In Ridley Scott’s critically acclaimed sci-fi horror, Alien, the crew of the Nostromo, on the return leg of a successful ore-mining expedition, encounters the Xenomorph. The creature is as scary as it sounds, with the tag line for the film at the time of release being: “In space no one can hear you scream.”
While mankind’s first forays into space mining are highly unlikely to be met with a similar, hazardous alien encounter, the pros and cons of space mining are still up for contention. One thing is however certain: there are some big players involved, looking to profit from this untapped resource of wealth.
Asteroid mining, as a concept, is fairly self-explanatory: you go into space and mine one of the many asteroids floating around for their minerals: copper, zinc and platinum—to name but a few. Let us however be clear: companies are in the “in theory” rather than “in practice” stage of development (although one firm, Deep Space Industries, intends to launch one of its “FireFly” spacecraft in 2016). Ignoring all implausibility and assuming the relevant technology is developed, let’s take a speculative look at how two private enterprises intend to accomplish this.
Deep Space Industries has proposed essentially a two-part plan. The first part involves conducting initial reconnaissance of “near-Earth asteroids,” with two unmanned “FireFly” spacecraft. They will study asteroids and determine their mineral composition and value. Then the larger “DragonFlies” will gather samples to be transported back to Earth, bringing back anything from between 60 to 150 pounds of asteroid.
Planetary Resources on the other hand—backed by none other than James Cameron (film director: Aliens, Titanic, Avatar), as well as Google billionaires Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson—are taking a slightly more measured approach. They will similarly scout out nearby asteroids orbiting Earth’s atmosphere, but will use “LEO” telescopes to determine their potential value. The next step is to then deploy interceptors, surveying robots to sample the targets, and the third will be actual extractors, bringing the minerals back to Earth.
Perhaps the most appealing aspect of undertaking such an ambitious and other worldly expedition is the wealth to be gained: trillions can be added to the global economy according to Planetary Resources. Asteroids are rich in minerals, both aesthetically valuable and rare such as gold and platinum, to more practical and in demand sources such as iron, nickel and aluminum. There are also no significant environmental impacts to consider, or as for the moment, really any risk of human life. Both asteroid mining startups intend to use robotic devices to carry out the excavating and the reconnaissance missions.
Assuming the required technology is developed successfully, the most obvious technical challenge is how to get the cargo back to Earth. Needless to say, figuring out how to transport and account for a payload that weighed nothing in zero-gravity, but suddenly becomes an additional weight as you approach the Earth’s upper atmosphere at 25,000 mph, is going to be tricky. Furthermore, while an untapped reservoir of rare materials may seem appealing on paper and bring wealth to the economy, as Tim Worstall has pointed out in an article for the Register, in practice the whole plan could flop. He raises the argument that in all the excitement of mining rare minerals in abundance, and selling them for profit, everyone seems to have forgotten about the most basic of economic principles: supply and demand.
Using platinum as an example, last year it had a market value of $13bn at 6.2 million ounces. It seems fathomable that this amount of money could support a space program. Yet, even when only 250,000 ounces was added to the market, it caused the price of platinum to drop by a quarter. We can then deduce that with the more platinum that is brought down from space, the less valuable it will be, requiring more to keep up profits and fund further excavation. Of course, this is only one example, and in all likelihood, mining expeditions will not entirely be reliant on profits gained from selling rare minerals. It is however something to take into consideration.
It should be noted, that space mining is not limited to the private sector or to only the US. Additionally, while NASA has not received quite as much coverage as its celebrity backed counterparts, it has revealed plans for an “Asteroids initiative”, to capture an asteroid and collect samples. Russian Space Corp., Energia and China on the other hand, seek to exploit a different resource altogether: Helium-3.
Helium-3 can be used far more efficiently to generate nuclear power, with less nuclear waste and risk than either current nuclear fissure or fusion processes. Helium-3 is also emitted by the sun, but the earth’s atmosphere stops it from entering our planet in any substantial amount. The moon on the other hand, more specifically the lunar soil, has tons of the stuff—an estimated one million tons. If extracted and taken back to earth, 25 tons of Helium-3 would be able to power the US for a year. Both the Russian Space Corporation Energia and China have expressed interest in the past of wanting to research Helium-3 levels on the moon, and then begin extraction on a commercial level.
A certain level of both excitement and doubt is to be expected when discussion turns to mankind’s futuristic ambitions in space. Do governments and private companies alike have their heads in the clouds, or are they on the cusp of one giant leap? How long before we’re mining space rocks, or creating fusion reactors in space? The biggest challenge that needs to be overcome, and which any level of success depends upon, is how are companies going to transport their cargo of fuel or minerals back to Earth? Find a solution for this and talking about space supply chains will one day be the norm.