants to do in space, the infrastructure is essentially yours. You can charge, as the saying goes, whatever the traffic will bear.

The Space Economy

(Image credit: Planetary Resources)

 

Key Players in Asteroid Mining

As of this writing, there are three key players in the development of practical asteroid mining initiatives.

  • Planetary Resources, founded by Peter Diamandis and Chris Lewicki, is currently focused on deploying advanced surveying equipment to identify targets for exploitation. Through established partnerships with Virgin Galactic, 3D Systems, and the Bechtel Corporation, the company’s explicit long-term goal is to be a foundational player in space infrastructure; one objective is to establish orbital hydrogen/oxygen fueling depots by 2020.
  • David Gump’s Deep Space Industries has similar goals, though a lower investor profile. Their near-term objective is to position themselves as a satellite-refueling service, with three spacecraft and several micro-gravity manufacturing technologies under development. While the company has approached NASA for refueling contracts and is actively seeking investment, no high profile partnerships have been announced.
  • Finally, NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts began an initiative to study possible technologies for the establishment of an asteroid capture and mining industry under the Robot Asteroid Prospector project in 2012.

 

What’s your take on the feasibility of asteroid mining, given our current level of space technology? Tweet us @EngineerJobs or leave a detailed rant in the comments.

(Feature image Credit: Rick Sternbach/Keck Institute for Space Studies)