Asteroid Mining, Colonising Mars and Improving Life on Earth

Asteroid mining could both propel us to the deep reaches of space and improve our lives on Earth, but there are some pretty big challenges to overcome before either of those things happens. Daniel Davies takes a look at the prospects of space prospecting

Answering the question of how we’re going to get to Mars is a big problem, but it’s not the only problem deep-space exploration presents. Because if and when we reach the Red Planet we’re going to need stuff: resources and raw materials ranging from water to precious metals. So we have a choice: we can either decide to take this stuff with us (not going to happen) or we can mine these things once we’re off this planet.

That’s where the space prospectors Planetary Resources come in. Put in simple terms, Planetary Resources is in the business of mining resource-rich, near-Earth asteroids to exploit their natural resources. These resources can then contribute to making the ultimate space-based service stations, giving explorers access to water to turn into rocket fuel; iron and refractory materials for construction and saving them the cost and strife of transporting bulky and heavy stuff.

But Planetary Resources has more in mind for these resources than just using them for deep-space exploration. The second part of the company’s business plan involves taking the precious metals recovered from asteroids, which are found in relatively small quantities on Earth, and using them to build, for example, the smartphones, computers and other electronics we use on a daily basis.

“We see resources in space as an opportunity to expand the economy of the planet into space by doing what we have always done on planet Earth: we explore distant lands, and we have colonised the entire planet in the pursuit of resources,” said Planetary Resources president and CEO, Chris Lewicki at last year’s Web Summit. “More importantly, when we arrive in those desolate corners of the Earth it's those local resources that we use to sustain our lives and livelihoods and develop businesses and industries.”

While space-based service stations and asteroid originating phones sound attractive, the legality of private companies mining in space is at best unclear. And that’s not even the biggest or most immediate problem companies like Planetary Resources face because while they know that there are infinite resources out there, they’re not exactly sure about the real characteristics of asteroids. There’s every chance that an asteroid could be targeted only to later find that it doesn’t quite hold as much water or contain as much metal as was originally hoped. With these not insignificant problems to overcome then, is asteroid mining really the potentially billion dollar industry it has been made out to be?

Image courtesy of Planetary Resources

Finding water for the trip to Mars

If explorers are going to get to Mars then they’re going to need to find water, both during transit and once they arrive. As Lewicki explains, it’s a crucial ingredient in the rocket fuel that will propel them to the Red Planet, and more than that it’s needed for sustenance, farming and hygiene.

“Water is useful to us human beings for a variety of reasons. We're made of the stuff mostly, we drink it and it's part of our food supply; it's a part of our hygiene and that's something that's very important. In space where there's no air, water is important in the oxygen that we can use to breath, but in space, water also starts to take on a unique and new role as we become interplanetary travellers,” said Lewicki.

In space, water also starts to take on a unique and new role

“On the journey to Mars you'll be faced with cosmic radiation, and one of the best ways to shield yourself against that radiation is through a layer of water. In the same way that with nuclear fuel and nuclear reactors, we store them in the bottom of a pool of water to protect us from the radiation, water can provide that same role in space.

“But the most important role that water can provide in space is by providing rocket fuel. The water molecule, H20, is a molecule of hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen and oxygen when combusted and burned together make the most powerful rocket fuel that exists, and it's the reason why all of the space shuttle missions were powered by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen and now Blue Origin’s BE-3 and BE-4 engines are using this technology to provide the most efficient, rocket propulsion that you can find. “

Luckily, near-Earth asteroids are apparently bursting at the seams with water, and Planetary Resources has a plan to exploit it. First of all, the company would capture an asteroid, and then, using the unlimited thermal energy from the sun, the asteroid would be heated up.

From there, the vacuum of space would be used to transport water vapour that has been baked out of the asteroid, and then the infinite cool of space, which as you move away from the sun can get as low as minus 270 degrees Celsius, would essentially act as a free industrial refrigerator that would turn our water into a pure ice cube that can then be transported back to Earth orbit to use in our fuel tanks, water stores or in our radiation shields.

Replacing scarcity with abundance

For those of us not headed to Mars though, we too could see massive advantages from asteroid mining. An iPhone, for example, contains gold, silver, platinum and copper, so an abundance of resources would likely see prices of consumer products fall, as Planetary Resources predicted when it first announced plans to mine near-Earth asteroids.

“Many of the scarce metals and minerals on Earth are in near-infinite quantities in space. As access to these materials increases, not only will the cost of everything from microelectronics to energy storage be reduced, but new applications for these abundant elements will result in important and novel applications,” said Peter H. Diamandis, co-founder of Planetary Resources, in a statement released at the time of the company’s inception.

More gold than has ever been mined in the history of the world

However, these raw materials could be used to make so much more than just new phones, tablets and computers; the materials extracted from asteroids could change the medical industry or shape the future of energy storage. “We'll have the ability to – when we get good at this – bring some of these most important and most useful materials all the way back to the surface of the Earth,” said Lewicki. “[Things] that we can use in the medical industry, for hydrogen fuel cells and maybe technology that will be the next energy storage technology after lithium-ion batteries.” 

As impressive as it is that mining asteroids could give us cheaper electronics, or even solve the problem of energy storage, some commentators believe Planetary Resources’ work could also promote peaceful interactions between nations and people, as selfishness caused by scarcity is replaced by sharing brought about by abundance.

The American astrophysicist, author and science commentator Neil deGrasse Tyson is certainly hopeful. “If you haul an asteroid the size of a house to Earth, it could have more platinum on it than has ever been mined in the history of the world. More gold than has ever been mined in the history of the world. When that happens, the scarcity that has led to human-to-human violence, there’s a chance it could all go away,” said Tyson in a NPR radio interview.

Image courtesy of ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA​​​​​​​

Do the Russians know what we’re doing? Do we know what we’re doing?

Imagine a scenario where we become an interplanetary species; if that were the case then space mining would become a necessary and very lucrative industry. But who would get to take home those profits? In November 2015, former US president Barack Obama signed the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act into law. The law recognises the right of US citizens to own the asteroid resources they obtain as well as encouraging the commercial exploration and utilisation of resources from asteroids.

The signing of a law like that is clearly good news for a company like Planetary Resources, but this is just US law, and, unhelpfully, it is US law that is incompatible with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, where almost 100 states, including the US, Russia, and China, agreed that outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies such as asteroids, “is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty.” Consider then what countries like Russia and China would feel about a private US company like Planetary Resources mining in space, especially if, like the company predicts, space is full of loot.

Space is full of loot

Agreeing on the legality of asteroid mining will all be for nothing though if blanks in our asteroid knowledge aren’t filled. To do that costs money, and we’re talking serious money. Take the example of NASA’s Osiris-Rex expedition, which having launched in 2016 will land on the near Earth asteroid Bennu in 2018, is aiming to bring just two kilos of asteroid material back to Earth, at an estimated cost of $1bn.

Planetary Resources though doesn’t appear overly concerned with that problem. “We have explored dozens and dozens of these places now, in the last 20 years. We've flown by them, we've orbited them, we've landed on them, even comets now, I'm sure everyone is familiar with the Rosetta mission. We've even returned samples of the surface of the Moon and brought them back to Earth,” said Lewicki at Web Summit.

“They are worlds that we now know; they are places that we understand, they're areas of the solar system that we see as an opportunity to develop into the future resource mines for developing our industry.”

Whether you believe that our lack of knowledge about asteroids is as serious problem or not, these are at the very least early obstacles, which hopefully won’t become insurmountable ones. Clearly there’s a long way to go before asteroid mining is a reality, but if companies like Planetary Resources do find a way to do it, then it has the potential to improve life both on this planet and beyond. 

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