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Forget Coal: Asteroid Mining Is Coming Sooner Than You Think

Robots are paving the way toward lucrative space mining as NASA and private startups launch pioneering prospecting missions to precious metal-rich asteroids.

Forget Coal: Asteroid Mining Is Coming Sooner Than You Think
[Photo: Flickr user NASA/JPL/University of Arizona]

President Donald Trump is obsessed with returning America to its coal mining past—but scientists and entreprenurs have far more ambitious plans. As the planet’s precious metal reserves tap out, big business and NASA are looking to the skies. The race to mine asteroids swirling around the solar system is on.

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Space mining may sound like science fiction, but it’s real, and big developments are on tap in the next decade.

Asteroids are essentially massive rocks that orbit the sun, and many are thought to consist of platinum, gold, iron, and more. A single 500-meter-wide asteroid can contain almost 175 times Earth’s annual platinum mining output, according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology research.

The metal, worth about $930 per ounce, is used in jewelry and is a byword for luxury—think platinum credit cards—but it’s also used in the catalytic converters installed in every modern car, in industrial chemical processes, and in many electronics.

Space Mining Economics

Conventional wisdom may be that going to space to bring back what is needed on terra firma is economically nuts. Not so, analysts insist.

“While the psychological barrier to mining asteroids is high, the actual financial and technological barriers are far lower,” says a recent report prepared on the subject by Goldman Sachs.

Proponents say that before long, robots could be traveling to asteroids to extract platinum and other valuable minerals to haul back to Earth or even one day to use in space-based manufacturing plants.

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A 2012 Caltech study found that it could cost just $2.6 billion to capture an asteroid and bring it into orbit near Earth, making human exploration and robotic mining that much easier. “We expect that systems could be built for less than that given trends in the cost of manufacturing spacecraft and improvements in technology,” the Goldman report says.

It also predicts the eventual result would be far lower costs: “Successful asteroid mining would likely crater the global price of platinum” by dramatically increasing the supply.

“The market is a big unknown because of things like platinum,” says Jay McMahon, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado’s Center for Astrodynamics Research. “You don’t know what’s going to happen if you bring back a big haul of platinum, what that would do to the market on Earth or how much demand there is.”

Pioneering Missions

Last year, NASA launched a seven-year mission to a carbonaceous asteroid called Bennu. The Osiris REx spacecraft will map the asteroid for more than a year and then move in close to allow a robotic arm to extract several ounces of material to return to Earth for analysis.

The space agency plans to launch a separate pair of robotic missions, dubbed Lucy and Psyche, within a decade, sending the devices to explore asteroids near Mars and Jupiter.

One day those prospecting missions may be remembered as major milestones in humankind’s exploitation of outer space resources. Scientists and business titans envision future missions could include construction of major manufacturing enterprises on asteroids that will help maintain and upgrade space vehicles without a costly return to the surface.

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But before humans and robots can really tap into the riches in any real volume, the most important discovery must be water—or, more accurately, the ability to extract water from the flying boulders.

Besides providing refreshment to thirsty astronauts, the hope is to one day perfect technology to cheaply convert water to its atomic components—the H2 and the O. The H, or hydrogen, is key to rocket fuel, and could be used to keep space vehicles humming.

Space mining startup Planetary Resources has announced plans to launch an initial prospecting mission by 2020 and is focusing on water.

“We’ve explored a number of possibilities, and we are focused on being the resource provider for people and products in space and see asteroids and the water that’s on them as the immediate next step,” says Chris Lewicki, president and CEO.

Lewicki thinks solar energy will be the key to powering the tech that will melt water trapped in asteroids and then separate its elements.

“My expectation is that the first commercial extraction of water on an asteroid will happen by the middle of the 2020s, less than 10 years from now,” Lewicki says.

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Turning Water Into Fuel

“It’s little molecules of water stuck inside rocks, so the concept is you superheat it, the rock kind of melts, and the water comes out as steam, and you capture the steam,” says McMahon.

“You use solar power to separate it again and then you have to cool it to make it liquid, both the hydrogen and the oxygen, and then you can refill the tanks of any rocket that passes by,” says Martin Elvis, a senior astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

The grand vision is that, one day, fuel could be stored at Earth-orbiting depots with places for ships to dock—the space equivalent of gas stations—or delivered by fueling craft to other vehicles and satellites, similar to how some military planes can now be refueled in midair.

Asteroid mining companies, like Planetary Resources and rival Deep Space Industries, are betting that water extraction is key to the success of space mining.

Mining Tech’s Worldly Benefits

Among the sticky questions in all this: Who owns the asteroids? A 2015 federal law, designed to spur development of the U.S. space industry, makes clear that U.S. citizens have the right to what’s obtained from asteroids.

But until mining operations start churning out water or minerals for sale, the companies developing the mining systems still must pay the bills. That’s had them looking at other ways to utilize the technology they’re developing for mining here on Earth.

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Planetary Resources, based in Redmond, Washington, and backed in part by Google cofounder Larry Page, announced a $21.1 million round of funding last year aimed at using its Arkyd spacecraft and sensor systems, which it plans to one day use to locate asteroids suitable for mining, to study economically important systems on Earth.

The technology will be able to help monitor crops and pipelines, identify mineral resources below the planet’s surface, and even track toxic algae blooms and spot wildfires as they start, the company has said.

The company last year scrapped a plan for a public access Arkyd, complete with space selfies, that had raised $1.5 million in Kickstarter funding, and returned the pledged funds to backers, citing a lack of outside support to make the project financially worthwhile.

The latest generation of the spacecraft, known as Arkyd 6, is slated for launch this year.

“One of the things that we’re interested to explore with the launch of our satellite this year is, when we aim it down to Earth, we’re making [available] new data sets that have been previously been unavailable,” says Lewicki.

Deep Space Industries has announced plans for what it calls Prospector-1, a mission to investigate an asteroid’s potential for resource mining. The company has developed its own electrothermal thruster system, called  Comet, that uses water as propellant. Again, that puts a premium on getting the frozen water from a rock.

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“Once you can do that, you can then travel around space much more freely because you don’t have to deploy everything from Earth,” says Peter Stibrany, the company’s chief business developer and strategist. “You can at least re-propel yourself and refuel yourself from space.”

In the meantime, it’s been selling versions of the system to use to drive small satellites, with a first flight system shipping in April, says Stibrany.

“That’s helping us pay the rent and continue development of our propulsion technologies,” he says. And the company is also the prime contractor providing satellites for startup HawkEye 360’s PathFinder system, designed to monitor radio frequency use from space for safety and other purposes.

Deep Space Industries plans to launch its Prospector-1 mission by the end of the decade, Stibrany says, with an eye toward future missions to extract water from asteroids.

“You’ve got to do this one step at a time,” he says. “We need to do prospecting first, and then get to extraction and utilization after that.”

About the author

Steven Melendez is an independent journalist living in New Orleans.

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