Asteroid Mining: Booming 21st Century Gold Rush?
There are now two companies that want to mine asteroids for materials -- but how do they intend to do so, and where could this all lead?
The reaction was a curious mixture of excitement, trepidation, and incredulity. Within hours, the space community on Twitter and other social media was on fire with news reports, discussions, and debates. Now, they have competition too, with Deep Space Industries (DSI) making their own announcement last month. A sign, perhaps, of the kind of world we now live in. But how feasible are their plans, and what exactly are the implications of asteroid mining as a new industry?
It's still barely the start of the 21st century, and already the private space industry is beginning to take form. SpaceX has launched the world's first privately developed space vehicle, the Dragon, to dock with the International Space Station (ISS). Meanwhile, other private companies are developing spacecraft, and even toying with plans to send people to Mars. Many of these ideas are still barely past their inception, but they're being taken seriously by many.
The two asteroid mining companies, DSI and Planetary Resources, have the same basic goal, but their intended methods are somewhat different. Planetary Resources are currently developing small, low-cost "LEO" telescopes to survey asteroids on demand, from Earth orbit. They later plan to develop two larger types of prospecting craft. The "Interceptor" will act as a longer range prospector, being able to intercept any asteroids that come within 10-30 times the Earth-moon orbit (something which occurs quite frequently). Finally, the "Rendezvous Prospector" would be able to travel halfway across the inner solar system to gather detailed information about asteroids - including size, shape, rotation, and density. While it's clear that they plan to develop craft to return samples and eventually return whole asteroids, they haven't yet made any further details public.
DSI, on the other hand, are taking a more aggressive approach. They currently have two planned spacecraft. The "Firefly", constructed from low cost materials, will prospect for suitable asteroids to mine. The larger "Dragonfly" craft will then go and start collecting asteroid material. They appear to have numerous more ambitious concept sketches for future craft, but again they haven't released many details yet.
As well as metal, both companies intend to harvest hydrogen and oxygen to effectively create orbital fuel stations for other spacecraft. Planetary Resources have the long term goal of being able to alter the orbital trajectories of asteroids, and return entire asteroids into lunar orbit for mining. Meanwhile, DSI's plans involve a 3D printer, dubbed the "Microgravity Foundry", which will be able to create high quality metal components in orbit. Between them, we could be looking at the beginnings of true orbital industry.
Private companies like SpaceX have been bolstered by heavy investment from NASA. It's notable, though, that many of the goals of the asteroid mining companies are also in line with NASA's existing science and exploration objectives. Rock samples taken from asteroids could prove extremely useful in scientific research; DSI are hoping to sell asteroid material to researchers as well as collectors.
Further science opportunities lie in the fact that asteroid miners will have to chart and explore the inner solar system in their hunt for suitable asteroids, which may add to data gathered by scientific surveys like PanSTARRS. What's more, the ability to actually alter the orbits of asteroids brings with it the potential to prevent impending asteroid collisions - something that is on the back of many peoples' minds after various Hollywood movies and all of that worrying over Apophis.
So the question is: where might this all lead?
Asteroid mining (or something similar) is already likely to become a necessity at some point in the future, as human technology continues to use up Earth's resources. Meanwhile, asteroids are plentiful and full of usable metals and other resources, meaning that any successful asteroid mining venture could stand to become very wealthy. Couple this with the fact that both orbital fuel depots and construction facilities could significantly reduce the difficulty inherent in solar system exploration. These companies are already doing their utmost to reduce the cost of space travel, and eventually the cost could be reduced even further.
The end result could be that harvesting resources from asteroids may not only boost the economy here on Earth, but could help drive human exploration of the solar system.
Reduced costs, orbital manufacturing, and availability of materials could facilitate colonization of other parts of the solar system, and the end of this century may even see outposts not unlike the ISS in other parts of the solar system. If these companies can prove themselves and be successful, it's possible that others will follow. The end of this century may even see an 'asteroid rush' not dislike the gold rushes of the 19th century. Some people have already considered whether asteroid mining may ultimately pave the way for interstellar travel. But perhaps we're getting ahead of ourselves here.
The hard truth is that, while it has overwhelming potential, asteroid mining is going to be fraught with difficulties and obstacles. To date, only one space probe has ever successfully returned a sample of asteroid material. Others have tried and failed. Much of the technology needed by both DSI and Planetary Resources doesn't exist yet - it's still being developed. Some of it is little more than plans and engineering calculations. Investment here is risky, and the investors know this.
For these companies, getting financial support for these blue skies projects is not going to be an easy matter. Even while these companies are doing everything they can to shave the cost of spaceflight, it will still cost millions and millions before a single asteroid will be mined. Any return on investment may take decades, and that's only if the asteroid mining venture is successful. It will be challenging and risky, and while there's the possibility of great gain there will likely be losses too. But then, perhaps that kind of pioneering spirit is the very essence of what humanity does best.
Top – Concept sketch of an asteroid harvester. Credit: Deep Space Industries.
Middle – 253 Mathilde, a typical large main belt asteroid. Credit: NASA.
Bottom – Visual representation of known asteroids in the inner solar system. Asteroids with near-Earth orbits are shown in red. Credit: Scott Manley/Armagh Observatory.