As our Earth orbits around the sun, some 13,000 asteroids pass close by. Known as Near Earth Objects (NEOs), these asteroids are the special ones. The resources contained within them mean they could have the potential to become the future oil fields of space.
Of course the concept of space mining may seem like something out of science fiction, which is easy to be dismissed. “It is natural to doubt when you don’t know much about it” explains Chris Lewicki, President and Chief Engineer of asteroid mining company Planetary Resources. “Most people read the headline and make assumptions.” But although the idea of mining in space sounds a little too futuristic to at first comprehend, the idea is in fact nothing new.
“We are only repeating what has been done throughout history, just in a new environment” adds Lewicki. Based on history, resources have allowed us to expand to new frontiers and create new economies and build up societies by using those resources. For example, when people first travelled to America, they lived off the resources of the land. And in the 20th century oil helped shape and define the world. “Prospectors always go first, that is what has happened throughout history” explains Chad Anderson, Managing Director of Space Angels Network, a global network for angel investors offering access to the emerging private space industry.
Those involved in looking to mine asteroids, believe it has the potential to shape and define the 21st century. “The results could be revolutionary in benefits to space exploration, and all of us on Earth” says Steve Eisenhart, Senior Vice President, Space Foundation, a global non-profit to advance space related endeavors.
The first thing to understand about space mining is that it is not only about mining asteroids, or even the Moon and then returning those resources back to Earth. “Instead, there is a lot of value in keeping the resources in space and using them to expand frontiers," says Anderson. Lewicki explains “we are going to have to use resources in space to continue this model.”
The most important resource for prospective space miners is water. The reason; travelling into space by current standards is the equivalent of taking a road trip, for example across America, but having to bring all your fuel with you. Only in space it is much worse. It takes more energy to escape the first 300km from Earth than the next 300 million km. “Once in Earth's orbit, you are halfway to anywhere in the solar system” says Lewicki. However, because of the exponential nature of the Tsiolkovsky Rocket Equation, which governs space travel, even though you need less fuel to travel once you have escaped Earth’s gravity well, you need much more fuel to leave Earth if you want to go further into space. This is because you are having to launch with that extra fuel for the journey deeper into space, which in turn needs extra fuel in the rocket to escape Earth’s gravity.
But if rocket fuel was sourced from space for space, that exponential problem can be avoided. When water is broken into its constraints; hydrogen and oxygen, you have the key ingredients of rocket fuel. The same rocket fuel which was used for all 135 space shuttle missions. What is most exciting for those looking to mine space is that water is throughout our solar system. It is on the Moon and it is on asteroids.
Asteroids are of particular interest to Planetary Resources; “we know asteroids have water because it has been found on meteorites which have landed on the surface of the Earth” says Lewicki. “They also don’t need much energy to land on. It’s easier than a trip to the surface of the Moon.” Put simply near Earth asteroids offer the potential to act as off world ‘gas stations’ to enable spacecraft to go deeper into space, at a much lower cost, sourcing fuel from space for space. Mining asteroids could provide a fuel source 1000 times more efficient than the bring-everything-with-you approach of the Apollo program.
Harvesting water from asteroids also has other benefits: As humans venture beyond Earth orbit once again, water is essential to support human life, plant growth and industrial resources. It can also help shield astronauts from radiation in space. Yet it costs $50million a ton to ship to space. In order to enable deeper space exploration, using water resources from asteroids reduces the costs.
And it is not just water which is of interest. Asteroids give us the potential to create tools in space. “Iron is abundant’ says Lewicki, as is nickel and cobalt. “Using technology such as 3D printing you can grab material off asteroids and 3D print something that never has to be on a rocket.” There is the potential to create tools, machines and even habitats in the peaceful serene location of space.
And there is, of course the platinum group metals. Difficult to reach on Earth, asteroids contain 100 times the concentration of the most productive mines on Earth. Further afield in the asteroid belt which lies between Mars and Jupiter, home to some 1million asteroids, there is enough mineral resources to redefine wealth on Earth. “Those are the things we might use to create and abundance on Earth” says Lewicki.
Of course, as the saying goes – space is hard and off world mining will be not be an exception. “Sure there will be challenges to overcome, but that is the history of space” says Eisenhart. Just as other Earth based mining companies make money well before mining, Planetary Resource are already making money from the technology they have developed.
“It is important to know that this is something that is going to happen it is already happening” says Lewicki. The company already has one satellite in orbit, and the next satellite to launch will have the technology to look for water. While other private companies are research the potential to mine the Moon for resources such as water.
For Planetary Resources, their current roadmap predicts the first extraction of water from an asteroid by the first half of the 2020s. Extracting that first amount of water in space will be the beginning of new era, where humanity has moved off our planet and has presence in space forever. “I love that it is audacious, but that is what inspires the imagination and innovation” says Eisenhart.
Legally, of course, mining asteroids raises the prospect of the question ‘who owns space?’. In the US it is now recognised as law, that although you can’t own the Moon or asteroids, you can own the materials you take away. Much in the same way you can’t own the ocean, but you can own the fish. This means private companies can according to US law, can go to space, take material and own it. The move by President Obama is seen as a huge step forward in terms of creating a stable legal framework to build upon, with the US legislation seen as a framework for international dialogue to allow the legal framework to develop globally.
More than just furthering our knowledge and exploration of space, the mining of space is about improving life on Earth. “Think of the benefits to humanity created by pushing boundaries. It’s shaped our lives. How much better off the world is” says Anderson. “Look how far we’ve come”.
Of course it’s not possible to tell what the potential will end up being, but just like the Wright brothers could not predict the impact their first flight would eventually have on the world, you simply cannot say where space mining could lead. But as interest and investment rapidly increases in private space ventures of this type, it is fair to agree with the growing number of high net worth space investors who believe where we are with space now is the same as the internet in the early 1990s. It would have been simply impossible to imagine then, how much it would transform our world.
A version of this article first appeared on BBC Future, The Truth About Asteroid Mining on 5 January 2016
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