When Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis announced their founding of Planetary Resources in 2012 – with the goal of conducting industrial scale asteroid mining – many people, myself included, dismissed it as a near-insane pipe dream. Even now, a year later and after the founding of a second asteroid mining company, Deep Space Industries, and a NASA proposal to capture an asteroid into lunar orbit the idea still sounds just as kooky as it did on first impression. Indeed, with the retirement of the space shuttle and the dates for a manned Mars mission slipping further and further back, the idea of something as ambitious as asteroid mining sounds increasingly implausible. But it has been a year, and those of us with curious minds and a genuine belief in humanity’s limitless potential owe the idea a fair examination.
There are three significant barriers to development of an industrial-scale asteroid mining capability: technical, economic, and political. Each barrier is equally significant in its own way, and each poses its own unique challenges. In order to achieve success, the budding asteroid mining is approaching each of them with a separate understanding of the distinct timelines, tools, and professionals required to solve them. To help limit the scope of this article though, the primary focus will be on the approach that Planetary Resources is taking (No offense to Deep Space Industries, there’s just more info out there from Planetary Resources to dig into).
Perhaps the most straight-forward aspect of asteroid mining is the issue which led many to initially dismiss the idea entirely: the mind-blowing, staggering difficulty of capturing a super-dense asteroid, laden with rare Earth elements, stripping it of its unimaginably vast resources and somehow returning those to Earth or Low Earth Orbit (LEO). To turn a phrase, this is rocket science, on an unbelievably huge scale at that.
Still, nothing about the idea is inherently impossible from a physical standpoint, just difficult. Given time and appropriate creativity, the technical challenges can and surely will be overcome. In a sense, that’s the key to understanding the approach of both Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries to the technical challenges. Both companies understand that it is a matter of time and ingenuity, and their strategies give a nod to this notion by approaching the technical challenges in an incremental manner. Instead of treating the problem as a simple and monolithic one – “How do we mine asteroids on an industrial scale?” – they break it down into component stages.
The first technical challenge is simply identifying potentially valuable asteroids. Given our current technology, this step is already possible and has already been done to a large degree. We are already capable of detecting near-Earth asteroids and classifying them according to rough outlines of their composition. All that’s necessary is for the interested companies to more thoroughly catalog them and determine which asteroids they want to focus their efforts on. Most likely, they will target large asteroids (500+ meters in size), with a low dV from Earth (low fuel expenditure necessary to transit between the asteroid and Earth), and a frequent coincidence with Earth’s orbit (giving them the most recurring opportunities to conduct further exploitation). Asteroids meeting these criteria are thankfully plentiful. To steal some numbers from Diamandis and Anderson’s presentation at Solve for X, there are 981 known near-Earth asteroids larger than 1km and over 20500 larger than 100m; 17% of these near-Earth asteroids have a lower dV than it takes to reach the Moon, and close to 50% have a lower dV than a round-trip to the Moon. The numbers are certainly in favor of the asteroid miners.
Although all this could conceivably take place without even leaving the Earth, both Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries plan to field their own satellites for this. In the case of Planetary Resources, hopes are resting on their in-house-designed Arkyd 100 space telescope. With a cost of only $4 million and an Earth imaging resolution of 1-2 meters, it is an impressive piece of technical achievement already. These imaging capabilities are critical for the purposes of conducting observational exploration of the asteroids, since traditional prospecting and exploration approaches, such as drilling for core samples, will be obviously impractical. While observational exploration is insufficient on Earth, due to the small size of the ore bodies involved, the generally homogenous nature of asteroids and our understanding their basic composition make them perfectly suited for prospecting via imaging. Most importantly though, the Arkyd 100 serves as a testbed and proof-of-concept for technologies that Planetary Resources believes will be crucial during future phases of the enterprise.
Once that first step is complete, it will be necessary to transit to the asteroids themselves in order to sample them (to confirm your earlier prospecting) and place some sort of beacon to establish a claim. Again, the technology required to do this is hardly unprecedented. Government-funded space agencies have already demonstrated the capability to transit to an asteroid or comet, sample it, and even return after doing so. In comparison, simply travelling to the asteroid, sampling it onsite, and fixing a radio beacon to it is almost trivially easy from a technical standpoint. More importantly, it will be a number of years before any company moves to this step, meaning further technological advances in mini-satellites and decreased costs to orbit.
The final step, retrieval, can actually be approached in a variety of ways, depending on the kind of asteroid being exploited. Initially, it can be expected that efforts will focus on water-rich asteroids with evidence of water ice. The presence of water ice on the surface of these asteroids will be particularly attractive, as that enables the composition to be reliably determined even with long-range imaging, and because they allow for easier extraction. Surface water ice can then be “mined” by simple electrolysis – stick some solar panels on the asteroid, run electrical current through the ice, and it’ll separate into hydrogen and oxygen. From there it’s just a matter of collecting it and then returning it to LEO for use as spaceship fuel (conveniently, it can act as fuel for your miners return voyage). It doesn’t even have to happen fast; odds are it will be a few years before the asteroid is in position for your mining probe to launch on a transfer orbit back to Earth, so it will have plenty of time to do its work.
Once you have enough fuel in LEO to move around some larger payloads, then you can start looking at the more complicated and potentially profitable, mineral-rich asteroids. Here the approaches diverge significantly. Deep Space Industries seems to be most interested in targeting iron-rich asteroids and selling the materials for use in space-based construction. To do this, they plan to utilize a proprietary 3D printer called the Microgravity Foundry, which they claim is uniquely capable of operating in microgravity. With this 3D printer, they will conceivably be able to construct all the tools they need to mine asteroids out of the asteroids themselves. This is obviously beyond the capabilities of contemporary 3D printers, but with the rapid advances being made, it is hardly inconceivable within the next couple decades.
Planetary Resources plans to instead target asteroids containing highly valuable Platinum Group Elements (PGEs) with the intent of returning them to Earth for manufacturing purposes. Their approach relies on using the high melting points of PGEs to their advantage. By producing large amounts of heat or focusing sunlight with some kind of ultra-large parabolic mirror, they plan to essentially melt away all the other parts of the asteroid, leaving only the PGEs behind for collection and return. With sufficient finesse, the asteroid could even be ablated in such a manner as to introduce it into LEO, sparing them the effort of a return burn. Again, the technology for this approach hasn’t been developed yet, but it is visible on the horizon. It will likely be some time before Planetary Resources has the technical capabilities necessary to make this approach possible, but the problem of time is one they instead address in their business model.
Probably more significant than the technical challenges of asteroid mining are the economic challenges. Beyond the sheer audacity of asteroid mining and its high investment risk, the timescales involved are daunting from a business perspective. Instead of forecasting profits and requirements on annual, 5-year, or even 10-year scales, asteroid mining businesses have to make plans stretching decades into the future. Even the most patient of investors are unlikely to settle for financing operations that far into the future, meaning that Planetary Resources must formulate a business plan that is financially viable at each stage: exploration, claiming, and mining.
At present, Planetary Resources has already made significant strides in terms of self-promotion and garnering financial interest during the exploration phase. Although they are hardly flush with cash, their financial demands right now are sufficiently low that even modest interest in their Arkyd 100 satellites should be enough to keep them financially solvent. As the success of their Kickstarter has demonstrated, there is a very real interest in providing cheap access to space imaging platforms. Assuming that Planetary Resources can field Arkyd 100 satellites at their goal price of only $4 million apiece, they shouldn’t have much trouble recouping those expenses. Additionally, the technological improvements they produce during this phase – laser communications, multi-purpose design, distributed controls, etc. – are also marketable in themselves.
Where things get really exciting from an economic perspective is during the claiming phase. When I initially read about Planetary Resources’ business model, their proposed claims process seemed to be completely unnecessary and wasteful. “Why bother dropping radio beacons on these asteroids,” I reasoned, “if you don’t actually get anything out of it.” Indeed, it initially seems wasteful to send a fleet of minisats out past the Moon just to scan an asteroid and possibly blast a radio beacon into the side of it. But on further examination of the idea, it becomes clear that the claims process is not simply an ancillary element in the Planetary Resources business model, but the real heart of it instead.
Looking at large oil drilling and mining operations the world over, you will see that mineral rights to large deposits are a big deal involving big money. Corporations spend tens and hundreds of millions of dollars in exploration for new oil, gas, and mineral deposits, and then spend tens and hundreds of millions more to secure the drilling/mining rights to those areas they have found. Often times, they will purchase the mineral rights to areas that they don’t think they will be able to profitably exploit for decades into the futures (e.g. tar sands, extremely deep mining sites, undersea mineral deposits, etc). Obviously, these corporations have no trouble looking for opportunities that are only available well into the future. The reasoning goes then: If one of these companies is willing to pay $100 million for rights to an oil patch they won’t be able to exploit for another 10 years, wouldn’t they also be willing to pay $50 million for the rights to a PGE-rich asteroid with a low dV that they won’t be able to tap into for maybe another 20-30 years?
Planetary Resources doesn’t need to wait 20-30 years and slowly develop the technology to mine these asteroids, they can make loads just by selling the mining rights. Assuming international law supports their claims (more on this below), the claims process itself is likely to be their biggest money maker. Again, they have the added benefit of developing marketable technology during this stage as well. The many technical challenges they overcome during this phase will be crucial to the later mining of those asteroids. Things like highly autonomous mining satellites and minisat swarm AI will likely become profitable innovations in themselves.
After the big money of the claims process, the actual asteroid mining is just like icing on the cake. Whether it comes in 20 years, 30 years, or 40 years is almost irrelevant; it will inevitably come and they will still be making money in the meanwhile. But for those far-sighted mining companies out there, it’s important to consider that it probably won’t be as long as 40 years before we see functional asteroid mines. The cost of doing things in space always seems prohibitively expensive for private industry, but big bucks to get in the door and inhospitable environments are nothing new to oil/gas/mining industry. To put the financial aspect into perspective, the Mars Exploration Rover (Spirit and Opportunity) mission cost $820 million to plan, design, build, and operate for the first 90 days of its Martian mission versus Deepwater Horizon took $560 million just to build (that doesn’t include daily operations, drilling, movement to the site, etc). More remarkably, Deepwater Horizon isn’t even really that expensive of a rig as far as deepwater drilling goes. Some rigs cost in excess of a billion dollars to get going and cost over $600,000 a day in operation costs. When you realize that those are the kind of figures already being spent on terrestrial resources, the idea of dropping a billion dollars to secure and mine a multi-trillion dollar, PGE-rich asteroid doesn’t sound quite so outlandish (NASA’s OSIRIS-REx even plans to do a sample return mission in 2016 for that same billion dollar pricetag). Could those corporations do that now for a billion dollars? No. But could they do that in 20 or so years for that kind of money? Probably.
When Peter Diamandis stood up at Solve for X and gave a starry-eyed rant about humanity’s Manifest Destiny in space, he wasn’t just doing that because he’s a huge nerd (he is though). He was doing it chiefly to get people excited, not for the sake of additional investors, but in order to start building public support for asteroid mining. Even the Arkyd 100 Kickstarter – as successful as it is – isn’t meant to be some sort of cash cow for Planetary Resources; its purpose is to raise awareness for asteroid mining and build public hype and support for the idea. All of this is aimed at one purpose above all others: building sufficient public support and momentum to produce important changes in international law concerning space commerce.
The entire Planetary Resources business model is predicated on having the ability to lay claim to asteroid and, eventually, planetary resources (hence the name). The entire second phase of their long term goals centers on the notion of marking these claims for their sole exploitation, and very likely on selling shares in those claims. Unfortunately, there is currently no legal precedent to support this, and this is exactly what Planetary Resources is seeking to change.
As strange as it is to consider, the hardest part about the Planetary Resources approach to asteroid mining lies not in the mindboggling technical challenges or the bank-breaking finances, but in the sheer audacity of formulating a business model which relies on the popularization, construction, and global ratification of international law. Like the other difficulties in their business model though, this a high hurdle but is hardly insurmountable. With the United States’ prominent position in establishing international law and its commanding lead in the commercialization of space, it is quite reasonable to imagine the United States framing up some form of international agreement that would help provide some clear guidelines on the exploitation of extraterrestrial resources. Indeed, it is likely that the only reason this hasn’t already been done is because it has been largely irrelevant and unnecessary up to this point.
The idea of asteroid mining is technically challenging bordering on impossible, so financially taxing it could bankrupt many large multi-national corporations, and overhyped to the point of being a media sideshow, but above all that, it’s still rooted in sound reasoning. Just like the idea of landing a man on the Moon was once an idea so difficult as to be inconceivable to all but the most lofty dreamers, asteroid mining is a solid idea that just sounds like a pipe dream. Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries are up against daunting challenges, but no matter how you slice it, those challenges are ones that can be overcome with sufficient hard work, ingenuity, and time. Whether or not these asteroid mining companies have each of those in large enough quantities remains to be seen, but I’d bet even money that asteroid mining is an idea whose time has come.
It’s a bold idea and it will take a fair share of luck, but like Thucydides said, “Fortune favors the bold.”