Asteroid Mining – Well, A Little

Over 1 Million Asteroids 1km or Bigger in Diameter

It’s estimated that a relatively small metallic asteroid with a diameter of 1 mile contains more than $20 trillion USD worth of industrial and precious metals. That’s more than the entire US GDP in 2012. So you can see the lure of mining asteroids out in space.

You might have noticed that I talk very little about asteroid mining on the BTE site. All I say is that the Gen1 Enterprise will include some capabilities to initiate some experimental mining and that experimental material processing will be on board the Enterprise. I’m a skeptic when it comes to the mining of asteroids. There’s no doubt that there are enormous quantities of materials that could be mined from asteroids in our solar system (see the diagram above). It’s just that I don’t think it will be cost effective to mine any of these materials for many decades to come. Wikipedia explains this point of view:

“Currently, the quality of the ore and the consequent cost and mass of equipment required to extract it are unknown and can only be speculated. Economic analyses indicate that the cost of returning asteroidal materials to Earth far outweighs their market value, and that asteroid mining will not attract private investment at current commodity prices and space transportation costs.”

Recently the company Planetary Resources was started by film director James Cameron as well as Google’s chief executive Larry Page and its executive chairman Eric Schmidt. The same Wikipedia link above describes the challenge they face:

“The plan has been met with scepticism by some scientists who do not see it as cost-effective, even though platinum and gold are worth nearly $1600 per per ounce. An upcoming NASA mission (OSIRIS-REx) to return just 60g (two ounces) of material from an asteroid to Earth will cost about $1 billion USD.”

To be clear, I have no problem with these guys taking on this high-risk endeavor. In fact – more power to them! Even if they can’t bring the costs down enough, and if they invest a lot of money with little or no return, that’s fine if that is what they want to do with their money. Anything learned along the way about the mining of asteroids will surely be useful down the road in a few decades. So they will be helping to fund some useful research.

But without a lot more data about asteroids, and a lot more information about likely returns against the cost of mining, I can’t see elevating large-scale asteroid mining and material processing to a major function of the Gen1 Enterprise. I don’t think we want to make the ship’s construction, or its on-going operations, dependent on successful asteroid mining. There are already enough risks with other parts of the Gen1 Enterprise venture.

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11 Responses to Asteroid Mining – Well, A Little

  1. Grand Lunar says:

    How about lunar mining?

    I know there are companies aiming for that. Wouldn’t the cost for returning lunar material be lower than asteroids?

    • BTE-Dan says:

      I don’t think it will be cost effective for many decades either. Consider this quote by an advocate (an Apollo astronaut) for going to the moon to mine helium-3:

      “Because the concentration of helium-3 is extremely low, it would be necessary to process large amounts of rock and soil to isolate the material. Digging a patch of lunar surface roughly three-quarters of a square mile to a depth of about 9 ft. should yield about 220 pounds of helium-3 – enough to power a city the size of Dallas or Detroit for a year.” http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/space/moon-mars/1283056

      All of that just to power a single city on earth for a year? Now if this helium-3 could power several large US states for a year (and fusion reactors were ready) this might start to make sense.

      I think that for many decades, an adequate alternative can be mined on earth for anything that can be mined in space. And the alternative on earth will be far, far less expensive.

      • Grand Lunar says:

        I wasn’t thinking so much about the helium-3.

        Rather, I was thinking of other resources, like aluminum and titanium, both which could find their way into being used for making the (very) Big E.

        And with the billions of tons of ice at the poles, we have access to all the water we need without having to drag it up first from Earth. That alone should make for a good reason for lunar resources.

        • BTE-Dan says:

          “ice at the poles”

          I assume you mean on Mars, not the moon.

          A Mars base will need to be able to collect and purify water. Since this is needed, then the question becomes is it more cost effective to launch tanks of water from Mars up to the Enterprise or to do this from earth. I guess it depends on your launch costs at each place.

          One heavy lifter that carries one million pounds of water into space from earth might give a water launch cost of: 1 million x $1000 = $1 billion dollars. If you have to do this every three years, then the cost is $333 million per year. That is not too expensive. It’s less then 1% of the annual Enterprise budget.

          Still, the fact that the Mars base can collect water makes it interesting that it could supply the Enterprise under some circumstances. … I guess I am still thinking of this as being done on an experimental basis though.

          • Grand Lunar says:

            There’s ice on the moon as well.

            This news has been around for some time, as evidenced by the findings by the LRO probe and the results of the impact of LCROSS.

  2. Christian says:

    I mentioned planetary resources before and I’m glad you are at least bringing it up. I should point out that rare minerals aren’t the only thing Planetary Resources hope to mine from asteroids. They also hope to find large amounts of water which is a valuable resource in space because 1) it has the main components for hydrogen-oxygen propulsion fuel (I hope I’m saying that correctly) and 2) it can be utilize by maned craft (like the Gen 1 Enterprise by the time its complete and functional) and any colonies nearby. So Asteroids wouldn’t just be trillion dollar mines, they would be much needed pit-stops for probes and spacecraft.

    • BTE-Dan says:

      Using asteroids in space to get water, hydrogen as propellant, and oxygen for breathing makes great sense long term. But for the Gen1 Enterprise, to reduce risk, I assumed that propellant depots will be launched from earth. The propellant depots can have propellant and whatever other supplies are needed for re-supplying during long voyages. For example, one will be in orbit around Mars when the Enterprise arrives.

      If the experimental material processing on the Enterprise ends up being adequate, asteroids could be mined and perhaps this in time reduces the need for propellant depots. I just didn’t want to say the Enterprise baseline plan DEPENDS ON the mining of asteroids. Comprehending the logistics and technologies to count on asteroid mining seemed to cross the line for risk for me.

  3. Ed says:

    It seems to me that moving an asteroid to the Enterprise build site (or the build site to an asteroid) should be investigated as an alternative to lifting the necessary materials from Earth.

  4. Jason says:

    The Enterprise is too big to be buildable at an asteroid as the first large-scale project. Perhaps it can be used as a mobile habitat for a construction crew for that type of project after it’s built. After identifying and extracting resources, building habitats and smaller cargo vessels should be a priority. If we were to populate the Saturn and Jovian systems, then we would need many smaller ships to move materials around. Saturn’s rings primarily contain water ice. One of Saturn’s moons has detectable atmospheric oxygen, and Titan has nitrogen and liquid hydrocarbons (more than Earth on both counts).

    If habitats are built large enough, then there would be destinations for space tourism. It’s said that on Titan, the atmosphere is so dense and gravity so low, that a human could fly by flapping artificial wings. Even though it looks dismal, I’d go for that.

    The major hurdle to this after building the first vessel is locating all necessary resources for sustainable life support. There are 13 nutrients necessary for plant life, not just the 3 you see in fertilizer. A small fleet of cargo vehicles will be needed to shift resources between multiple bases. The solution is to find where the resources are cheapest as well as close to the task at hand. Creating habitable locations near resources that are in weak gravity wells can be cheaper than going for Mars or the moon if resources have to be imported.

  5. Pingback: How Big Are Asteroids? | BuildTheEnterprise

  6. Won’t it be dangerous to mine on asteroids because what happens if there’s an incoming asteroid that may hit the Enterprise, although the it does sound like a great idea.

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