Information

Mining Metals on Asteroids Could Begin Within 2 Years


A remarkable development in space technology involving the use of unmanned ships to intercept small asteroids and mine for useful ores and minerals could by operational as early as 2015.

The innovative plans have been developed by Deep Space Industries and a host of other start-up firms with the aim of tapping into the resources of near-Earth objects to help fuel our civilisations next stage of technological advancement.

The company has said the space crafts would be a relatively low-cost technology and could be launched into orbit on the back of larger communications satellites.

In keeping with the ambitions of other space-mining companies, Deep Space Industries claims that harvesting asteroids for their resources could also help with an eventual manned mission to Mars.

You can read more here.


    Asteroid Mining: Key to the Space Economy

    The Near Earth Asteroids offer both threat and promise. They present the threat of planetary impact with regional or global disaster. And they also offer the promise of resources to support humanity’s long-term prosperity on Earth, and our movement into space and the solar system.

    The technologies needed to return asteroidal resources to Earth Orbit (and thus catalyze our colonization of space) will also enable the deflection of at least some of the impact-threat objects.

    We should develop these technologies, with all due speed!

    Development and operation of future in-orbit infrastructure (for example, orbital hotels, satellite solar power stations, earth-moon transport node satellites, zero-g manufacturing facilities) will require large masses of materials for construction, shielding, and ballast and also large quantities of propellant for station-keeping and orbit-change maneuvers, and for fuelling craft departing for lunar or interplanetary destinations.

    Spectroscopic studies suggest, and ‘ground-truth’ chemical assays of meteorites confirm, that a wide range of resources are present in asteroids and comets, including nickel-iron metal, silicate minerals, semiconductor and platinum group metals, water, bituminous hydrocarbons, and trapped or frozen gases including carbon dioxide and ammonia.

    As one startling pointer to the unexpected riches in asteroids, many stony and stony-iron meteorites contain Platinum Group Metals at grades of up to 100 ppm (or 100 grams per ton). Operating open pit platinum and gold mines in South Africa and elsewhere mine ores of grade 5 to 10 ppm, so grades of 10 to 20 times higher would be regarded as spectacular if available in quantity, on Earth.

    Water is an obvious first, and key, potential product from asteroid mines, as it could be used for return trip propulsion via steam rocket.

    About 10% of Near-Earth Asteroids are energetically more accessible (easier to get to) than the Moon (i.e. under 6 km/s from LEO), and a substantial minority of these have return-to-Earth transfer orbit injection delta-v’s of only 1 to 2 km/s.

    Return of resources from some of these NEAs to low or high earth orbit may therefore be competitive versus earth-sourced supplies.

    Our knowledge of asteroids and comets has expanded dramatically in the last ten years, with images and spectra of asteroids and comets from flybys, rendezvous, and impacts (for example asteroids Gaspra, Ida, Mathilde, the vast image collection from Eros, Itokawa, and others comets Halley, Borrelly, Tempel-1, and Wild-2. And radar images of asteroids Toutatis, Castalia, Geographos, Kleopatra, Golevka and other… These images show extraordinary variations in structure, strength, porosity, surface features.

    The total number of identified NEAs has increased from about 300 to more than 3,000 in the period 1995 to 2005.

    The most accessible group of NEAs for resource recovery is a subset of the Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs). These are bodies (about 770 now discovered) which approach to within 7.5 million km of earth orbit. The smaller subset of those with orbits which are earth-orbit-grazing give intermittently very low delta-v return opportunities (that is it is easy velocity wise to return to Earth).

    These are also the bodies which humanity should want to learn about in terms of surface properties and strength so as to plan deflection missions, in case we should ever find one on a collision course with us.

    Professor John Lewis has pointed out (in Mining the Sky) that the resources of the solar system (the most accessible of which being those in the NEAs) can permanently support in first-world comfort some quadrillion people. In other words, the resources of the solar system are essentially infinite… And they are there for us to use, to invest consciousness into the universe, no less. It’s time for humankind to come out of its shell, and begin to grow!!

    So both for species protection and for the expansion of humanity into the solar system, we need to characterize these objects and learn how to mine and manage them.

    Once we learn how to work on, handle, and modify the orbits of small near-earth objects, we will have achieved, as a species, both the capability to access the vast resources of the asteroids, and also the capability to protect our planet from identified collision threats.

    Since the competing source of raw materials is “delivery by launch from Earth,” which imposes a launch cost per kilogram presently above $10,000 per kg, this same figure represents the upper bound of what recovered asteroidal material would be presently worth in low earth orbit.

    Future large scale economic activity in orbit is unlikely to develop however until launch cost drops to something in the range $500 to $1,000 per kilogram to LEO. At that point, any demand for material in orbit which can be satisfied at equal or lower cost by resources recovered from asteroids, will confer on these asteroidal resources an equivalent value as ore in true mining engineering terms, i.e., that which can be mined, have valuable product recovered from it, to be sold for a profit. Now, $500,000 per ton product is extraordinarily valuable, and is certainly worth chasing!

    Note that the asteroidal materials we are talking about are, simply, water, nickel-iron metal, hydrocarbons, and silicate rock. Purified, and made available in low earth orbit, they will be worth something like $500,000 per ton, by virtue of having avoided terrestrial gravity’s “launch cost levy.”

    These are values up there with optical glass, doped semiconductors, specialty isotopes for research or medicine, diamonds, some pharmaceuticals, illicit drugs. On the mining scene, the only metal which has ever been so valuable was radium, which in the 1920’s reached the fabulous value of $200,000 per gram!

    Platinum Group Metals (which are present in metallic and silicate asteroids, as proved by the “ground truth” of meteorite finds) have a value presently in the order of $1,000 per ounce or $30 per gram. Vastly expanded use in catalysts and for fuel cells will enhance their value, and PGM recovery from asteroid impact sites on the Moon is the basis of Dennis Wingo’s book, Moonrush.

    When will we see asteroid mining start? Well, it will only become viable once the human-presence commercial in-orbit economy takes off. Only then will there be a market. And that can only happen after NASA ceases acting as a near-monopolist launch provider and thwarter of competition, and reverts to being a customer instead.

    A developing in-space economy will build the technical capability to access NEAs, almost automatically. And regardless of the legal arguments about mineral claims in outer space, once the first resource recovery mission is successful, what’s the bets on a surge in interest similar to the dotcom-boom and biotech-boom?

    The first successful venturers will develop immense proprietary knowledge, and make a mint. And some as-yet unidentified (but almost certainly already discovered) NEAs will be the company-making mines of the 21st century.

    Mark Sonter is an independent scientific consultant working in the Australian mining and metallurgical industries, providing advice on radiation protection, industrial hygiene, safety, and remediation of radioactively contaminated sites. His career includes 2 years as a high school science teacher, 6 years as a University Physics lecturer in Papua New Guinea, postgraduate studies in medical physics, and 28 years in uranium mining radiation safety management, including 5 years as Corporate Safety Manager for a major mining corporation. Mark was a visiting scholar at U of Arizona in 1995, and during 1995-97 wrote a research thesis on the Technical and Economic Feasibility of Mining the Near-Earth Asteroids. He was granted funding by the Foundation for International Non-governmental Development of Space (FINDS) to develop concepts for mining the near-Earth asteroids.

    The views of this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the National Space Society.


    10 Huge Amount Of Resources

    We live in a world of electronic gadgets, mass global transport, and a growing population that desires such things. Gold, platinum, nickel, iron . . . you name it, and it&rsquos probably in your pocket or parked in your driveway right now. These resources are finite on Earth, and we&rsquore going through them faster with every technological advancement.

    However, the same resources are almost limitless in space. Let&rsquos take the example of platinum. This metal is used in things such as cardiac pacemakers and as a catalyst for turning crude oil into something we can use in fuel and manufacturing.

    Platinum is considered rare on Earth. However, the asteroid belt in our solar system alone contains a billion times more platinum than is found here on Earth, and that&rsquos not even including other resources. [1]


    Asteroid mining, scarcity, science and socialism: responding to Aaron Bastani

    The world we live in today wasn’t the result of any grand design. It was the result of struggle, revolution, and scientific and technological advances. Human society is locked in struggle: battles between social classes which shape our world, yet this is too often forgotten, and most sadly by left-wing writers advocating communism. This is ultimately what is presented in Aaron Bastani’s 2019 book, “Fully Automated Luxury Communism”.

    Whilst this has been reviewed in full here, given my academic research into planetary astronomy, I want to focus on one chapter in particular: “Mining the Sky”. In this section Bastani provides a broad overview of recent technological improvements and accomplishments in space exploration, and assesses the potential future of asteroid mining, concluding that this will not only be inevitable in the next century, but something that will bring about a post-scarcity society (one in which the volume of resource available to humanity far exceeds our ability to use it). Whilst I don’t doubt that some forms of space mining may provide future civilisations with great social and scientific benefit, a healthy dose of scientific scepticism is required before we rule it in as strictly as Bastani. The problems with his hypothesis however come in two forms, scientific and political, which although related, I’ll cover separately.

    The science of mining the sky

    Let’s first examine the science of asteroids, and the challenges this poses to mass-scale mining operations. Whilst Bastani does make clear there are technological difficulties yet to be overcome (although he only mentions the need for developing more advanced robots), he glosses over some major issues, falling on the side of this inevitably becoming a viable industry within decades, based on recent advances in asteroid probes, our understanding of asteroid compositions, and ongoing private-sector start-up research. This however is bad science for a number of reasons.

    Despite stumbling on potentially the biggest physical uncertainty related to the viability of asteroid mining, Bastani casts this aside without interrogation: “the precise composition of asteroids, beyond predictive models, remains unknown.” Although he identifies one related risk (to commercial operations if mining missions yield only poor mineral extractions), he avoids discussing a much more fundamental question: what if asteroids are simply much poorer in materials it would be valuable to extract? So far, we know that some asteroids are likely dominated in composition by metals such as iron and nickel, though the presence of other rarer metals (such as gold, palladium, platinum) are known with much less precision. Since asteroid impacts very likely seeded at least some of the rare material deposits on Earth, we might expect some to be rich in such minerals. But this isn’t necessarily the case for all of them, and asteroid compositions are likely to be highly variable based on their size and location (both of which vary substantially in the Solar System). What we might mine on a small-medium sized near-Earth asteroid could be very different to a much larger body in the distant Asteroid Belt. And we might find very little that’s worth mining at all. Any assessment of potential mining resource yields is subject to these physical uncertainties and bias. So although Bastani quotes the expected price of such minerals locked inside asteroids, these are based on estimates made by space tech start-up CEOs. These estimations could end up being in the right ball-park (or fall short by a long way), but it doesn’t require particularly deep insight to realise the potential bias that a business owner might have in assessing their potential market, especially when on the hunt for longer-term funding. I’ll explore the fate of some of the start-ups Bastani discusses later on.

    What do we know with certainty? We have data from only those asteroids that have landed on Earth, and from the few missions that have extracted small surface samples of near-Earth asteroids (such as the two missions cited in the text). These sample extraction missions did demonstrate our ability to land and retrieve mineral samples from near-Earth asteroids, however these only returned grams of material for scientific study, falling orders of magnitude short of the megatonne extraction missions later alluded to in the chapter. Scaling up existing operations able to collect cups of surface dust to missions that can harvest queries of metal from the cores of asteroids requires significant technological improvement and research (which I will return to). Implicit in the fact we are conducting these exploratory science missions underlines this same problem: we simply do not know accurately what these bodies are made of. This even remains true of the most well studied near-Earth object, the Moon, which humans have even visited: only in October this year did we confirm the water content on its surface. This often comes down to one simple issue: almost everything we know in astronomy about asteroids comes from the light reflected off their surface. Since these are coated in opaque dust, knowing which are resource rich cannot be determined accurately without visiting them. Indeed, prior to any larger scale extraction missions (each potentially lasting several years through to decades) the demanding task of physically surveying these in advance will be required before a detailed understanding of their contents can be found. And we may find during such surveys that like on Earth, these rare-Earth metals are indeed rare in asteroids too: there is simply no guarantee that what we think may be present in these bodies is correct. So, although it is not beyond the realms of possibility that some asteroids/planets/moons could be found with mineral abundances that meet some of the needs of civilisations for millenia to come, we should be highly sceptical of any claim right now that these will all be met through asteroid mining.

    Since many of the figures quoted by Bastani in this chapter may seem incomprehensibly large, it is worth unpacking some of these. One example is the $1000 quadrillion value placed on the iron locked inside a single asteroid (16 Psyche, which compositionally is better understood based on its large size and mass). But we shouldn’t let this figures blind us into thinking these are all “giant floating mines” (his words). To illustrate this, the value quoted is found by multiplying the total estimated mass of iron present in the asteroid with the value per kilo on Earth. Putting aside for now how to transfer this all to the Earth’s surface, its subsequent storing arrangements might prove challenging: this volume of iron would cover the entire continent of Africa to a depth of over 100m. So, although we can be convinced that there are asteroids truly mega-abundant in metals, without considering that perhaps only tiny fractions can feasibly be extracted and stored, quoting said values can become rather meaningless.

    Although transporting material to the Earth’s surface may be possible, it is still likely to result in significant environmental and ecological degradation, and perhaps presents the single biggest technological barrier. There currently exists one method to get material to and from the surface of the Earth from space, and involve rockets or shuttles, which produce significant amounts of exhaust gas when burning their fuel. To put this into context, the space shuttle (although no longer in use) required 500,000 gallons of fuel per trip and had a maximum capacity of 39 tonnes. This was shown to have polluted wildlife parks, pumping tonnes of metals and poisonous gas into the air. Additionally, the new Space X Falcon Heavy rocket, has a larger capacity of 68 tonnes, and it too has had concerns raised about its impact on the environment, with each launch contributing hundreds of tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere. Based on either of these vehicles’ capacities, extracting even the same amount of iron from an asteroid as that mined on Earth per year (approximately 2.5 billion tonnes) would take over 100 million round-trips. This is roughly twice the total number of flights annually. To my knowledge, there exist no transfer vehicles that are ecologically less damaging than either the Space Shuttle or even Space X’s reusable rockets. Surprisingly, Bastani omits any discussion of the environmental impact of launching and landing material on the scales required to achieve “post-scarcity”. There is a subtle irony therefore that Bastani later posits a 2040 decarbonisation plan as necessary and consistent with “Fully Automated Luxury Communism”. Anyone predicting the end of resource scarcity with space mining needs to address how they would circumvent the mass environmental damage likely caused by bringing materials back to Earth. Indeed, this aspect alone suggests that the environmental costs associated with large-scale mining may outweigh any possible economic gains.

    A further problem left unexplored by Bastani arises due to the physical structure of asteroids: these aren’t all single solid rocks. Asteroids show massive variations in their sizes, with some forming bodies hundreds of kilometres across, however asteroids up to roughly 10km in diameter are commonly known as “rubble piles”. These ones often aren’t quite massive enough to hold themselves together with their own gravity. Instead, they are often formed as multiple asteroids connected together by surface ice, dust and other material, similar to how snowballs can be stuck together. Attempting deep-mining processes on asteroids below such a size could lead to them fragmenting, another reason why the science missions to smaller asteroids previously referred to aren’t necessarily scalable concept mission designs for larger extractions. This could mean that only the very largest asteroids can survive being mined. Unfortunately the size distribution of asteroids means that the very largest are also much rarer, with potentially only a handful near to Earth exceeding 10km. Although Bastani points out that many more large asteroids do exist in the Solar System, he omits mentioning that these are predominantly either in the Asteroid Belt (between Mars and Jupiter), and the Kuiper Belt (beyond the orbit of Neptune). These are then increasingly challenging to get to and back from. For example, the Kuiper Belt is over 30 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun (over 100 times further than the asteroid sample missions), and took the New Horizons probe over 9 years to reach. At these distances, mining round-trips could take 20–30 years. Each. All considered, whilst Bastani refers to the tens of thousands of potential nearby asteroid mines, these may contain only dozens that are minable on human timescales. In 2013, just 12 asteroids were categorised by a group of scientists at Glasgow’s University of Strathclyde as “Easily Recoverable Objects”, none of which exceeded 20m in size, (though this may have been missed by Bastani). Such missions may not be impossible, but these are significant challenges — physical and technical — that have not yet been solved.

    Bastani provides some short discussion on how future missions might shorten the timespan to retrieve mining yields, with one suggestion being to propel asteroids closer to Earth to reduce extraction route distances. I admit this was the first time I had encountered this concept, though it left me with only questions, and concerns. To start with, for the nearby largest asteroids this would take enormous amounts of propulsive energy to move them, an energy loss which may negate any gain in bringing them closer to Earth. For the smaller, more maneuverable objects, their lower resource yields make them less valuable for mining (if these can even be mined without fragmenting). This might also only be possible for those asteroids closest to Earth. Crossing the orbits of planets and large bodies already pose physical and technical challenges for agile and controllable spacecraft. This will be harder for asteroids. So, whilst I would question whether there is in fact a physical “sweet-spot” that makes this possible and viable, whether we should try this at all is something else entirely.

    Attempting to bring asteroids closer to Earth for mining would be a highly dangerous process. The complex gravitational interactions between the Earth, the Moon and near-Earth asteroids means that accurately predicting safe and stable orbit locations that avoid collisions with Earth is challenging, if not impossible in the long term. Kilometre-sized impacts with the Earth happen on average every million years without human interference. While the Chicxulub asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs was 81km (and over twice the size of the largest near-Earth asteroid), even ones tens of metres in diameter can have disastrous consequences. The Chelyabinsk meteor was just 20m in size and injured over 1600 people, and damaged over 7000 buildings (these are known as “Potentially Hazardous Objects” for a reason). Of the known near-Earth asteroids, around 1000 exceed 1km in diameter, with many thousands of others larger than 100m. Perturbing their orbits closer to Earth could raise the risk of a catastrophic impact. For a process that may provide only marginal gains in reducing extraction times and costs, I would strongly argue against this. And from a quick Google search it turns out that I am not alone: Carl Sagan and Steven Ostro warned about this in 1994 (https://www.nature.com/articles/368501a0), but perhaps Bastani overlooked this during his research.

    To summarise so far, contrary to what Bastani argues we simply don’t yet know if asteroids are sensible targets for mining based on their composition and structure. Even if it turns out they are, it isn’t inevitable that the technical challenges associated with scaling up single missions to the levels of industrial extraction are insurmountable. And whether this can ever be done without substantially damaging the environment is dubious at best.

    The politics of mining the sky

    Although the broad implications of the politics of Fully Automated Luxury Communism are dealt with here, there are a few points worth critiquing specific to this chapter, in particular the discussion of the Outer Space Treaty, and the logic of capitalism in relation to over-abundance. Let’s start with the first of these.

    Bastani rightly outlines the legal loopholes in the Outer Space Treaty (1968), a document devoid of hard limits curtailing capitalist expansion into space, and argues that this treaty should be updated. His answer though? Updating this based on the Madrid Protocol. I had to read up on what this was to understand its practical implications, which in short, provide a system for managing intellectual property on a paid-for basis. This seemed strange for a book on communism: the organisation that administers this (the World Intellectual Property Organisation) falls far short of genuine democratic control and oversight. If we want the proceeds of any Solar System mining to be socially owned, and administered to ensure they are distributed based on societal need, surely we should be demanding more. If recent history has taught us anything, treaty reforms by capitalist states will only serve the interests of private enterprise, in the absence of struggle from below. Indeed, even if reforming international treaties was sufficient, the working class would either need to first be in control of re-writing this, the prerequisite for which would either be working-class revolution, or a major struggle to force concessions from capitalist states. In other words: there would be no avoiding social struggle. Further discussion on how this fight might emerge and play out would be of greater value than Bastani’s imagined conversation between business owners and capitalist politicians, especially if he thinks such space mining ventures are only a couple of decades away.

    Marxist analysis takes more than simply quoting Marx, and disappointingly, Bastani’s text is living proof of this. Although many references to Marx are made throughout, this book does not provide a Marxist understanding of the world. Whilst this is implicit throughout this chapter in what is not discussed, this is explicit in his discussion of the pricing mechanism in the final section, “abundance beyond value”. Bastani claims extreme-abundance as incompatible with capitalism, going as far as saying that in the face of a limitless, virtually free supply of anything its “internal logic starts to break down”. Setting aside first the very fundamental fact that capitalism is an inherently unstable system, this hypothesis needs looking at in more detail (this conclusion justifies much of what Bastani later relies on).

    Firstly, what Bastani describes is simply the logic of supply and demand. But, even as pointed out by Bastani sentences before, monopolies and market structures have their own way of recalibrating prices so over-abundances may not necessarily lead to price deflation. Further, the suggestion that supply could be free and limitless is a falsehood. At some stage in the process of mineral extraction, workers with wages will be involved, and processes that require the use of other materials (transport fuel, expendable parts, maintenance, etc). Each of these come with associated costs, and thus are not ‘free’, limiting the surplus value available to the owner of the production chain. It’s true that without a monopolizing pricing structure, a market flooded with, for example, palladium might hit record lows. However, this on it’s own wouldn’t crash capitalism, a system that has survived plenty of incidents of over-abundance previously. We can see how this operates in the case of digital products (for example mp3s and e-books) which like the future Bastani’s asteroid-mined gold, could feasibly exist in a “post-scarcity” state. Whilst these can all be reproduced without a correspondingly large increase in labour costs , these are locked behind firewalls and price-fixing mechanisms (and would eventually fill up harddrives and servers). If capitalism operated in the way Bastani describes, then iTunes song download costs would end up being fractions of pence per transaction. Private ownership, market structures and underlying costs prevent this. And this isn’t just confined to the digital realm. Despite being in extreme abundance on Earth, under capitalism we still pay for water, either from the tap or in bottles, precisely because of private ownership, labour, distribution, storage and other associated costs. When left in the control of a capitalist ruling class, even resources in a state of over-abundance can be commercialised for private gain. Simply put: if we want social control and distribution over the fruits of space mining, there can be no room for private ownership. This is not solved by over-abundance.

    Finally, for a book filled with Marx’s writings, it falls short of offering a Marxist understanding of economics. For example, some basic analysis of economic and social use and exchange of mining resources would have been pertinent, given this entire section appears to take place in the realm of capitalist exchange. Bastani readily points at the market exchange value of all the resources locked up in asteroids, but there is little discussion of their potential use. Will future societies be as dependent on iron, gold, palladium and other rare metals? Bastani makes no projection. Since capitalism has a tendency to expand to maximise profit, this may be directly at odds with the needs of a future socialist society. It is therefore possible that left to its own devices, capitalism gears mining missions, technology and research to maximise extraction of less socially useful products (for example gems for jewellery sales), despite humanity being better served socially if this was focused on different resources (for example on palladium for medical and electronic devices). A text on communism should have devoted more time to discuss how this expansion may instead take place, comparing how a socialist society might instead utilise space mining, and in the here and now, what socialists should be arguing for under capitalism.

    For a book that refers to itself as a communistic manifesto, ultimately this chapter is devoid of politics. Parking the scientific potential of asteroid mining for now, the central question at the heart of this is one of control. Despite constantly shoe-horning in quotations of Marx to give the text a left-wing finish, Bastani offers no class struggle program, class analysis of this emerging sector, nor perspective on revolution. Without a plan to fight for democratic control over emerging space industries, we are left dreaming about future decades, rather than planning for gains today. There surely are battles to be had in the here-and-now, but aside from liberally reforming the Outer Space Treaty, Bastani’s manifesto offers us almost nothing on where these might be, over what, nor how we might prepare.

    Was anything else missing?

    Bastani began the chapter with a discussion of resource scarcity being a problem that will afflict humanity in decades to come. This is a huge problem to be solved, particularly given the near-exponential growth in population size (expected to exceed 9 billion in the 2040s), and the finite nature of the resources we each require. But planned, rational and democratic management features nowhere in his discussion. Instead we are sold the idea that extreme-abundance will solve this by mining asteroids: presumably in a world where we each have tonnes of iron and gold to sit on, Bastani believes rational, social management would be a thing of the past? Indeed, putting aside all of the scientific problems I have already discussed, the ethical question of how much and what humanity needs is not considered. A planet that has hollowed out its own resource supply seems likely to respond similarly to resource extraction of asteroids, especially one under the global domination of capitalism.

    There are other, more tragic shortcomings however. Although multiple references are made to the eye-watering sums of money asteroid mining start-up firms have valued the sector at, alongside quotes from optimistic CEOs, two of the organisations referred to in the 2019 book as key actors in this space race no longer exist. Planetary Resources auctioned off its final hardware in June 2020, and Deep Space Industries was bought out by Bradford Space Inc. in 2019 (and not for the purpose of utilising their research into mining, but their communications devices). Whilst this doesn’t mean that capitalism has given up on the viability of asteroid mining totally, it does suggest that the modest timescales and risks associated with this monumental task have been underestimated. Bastani quotes one CEO’s first expected extraction date in the mid 2020s, which now seems extremely unlikely, following their company’s dissolution. Although Bastani can be forgiven for not having foreseen these events (the book’s release and the company liquidations happened within months of each other) his far-reaching conclusions should be understood in the context of the recent fate of these organisations.

    Should we pin humanity’s hopes on mining asteroids?

    In my view: no. Whilst it is possible (and indeed very likely) that asteroid mining will form a component of humanity’s future economy, I’ve highlighted a number of technical challenges that may be insurmountable, physical uncertainties that may be extremely limiting, and other reasons why we might not even want to pursue it at all. Despite this, it is still my view that mining anywhere in the Solar System would provide immense scientific value even on very small scales, and yet this is almost absent from the text. Even Bastani’s imagined post-political world would surely still be filled with scientific discovery, so reading this as an astronomer, I found this lack of discussion on scientific endeavour very poor.

    I am therefore highly critical of the claim that humanity will become a “post-scarcity” society via asteroid mining (especially within the next century), though I do still think space mining will be a highly important process if humanity is to venture deeper into the Solar System, to nearby stars, and understand the origins of life in the universe. Many of the difficulties with asteroid mining aren’t present on much larger bodies, such as the Moon and Mars. However, rather than transferring mined resources back to Earth, such locations would allow human landings, and longer-term possibilities for Earth outposts, such as deeper space travel. Even if such mining missions were purely on a scientific or explorative basis, any and all of these would provide immense scientific value. By focusing solely on the economics of space exploration, we can end up losing sight of the forest for the trees: there is more to life than just the economy.

    It therefore seems instructive to end with some questions to Bastani. If communism is indeed only possible with the levels of over-abundance he states achievable with a mass asteroid mining industry, then — if the wide scale availability of its proceeds never arise — does he think communism remains a historical inevitability? If so, how? If not, then what does he advocate?


    While you can’t own the Moon or asteroids, you can own the materials you take away from them

    The first water could be extracted from an asteroid by the first half of the 2020s. That will mark the beginning of new era, where humanity has moved off our planet and has a presence in space forever. “I love that it is audacious, but that is what inspires the imagination and innovation,” says Eisenhart.

    Of course, mining asteroids raises some legal questions. In the US, the law recognises that while you can’t own the Moon or asteroids, you can own the materials you take away from them – the same way you can’t own the ocean, but you can own the fish you take from it.

    This means private companies could go into space, take materials they need, and it would be perfectly legal. The recent move by President Obama is seen as a huge step forward in terms of creating a stable legal framework to build upon.

    Exactly where space mining could lead us is impossible to predict. But its advocates clearly believe that their early efforts are an investment in the long-term future of our species. We might not live to see the benefits, but our descendants spread throughout the Solar System may well be profitting from them.


    There’s a goldmine in the sky

    If space is the final frontier, its gold rush period is about to begin. Investment bank Goldman Sachs and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson have predicted that asteroid mining will be where the world’s first trillionaires make their fortunes. NASA estimates that one asteroid, 16 Psyche, is worth $10,000 quadrillion by itself. Most likely, private companies will be the first to try their hands at striking it rich in space, but how the mining will play out and how it will affect the global economy are very much up in the air.

    What’s to Mine?

    Near-Earth asteroids, of which there are more than 16,000, contain a variety of precious metals and elements. The “metal world” 16 Psyche, which measures about 200 kilometres in diameter, is a massive block of iron and nickel.

    Goldman Sachs estimates an asteroid the size of a football pitch could contain $35 to $70 billion worth of platinum. Dr. Brad Tucker, an astrophysicist at Australian National University and the Australian Asteroid Mining Project, estimates an asteroid 4 to 5 km wide could yield half a million tonnes of precious metals. “You could get 300 years’ worth of platinum from one asteroid, which will completely change the platinum market,” he told WA Today.

    “You focus on the rare things that only have a few pockets on Earth. We can get a huge pocket and dominate the market.”

    Perhaps just as valuable are the hydrogen, oxygen, and water. Planetary Resources, one of the pioneers in asteroid mining, estimates there are 2 trillion tonnes of water locked in near-Earth asteroids. Extracting that could help make space colonisation more feasible, both in reducing the amount of drinking and crop water needed to be brought from Earth, and for the rocket fuel that can be produced from separating water into hydrogen and oxygen.

    “We’re talking about an economy in space, so if it costs you $10,000 a kilogram to launch something, if you can produce a litre of water in space for less than $10,000 a kilogram then you’re ahead,” Prof. Andrew Dempster from the University of New South Wales’ Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research told news.com.au.

    The Race to be First

    The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) landed Hayabusa2 on the asteroid Ryugu in February, grabbing what engineers hope was a good sample of its contents. They won’t know exactly what Hayabusa2 collected until it returns to Earth at the end of 2020. By shooting a specially made bullet into Ryugu’s surface, Hayabusa2 stirred up asteroid dust and created a crater, which the spacecraft will explore over the coming months. In 2010, Hayabusa1 successfully collected a surface sample from the asteroid Itokawa, but its bullets failed to fire, thus there was no sample from the body of Itokawa. Whilst Hayabusa2’s feat was impressive, it underscores how slow-going actual asteroid mining has been thus far. When the craft embarks on its journey back to Earth at the end of this year, it will take about a year for it to get home.

    The Asteroid Mining Corporation plans to launch a prospecting satellite in 2020 to survey 5,000 near-Earth asteroids to determine which are most ripe for mining. The corporation will commercialise the information collected via the Space Resources Database. In 2023, AMC plans to send up a probe to conduct a spectral survey of high-platinum bearing asteroids, with a lander unit attaching to an asteroid. Its first commercial mining mission is set for 2028 with a capacity to recover up to 20 tonnes of platinum, about a tenth of the current global supply.

    Planetary Resources will deploy several spacecraft in a single launch to explore and collect samples from predetermined asteroids. The data gathered will include “global hydration mapping and subsurface extraction demonstrations to determine the quantity of water and the value of the resources available” in the aim of opening the first mine in space. The company believes asteroid mining will reduce the costs of space travel by 95 per cent thanks to oxygen and hydrogen resources.

    There are actually a couple of internationally recognised treaties dealing with activity in space: The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and the Moon Treaty of 1979. The former is mostly concerned with preventing weapons of mass destruction from being put in orbit around Earth or stationed on celestial bodies, and more than 100 countries are signed on. It also states, “The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorisation and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty,” meaning that the nations private space mining companies are based in have the responsibility to oversee the companies’ activities.

    The Moon Treaty, which has just 18 signatory countries, applies more specifically to asteroid mining. It requires that the exploration and use of celestial bodies to have the approval or benefit of other states. It also declares that countries have an equal right to exploration of celestial bodies and that any samples obtained must be made available to other countries and scientific communities. Critically, it bans private ownership of extraterrestrial property. Though only the moon is specifically named, Article I of the treaty states, “The provisions of this Agreement relating to the moon shall also apply to other celestial bodies within the solar system, other than the earth, except in so far as specific legal norms enter into force with respect to any of these celestial bodies.” So, whilst the treaty technically applies to asteroids, there is room for different laws to supersede it.

    The Woomera Manual project aims to create a document governing international space law. The project is led by The University of Adelaide, the University of New South Wales-Canberra, The University of Exeter, and the University of Nebraska. It is primarily concerned with military space operations, which University of Adelaide Dean of Law Melissa De Zwart believes will become more important with mass commercialisation of space. “Where you have resources, where you have competition for those resources, where you have investment of money in the extraction of those resources,” she told the ABC, “there will be an expectation of security around that investment.”

    Luxembourg and the United States have passed laws granting mining companies ownership of resources gleaned from space. Russia seeks to join them, “In January we offered Luxembourg a framework agreement on cooperation in the use of (mining) exploration in space. We expect an answer from Luxembourg,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova said on a March visit to Luxembourg.

    Economic Impact

    The annual value of Earth’s minerals is just under $1 trillion. If we’re suddenly out in space mining $10,000 quadrillion asteroids containing more minerals than all of Earth, what will that do to commodities prices? After all, given the law of supply and demand, minerals and precious metals are lucrative because they are rare.

    Well, for starters, mining projects will be quite expensive at the outset, which will keep prices high. Also, there will be relatively few companies with asteroid mining operations, and they will be able to control the supply and avoid flooding the market. Plus, as Australian National University public policy research fellow Zsuzsanna Csereklyei told WA Today, demand will soon rise. “By 2050 we are going to have about 10 billion people on Earth and as societies get richer, more energy is being used. Can we achieve energy transitions with the help of asteroid mining?” she asked.

    Brad Tucker of the Australian Asteroid Mining Project — which hopes to launch a mining prototype by the mid-2020s — said Australia, with its mining history and newly launched space agency, could be a power player in asteroid mining. “If asteroid mining becomes successful,” Tucker told WA Today, “it will be the only time in human history when we have an infinite supply of resources.”


    A series of asteroid-mining probes

    Planetary Resources isn't mining asteroids yet, but it does have some hardware in space. The company's Arkyd-3R cubesat deployed into Earth orbit from the International Space Station last month, embarking on a 90-day mission to test avionics, software and other key technology.

    Incidentally, the "R" in "Arkyd-3R" stands for "reflight." The first version of the probe was destroyed when Orbital ATK's Antares rocket exploded in October 2014 the 3R made it to the space station aboard SpaceX's robotic Dragon cargo capsule in April. [Antares Rocket Explosion in Pictures]

    Planetary Resources is now working on its next spacecraft, which is a 6U cubesat called Arkyd-6. (One "U," or "unit," is the basic cubesat building block — a cube measuring 4 inches, or 10 centimeters, on a side. The Arkyd-3R is a 3U cubesat.)

    The Arkyd-6, which is scheduled to launch to orbit in December aboard SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, features advanced avionics and electronics, as well as a "selfie cam" that was funded by a wildly successful Kickstarter project several years ago. The cubesat will also carry an instrument designed to detect water and water-bearing minerals, Lewicki said.

    The next step is the Arkyd 100, which is twice as big as the Arkyd-6 and will hunt for potential mining targets from low-Earth orbit. Planetary Resources aims to launch the Arkyd-100 in late 2016, Lewicki said.

    After the Arkyd 100 will come the Arkyd 200 and Arkyd 300 probes. These latter two spacecraft, also known as "interceptors" and "rendezvous prospectors," respectively, will be capable of performing up-close inspections of promising near-Earth asteroids in deep space.

    If all goes according to plan, the first Arkyd 200 will launch to Earth orbit for testing in 2017 or 2018, and an Arkyd 300 will launch toward a target asteroid — which has yet to be selected — by late 2018 or early 2019, Lewicki said.

    "It is an ambitious schedule," he said. But such rapid progress is feasible, he added, because each new entrant in the Arkyd series builds off technology that has already been demonstrated — and because Planetary Resources is building almost everything in-house.

    "When something doesn't work so well, we don't have a vendor to blame — we have ourselves," Lewicki said. "But we also don't have to work across a contractural interface and NDAs [non-disclosure agreements] and those sorts of things, so that we can really find a problem with a design within a week or two and fix it and move forward."

    For its part, Deep Space Industries is also designing and building spacecraft and aims to launch its first resource-harvesting mission before 2020, company representatives have said.


    Order to mine

    US President Donald Trump signed an order in April encouraging citizens to mine the Moon and other celestial bodies with commercial purposes.

    The directive classifies outer space as a &ldquolegally and physically unique domain of human activity&rdquo instead of a &ldquoglobal commons,&rdquo paving the way for mining the moon without any sort of international treaty.

    &ldquoAmericans should have the right to engage in commercial exploration, recovery, and use of resources in outer space,&rdquo the document states, noting that the US had never signed a 1979 accord known as the Moon Treaty. This agreement stipulates that any activities in space should conform to international law.

    Russia&rsquos space agency Roscosmos quickly condemned Trump&rsquos move , likening it to colonialism.

    &ldquoThere have already been examples in history when one country decided to start seizing territories in its interest &mdash everyone remembers what came of it,&rdquo Roscosmos&rsquo deputy general director for international cooperation, Sergey Saveliev, said.

    Aircraft taking off from Ronald Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Virginia. ( Public domain CC0 image. )

    The proposed global legal framework for mining on the moon, called the Artemis Accords, would be the latest effort to attract allies to the National Space Agency&rsquos (NASA) plan to place humans and space stations on the celestial body within the next decade.

    In 2015, the US Congress passed a bill explicitly allowing companies and citizens to mine, sell and own any space material.

    That piece of legislation included a very important clause, stating that it did not grant &ldquosovereignty or sovereign or exclusive rights or jurisdiction over, or the ownership of, any celestial body.&rdquo

    The section ratified the Outer Space Treaty , signed in 1966 by the US, Russia, and a number of other countries, which states that nations can&rsquot own territory in space.

    Trump has taken a consistent interest in asserting American power beyond Earth, forming the Space Force within the US military last year to conduct space warfare.

    The country&rsquos space agency NASA had previously outlined its long-term approach to lunar exploration , which includes setting up a &ldquobase camp&rdquo on the moon&rsquos south pole.


    What is asteroid mining?

    What seemed to be a harebrained idea meant for science fiction might end up being crucial to our future as a species.

    It’s no news to anyone that, while our planet’s population is forecasted to grow up to 11.2 billion by the end of the century, the supply of natural resources we mine — from water, the most basic one we need to survive, to platinum, a pivotal component in our tech gadgets — soon won’t be big enough to meet our growing demands. As we’ve know, most of these resources are not only unique to Earth but to somewhere else, too, hidden deep under the surface of asteroids and other minor planets located not too far away from us in space.

    This being a given, the thought of substituting land with asteroid mining is a natural one, and it’s something that’s been fascinating our minds for quite a while now: science fiction started talking about asteroid mining in 1898, and over the last 50 years or so there has been much speculative literature about how to turn this futuristic idea into reality. The gap between words and deeds, though, has been too wide to fill. Even if we found a way, it has always been too expensive to even reach the asteroids, let alone the rest. This idea, though, has never really been fully put to bed, and has instead sat patiently awaiting visionaries, and for technology to catch up to be mature.

    That was until 2004, when the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act finally took down the ivory tower of space government monopoly , enshrining the legalization of private space flights and kick-starting the Space Race 2.0 .

    One of the consequences of this ferocious, ongoing competition has been the dramatic fall in the cost of launching rockets: to give an idea, if launching a space shuttle into Earth’s low orbit in 1981 cost more than $85.000 per kg, in 2006 this number dropped to less than $10.000. Now, it’s around a tenth of that, and NASA’s goal is to reduce it to just a handful of dollars by 2040.

    The cost of space missions, the main obstacle for asteroid mining, is slowly being eroded away. Costs of travelling to space will soon be negligible, asteroids are becoming as easy to reach as any mine on Earth . With one difference: the mines in space are is virtually limitless in their abundance . This is what the founders of the many startups which popped up in the 10’s with this specific (though at the time still largely hypothetical) mission , must have thought. Companies such as Planetary Resources , Deep Space Industries and Moon Express, have been followed more recently by governments who were the first ones to see asteroid mining as a plausible oper ation that could feed not only our appetite for natural resources, but for profit, too.

    But now that it all seems more possible than ever, how would asteroid mining work? Well, it’s as complicated as it seems. First thing first, there are different types of asteroids, and not all of them are suitable for mining. Asteroids, also known as planetoids, are small planets whose volume differs greatly, not as subjected to gravity as ‘normal’ planets do, and which can be found in the inner solar system . Most are located in what is known as the asteroid belt (an area between Jupiter and Mars’ orbits), but some of them, the so-called NEAs, near-Earth asteroids are closer to our planet, too. The latter are what companies and organizations are focusing on, and there are approximately 13,000 asteroids out of the 1.1 to 1.9 millions that should be out there.

    Asteroids are classified in three, different types, all of which can be of interest: C-types (carbonaceous) are mainly composed of Carbon and carriers of water S-types (silicious), are mostly stony, but contain nickel and iron while M-types (metallic), are probably the most interesting ones, and are mainly composed of nickel and iron. However they are also the prime suspects in the search for the gold and platinum group metals (PGMs) that our devices are in much need of. The rare materials are there, and with great abundance: according to NASA, a small, 10-meter (yard) S-type asteroid contains about 1,433,000 pounds (650,000 kg) of metal, with about 110 pounds (50 kg) in the form of rare metals such as platinum and gold.

    The NEAs are first scanned with spectrographic instrumentation to set the target — depending on the resource to be mined. Once a final exploration mission confirming that the asteroid is worth mining is made, the target is set the actual mining should take place. And that’s when things get (even more) interesting: there are many ideas here regarding the actual building of the infrastructure and the extraction techniques, but there are too many variants to be considered: until we’ll actually get there, there is nothing we can really be sure of. All we know is that once the mining is done, it should then be relatively easy and not too energy-consuming to lift the materials, thanks to their negligible gravity of asteroids.

    Some materials and minerals can then be taken back to Earth, but many other could be used both to provide the energy the mining industry itself requires, propelling at the same time another sector of the space industry: infrastructures and space settlements. The benefits are not only profit-sided or space-oriented: the first beneficiary of space mining would be the Earth, which would be spared the mass amounts of emissions that the mining industry produces every year. Even more: according to a recent study, the impact of asteroid mining in space itself wouldn’t be as strong and disruptive and that of the earth, and could actually be sustainable.

    With a market value forecasted to be worth trillions of dollars, it definitely seems like the juice is worth the squeeze. But right now, other than the technological viability, the challenges equal (if not overcome) the certainties. However, what is certain is that such a market would be a game changer in all aspects, creating legal, economical and geopolitical turmoil. If 2030 is the decade we start mining asteroids, it’s about time we begin to think about this what comes next.


    Associated Benefits may have a large positive Effect

    As with many aspects of space programs, it is not necessarily the space program itself that yields benefits, but the technologies that are enabled that come from it.

    As an example, the Space Race in the Cold War, although it did consume copious resources, also created technologies that really created much more efficient technologies than would have otherwise been possible in communications, material science, automation and even administration and standards.

    To perform asteroid mining, you would need many technologies to be developed, perhaps the following:

    a large amount of automation in production: Efficiencies can probably be found in production of complex parts which could transfer to other industries (automotive, shipping or computing industries) increasing efficiency

    advances in fuel technology: The good thing about mining companies is they look at the bottom line all the time - fuel is a major cost. It's reduction (through better efficiency or unique technologies) could also transfer to transport on Earth too.

    advances in power generation: As is all the case in remote work, power is needed and lots of it. Any advances here could potentially be used on Earth, such as better solar power, or fusion reactors.

    advances in remote automation: I work in Australia and because of isolation, mining is mostly done now fully automated (even trains have no drivers). This automation is now highly sought after by others around the world. Space mining would yield this benefit and several orders of magnitude more, with AI and self-repair or self-production technologies really coming to the fore.

    Now the above could actually influence Earth in much more ways than just a simple mining operation. Even a 25% increase in say, solar panel conversion efficiency, would suddenly catapult this technology into mainstream use and replace all current power generation.

    So in general, don't discount the effect of one development improving all associated ones, which could mean an enormous effect when considered in totality.


    Watch the video: ASTEROIDS Size Comparison (January 2022).