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 Comments on "Asteroid Mining – Well, A Little"

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Grand Lunar

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

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… Read more »

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.

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).… Read more »

[…] the asteroid belt around the sun there are over 1 million asteroids 1km or bigger in diameter. That would seem to […]

Clisbert Hurtado

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.