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.