Several companies have announced plans to harvest the resources of asteroids for use both on Earth and in space, but how would it be done and is it truly feasible?
Written by Jonathan O’Callaghan
For the last year or so asteroid mining has been one of the most talked about topics in space exploration. Not only have two start-up companies, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries (DSI), announced plans to begin the extraction of resources in the future, but NASA has also revealed its intention to begin the exploration of asteroids and return useful samples to Earth. The public have been laden with awe-inspiring concept imagery and fantastical mission proposals that have garnered attention around the world but, the question is, can it really be done?
Most asteroids we know of reside in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter but a few thousand known as near-Earth objects can be found in the inner Solar System. Based on studies of meteorites on Earth and observations of asteroids, we know a lot of these objects are rich in certain types of metal and potentially water. Some of these asteroids are drifting on elliptical orbits around the Sun that bring them between the Earth and the Moon, making them a viable destination for future exploration.
It is these near-Earth asteroids that DSI and Planetary Resources intend to target (see ‘Missions to mine asteroids’ boxout), albeit with slightly different goals. Both companies intend to prospect asteroids before visiting them, but while Planetary Resources wants to mostly retrieve resources from asteroids and return them to Earth, DSI instead intends to directly utilise asteroid minerals in space.
“As all space programme enthusiasts and particularly engineers and designers will know, it’s extremely expensive to get things into space,” says Geoff Notkin of Discovery Channel’s Meteorite Men and a member of the advisory board for DSI. “The cost is prohibitive for us to build large exploration vessels to explore deep space. But what if we could harvest the raw materials that we need to build spacecraft and other technological wonders in space? That is our primary goal.”
Planetary Resources, meanwhile, will bring minerals back to Earth to be used on our planet, although it too has plans to utilise resources like water in space. Its reasoning is that metals such as platinum and gold are ripe to be harvested from particular asteroids, and bringing them back could have huge monetary values. Some estimates suggest that asteroids could be worth multiple billions of dollars, or perhaps even trillions, in modern Earth markets. There are a huge amount of unknowns, though. How easy will it to be to extract these useful minerals from an asteroid? And are we even sure that asteroids will contain these amounts of useful resources?
“By examining meteorites that have landed on Earth, we can get very valuable clues regarding what asteroids are made up of,” says Notkin. “We’ve found many different elements in meteorites that have landed. Of course, they are the same elements that we find in terrestrial rocks but the mixtures are different, and so the meteorites are typically rich in nickel, for example, and that could be a valuable resource for us. And then we’ve had some asteroid flybys and by examining the spectroscopy of asteroids via telescopes we can get a fairly good [idea] of their composition. The next step is to find out which asteroids are right for harvesting, and that’s part of Deep Space Industries’ plan.”
However, Michael Murphy, a freelance mining consultant on Earth, disagrees on the usefulness of asteroid mining. “What are you going to mine that it’s in such sort supply and in equally high demand in quantities needed to start these projects?” says Murphy. “I don’t know of anything in particularly short supply. I don’t think there is anything we can’t survive without at the moment.”
The potentially huge costs of asteroid mining are also something of concern, and Murphy was quick to point out the pitfalls of mining on our own planet. “On Earth, the costs of building even a railway line are so high that some projects will not even get off the ground. If you compare the price of building a railway to putting a rocket into space, the costs are surely going to be huge. The only things that could potentially justify such large expenditure would be things that would be priceless: remedies for incurable diseases, for example.”
To overcome these challenges both companies will have to ensure that their costs remain manageable and their plans are realistic. As Chris Lewicki, the president of Planetary Resources, points out in our interview with him later in this feature, by using smaller teams and focusing less on scientific aspects the companies will be able to run missions to asteroids at a much lower cost than has previously been done. The entirety of NASA’s 2016 OSIRIS-Rex mission, for example, which itself will take seven years to complete, will cost close to $1 billion (Ј665 million), but it’ll return just 60 grams (two ounces) of asteroid material. DSI and Planetary Resources, meanwhile, want to mine much larger amounts than that with missions costing a fraction of the price.
There is precedent that such endeavours can be successful at lower costs, but there are major hurdles to overcome. In 2010, the Japanese space agency (JAXA) successfully completed a relatively low-cost mission, estimated at around $100 million (Ј66 million) to return a sample from an asteroid with its Hayabusa spacecraft. It took JAXA about seven years to return a minuscule amount of material from the Itokawa asteroid, but the mission demonstrated that for a manageable cost it is possible to travel to an asteroid, collect a sample and return to Earth. “It’s important to watch what’s happening in the space programme and learn from that,” says Notkin. “I think every complex mission illustrates the hazards involved.”
Another way to tackle the monetary issues involved, as outlined by DSI, will be to harvest asteroid resources to be used in space, rather than bringing them back to Earth. “One of the abilities that DSI is developing is the ability to extract raw materials from asteroids and then, using a 3D printer, actually build parts in space,” explains Notkin. “So, of course there are other companies who have looked at the concept of bringing raw materials from the asteroids to Earth, but I think our plan is more realistic. We want to use the materials from asteroids in space and not have to bring them back to Earth.” On this, Murphy agrees. “In a scenario where you’ve found an asteroid, you’ve got the ability to produce parts cheaply, and all these things turn out to make the project economically feasible, then maybe this is a possibility,” he says.
One of the greatest applications of asteroid mining, however, might be for something that we have in abundance here on Earth: water. Water is not only important for the survival of astronauts but it is also one of the primary constituents of rocket fuel. If an asteroid rich in water could be found, then there’s the potential that this could be extracted to be used in space rather than having to lift it at considerable cost from the surface of the Earth. “At the present time everything has to be blasted into space, and that costs thousands of dollars per kilo for everything that needs to go up there,” says Notkin. “So on the one hand there will be the opportunity to actually build spacecraft in space away from the influence of Earth’s gravity, so we don’t have to fly everything up there by rocket, and secondly there are some very practical short-term applications for these concepts. What if we could produce fuel in space that we could then provide to existing satellites that are in orbit?”
To carry out all of these grandiose mission proposals, DSI and Planetary Resources will of course need some pretty advanced technology. Both companies have made sure to hire experts who have previously worked on particularly difficult and challenging space missions; Planetary Resources, for example, has a number of engineers who worked on NASA’s Mars exploration programmes. Before any sort of asteroid mining can begin, though, suitable asteroids will need to be found to ensure that any resource extraction returns a useful amount of material that can be utilised in space or brought back to Earth.
“As soon as 2015 we hope to have small robotic spacecraft named Fireflies prospecting asteroids to determine which ones might be suitable for mining,” says Notkin. “Once suitable candidates have been located, larger ships known as Dragonflies will begin to extract material from these asteroids. Conceivably this can happen within just a few years; the technology for the most part exists here on Earth, will be in space. I find that rather amazing. Almost the stuff of science fiction.”
Asteroid mining is no doubt a hugely challenging and ambitious endeavour that is not without its sceptics. And it’s likely that, until we see actual operations begin, those critics will continue to air their views that these missions cannot be successful. But for all the hurdles and potential pitfalls, there must be a reason so many scientists, engineers and experts around the world are getting involved with the asteroid mining industry; they truly believe it can be done. And if some of the smartest minds in the world, who have landed spacecraft on other worlds in our Solar System and have extensively studied asteroids, hold the belief that asteroid mining is not only possible but it is also achievable in the immediate future, then there must be some method behind the madness.
“I do think asteroid mining will happen in the next 10 to 20 years,” declares Notkin. “If, as we believe, these asteroids are rich in raw materials, I’m certain that we will see commercial mining in action. That’s why I’m part of it. I wanted to be there at the beginning. I didn’t want to look back in ten years and say ‘oh no, I missed the boat on this.’ To me this is the most exciting offer on the table, and I’ve leapt at the opportunity to be part of it.”
To truly ascertain the progress that is being made towards asteroid mining, we will have to wait until next year when Planetary Resources and DSI begin launching their prospecting telescopes. If all goes to plan, and their confidence is rewarded with metal and water-rich asteroids, then asteroid mining could well become one of the major space industries of this century.
With low-Earth orbit already well on the way to being commercialised with companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences getting involved, it will be an exciting time indeed if regions further into space are one day traversed by private companies returning resources from asteroids not only for use on Earth, but for creating and refuelling new spacecraft to explore regions of deep space like never before.