Asteroid Mining: The New Space Economy, or a Fleeting Fantasy?

Written By Fergus Radburn-Todd, 15/09/2016.

On the 13th February 1601, British ships set sail for Sumatra and Java in an attempt to trade wool and cloth for lucrative spices, forming what became the East India Company, a company that maintained a monopoly over British trade with the East. Even larger, was the Dutch East India Company, a company that today would have reached a market capitalisation of $7.4 trillion, 11 times larger than Apple’s peak market capitalisation in 2012. Both companies facilitated trade internationally on a scale unseen before, and both companies pushed boundaries in colonising and exploiting resources, while expanding their countries empires, highlighting the capacity of private enterprise to open opportunities that governments, with their cumbersome bureaucracies and diverse geo-political interests, may see best to avoid.

It is in this light we consider the possibilities of private enterprise once again, not in the East, seeking spices such as pepper, or the West, seeking fir, molasses or slaves, but in Space, the final frontier. Konstantin Tsiokolvsky first envisaged the concept in 1903, the idea that mankind could at last fulfil its seemingly insatiable thirst for resources and wealth, in the forsaken perpetual darkness of space, where comparatively minuscule grains of sand known to us as asteroids float aimlessly, locked in the grasp of gravity, or not, abundant in live giving, economy supporting, wealth producing resources.

The concept is relatively simple. The execution slightly more complex. Asteroids are primordial materiel remaining from the creation of our solar system, highly rich in resources that are currently vital to our economy and life. It has indeed been estimated that a single Platinum Rich asteroid may contain nearly 175 times the annual global platinum output, or 1.5 times the known world reserves of platinum, a resource used in everything from catalytic converters, to fibre optic cables, a resource that according to the Chinese, who produce 90% of rare earth metals such as Platinum, will run out in 15 years.

Our ability to harvest the resources though, according to the Keck Institute for Space Studies, relies upon various technological developments possible in the next decade, that will allow us to ‘identify, capture and return’ an asteroid of around 7 meters in diameter, and 500 tonnes in weight. The development of a solar / electric propulsion system is necessary, reducing costs and thus increasing the cost effectiveness and potential success of the entire project, while the development of a campaign to discover potential asteroids, and the presence of humans in lunar orbit is also necessary. The maintenance of such a lunar station would also require considerable advances in robotic technology, lessening the reliance on human beings themselves.

The plan itself would consist of the space craft being launched into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) using a single Atlas V rocket, as are currently used. The SEP (Solar Electric Propulsion) system would then convert collected sunlight into electrical power with large solar cells, that is then fed into thrusters. These thrusters would trap electrons in a magnetic field and use these to ionize xenon gas, creating an exhaust plume of plasma, providing the craft with thrust. This would allow the craft, after two years to spiral into High Earth Orbit (HEO), from which the craft could exit with a lunar gravitational assist, putting the vehicle on an escape trajectory. The craft would then complete the heliocentric journey to the asteroid, either collecting the asteroid, as one model suggests, or extracting the materials there and transporting them back, depending on the size of the target. The SEP system would then navigate the craft back into the Earth-moon system, which would, after around 4 months, carry the craft into a stable, high lunar orbit (HLO), hence the requirement of a constant human presence around the moon. NASA’s current SEP project looks promising, with plans to demonstrate an SEP system in flight by 2020.

So far, current attempts by government space agencies have been successful in landing probes, and withdrawing small samples, though have been unable to withdraw anything significant. The United States, Japan, and the European Union have all been successful in landing probes on asteroids, and comets, such as the recent highly successful Rosetta mission conducted by the European Space Agency, though only the 2006 Stardust mission conducted by NASA, and the 2010 Hayabusa mission by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency have been successful in withdrawing material, however small, from asteroids.

Various private enterprises looking at the prospect of mining asteroids have appeared in recent years, such as Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources, both of which have received private financial backing from the likes of Richard Branson, and Google’s Eric Schmidt and Larry Page. Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources have also both benefited from a $227 million fund created by the Luxembourg government to entice companies focused on mining asteroids to locate there. Indeed, Deep Space Industries and the Luxembourg Government have produced Prospector-X and Prospector-1, both with the view of taking the necessary steps towards achieving their goal, though they remain embryonic.

Asteroids are categorised into three groups. C-Type asteroids, that are carbonaceous and volatile, being a dark black, and abundant in numbers. Scientists believe these asteroids are primordial, formed at the dawn of the solar system, and account for around 75% of the solar systems asteroid belt. These asteroids are considered a high priority target for the mining of water by private enterprises such as Planetary Resources. The water found on asteroids such as this can be broken down through hydrolysis to form hydrogen and oxygen, both of which can then be used to sustain and further a mission. X-Type asteroids, also known as M-Type asteroids are rich in metal, another target for potential mining in the near future, accounting for around 8% of the solar system’s asteroid belt. Believed to be remnants of larger asteroids formed at the beginning of the solar system, pulverised to reveal the dense, metal cores, the asteroids, M-Type asteroids are incomprehensibly rich in materials valuable to the human race, such as the asteroid 2011 UWH158. It is believed, based on current market prices that such an asteroid could produce a profit of around $1.74 billion, with the asteroid itself being valued at around $6.69 billion, provided the influx of rare materials would not depress market prices. This asteroid in particular is moving at a reasonable pace, at 5.188 km/s, thus allowing for the capture of the asteroid, while its eccentricity (path of movement) brings the asteroid close to earth on a relatively regular basis, with the next fly by being in 2017, on September the 9th. The third group of asteroids is the S-Type asteroid group. The second most common, accounting for around 17% of asteroids, and abundant mostly in the inner asteroid belt, the S-Type asteroid is composed primarily of iron and magnesium silicates. They are again attractive, containing rare metals like platinum and gold, but on average around 1/10th of the amount found on M-Type asteroids.

An example of an asteroid that would produce massive returns, is Dionysus. With an estimated value of $2.62 trillion, profits could be as high as $303.95 billion, again, relying upon current market prices and the lack of fluctuations as a result of an influx of rare metals onto the market. The composition of the asteroid is primarily nickel, iron, cobalt and water. Unfortunately, given its regular return to earth’s near abroad, September 3rd 2023, and May 19th 2059 after that, the asteroid is around 1.5 km in diameter, moving at around 8.2 km/s, making it a difficult target for any prospecting mission. It does though pose as an example of the abundance of rare materials and the wealth that could be extracted from such asteroids.

Technicality aside, asteroid mining could represent something larger than simply a business. Just as the ships of the East India Tea Company and the Dutch East India Company spread the reaches of their nations empires, asteroid mining by private enterprises could push down costs, facilitating a new space economy, and humanities further expansion into our solar system, potentially beyond in time. Many scientists, such as Stephen Hawking, and the successful technology entrepreneur Elon Musk have emphasised the importance of human expansion into space to avoid the extinction of the race. Thus, the commercialisation of space travel and exploration, as Musk and Space X are currently in the process of achieving, and Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources plan to do, could combine two very human traits to create a successful concoction, inquisitiveness and enterprise, leading to expansion into our solar system.

Indeed, the threat of exhaustion of resources is very real, with the 2010 Living Planet Report, a leading publication on the planet’s health suggesting the human race, to sustain its current rate of usage, would need 1.5 planet Earths. Along with this, as previously mentioned precious metals vital to the planets economy and further technological development are in short supply, such as platinum, silver, gold and indium, many of which are in use currently in technology such as smartphones, hybrid cars, wind turbines, computers and more. Moreover, humanities imprint on the planet has gone further than precious metals.

Climate change has increasingly become a concern of international bodies and organisations in recent years, and for good reason. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Media Release of 2013, “Today’s rate of increase (of CO2) is more than 100 times faster than the increase that occurred when the last ice age ended.” This has indeed had an effect, a dramatic rise of CO2, among other greenhouse gases have resulted in the hottest years recorded since 1880, being 2015, 2014, 2010, 2013, 2005, 1998, 2009, 2012, and so on. All such years are in the last two decades, corresponding perfectly with the dramatic rise in CO2. Such a rise in CO2 and other greenhouse gases, beyond simply raising the average temperature of the planet, also contributes to the acidification of oceans. The oceans absorb tonnes of CO2 a day, around 22 million to be exact. The effect of such CO2 on the oceans eco-system is dramatic, creating chemical reactions that affect the ability of primarily crustaceans, but numerous other species also, to survive. The effect of climate change can also be seen in the example of the bee populations, which are hugely instrumental in the natural eco-system, but also in human supply lines, facilitating pollination and thus the production of crops. Both examples will likely have large scale affects on nature’s balance.

Moreover, the heating of the planet, as highlighted by the Stern Report of 2006, and many leading scientists and anthropologists, could have devastating effects on the poorest of society, most likely situated in lower lying areas most exposed to rising sea levels and flood risk. According to the report, warming of 3 to 4 degrees will result in millions being flooded, potentially leaving up to 200 million permanently displaced due to rising sea levels, heavier floods, and drought, while also dramatically effecting global food production. Such a situation could understandably threaten the very fabric on which society sits upon, highlighting the need for the human race to expand its footprint in the coming decades, where possible.  Of course, asteroid mining does not only have the potential to facilitate further expansion into space, which in time could indeed spread our reaches, it also could create a momentum within the free market to creating a more sustainable global economy, preventing run-away climate change, a paradigm shift in capitalism itself, built upon avoiding the exhaustion of resources on earth and the destruction of the very eco-system that supports 7 billion humans, or according to the UN, 16.5 billion by 2100.

Despite this, the entire concept of asteroid mining may be flawed, thanks to simple economics. Looking for example at the commodity, Iron. In 2010, the pricing system of Iron changed due to negotiations between the ‘big-three’ of Iron Ore (Rio Tinto, Vale, BHP Billiton) and Chinese and Japanese steel manufacturers, removing the emphasis on contractual agreements between producers and buyers of Iron Ore (which accounted for 95% of the market), and thus leaving Iron Ore open to the rises and falls of demand, and thus price. Therefore, the massive flow of Iron onto the market, due to asteroid mining (which would produce unprecedented amounts of the material) would, given the law of price-elasticity of supply, push the price down dramatically. Demand would be left in the wake of supply, thus leaving an abundance of the material on the planet (or orbiting it or the moon), resulting in lower revenues as prices decline. This reduction in revenue could have serious implications for the profitability of the entire venture, potentially destroying any profitability, thus rendering the entire model useless.

Moreover, as Thomas Graedel perhaps correctly points out, the laws of supply and demand again undermine asteroid mining’s chances of ever, getting off the ground. To begin with, it would be impossible to say a resource has been exhausted, unless every corner of the planet had been scoured. Moreover, as the resource began to dwindle, the price would rise, again destroying profitability of production, thus forcing manufacturers to move onto other, even inferior methods of production, or different materials. Cryolite is a perfect example of this. Mining stopped in the 1980’s as reserves became too small to justify mining. The market simply moved onto a synthetic substitute.

Despite this, naysayers of asteroid mining may still be out of luck. It is increasingly becoming apparent that good substitutes for metals are extremely difficult to find or produce. A recent study by Graedel discovered that of 62 metals used regularly in industries throughout the planet, 12 of the metals had no substitutes at all as of yet, while none of the metals has a substitute able to cover all of their uses. Thus, if substitutes were to be used as planned, “performance is likely to decrease – computers will get slower, engines less efficient and so on.”

Moreover, the legality of the issue has recently been cleared up, with the signing of the ‘Space’ Act, or “U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (H.R. 2262)” in 2015 by US Congress. This avoids the legislation of the “Outer Space Treaty” of 1967, by making clear that “the US does not thereby assert ownership, exclusive rights or jurisdiction “of any celestial body”, which was illegal in the 1967 Treaty, while allowing the acquisition of resources in space by US citizens who do so privately. Planetary Resources president Chris Lewicki likened the bill to the Homestead Act of 1862, which distributed land to Westerly heading Americans, while Co-founder and Co-chairman Eric Anderson believes the bill is the “single greatest recognition of property rights in history. This legislation establishes the same supportive framework that created the great economies of history, and will encourage the sustained development of space.”

Thus, to conclude, Asteroid mining represents a colossal opportunity for the advancement of civilisation, the free market, technology and wealth. While the concept relies upon various technological advancements in the near future to succeed, such as AI on the moon, along with permanent bases, and solar propulsion technology, in theory it is entirely possible. What proves to be the largest issue in actual fact, is economics, with price-elasticity of supply forcing down prices and thus rendering the concept useless to the free market. This aside, asteroid mining may prove to be a necessity in years to come given current predictions of climate change, population growth and exhaustion of resources, increasing investment and public interest in the concept, and thus making it viable. Indeed, asteroid mining could signal the biggest paradigm shift in capitalism on the globe ever seen by man, contributing to the formation of a ‘global consciousness’ in regards to the health of the planet, creating a new ecologically minded form of capitalism, allowing the human race to grow into the future in a more sustainable manner.

Interesting articles used throughout the essay :

http://web.mit.edu/12.000/www/m2016/finalwebsite/solutions/asteroids.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asteroid_mining

https://deepspaceindustries.com/

http://www.planetaryresources.com/#home-intro

http://www.asterank.com/

http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2112996,00.html?hpt=hp_c3

http://www.lpi.usra.edu/sbag/documents/Final%20Report%20Asteroid%20Retrieval%20Study%20EXTERNAL%20RELEASE%20version%2020120412a_docx.pdf

http://arstechnica.co.uk/science/2016/06/luxembourg-space-mining-investment-analysis/

https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/greenchemistry/research-innovation/research-topics/endangered-elements.html

https://www.rt.com/news/310170-platinum-asteroid-2011-uw-158/

http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/newsletter/v/living_planet_report_humanity_now_needs_1.5_earths

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140314-the-worlds-scarcest-material

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/d15d7758-3bad-11df-a4c0-00144feabdc0.html#axzz4KKOGPggC

http://econ.duke.edu/uploads/media_items/thesis-zhirui-zhu.original.pdf

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