Mining Asteroids: Not Mankind's Silver Bullet

There are gazillions of dollars of precious metals locked inside asteroids, but Tuesday's much-hyped announcement to plunder near-Earth asteroids is fanciful at best.

Now that Google's top brass, a rich Hollywood director, an astronaut and space entrepreneur are on board, it must mean that asteroid mining is just around the corner! Untold riches are about to flood the streets. Hell, we'll soon be able to pave those streets in platinum!

Although Tuesday's exciting announcement that the asteroid mining start-up Planetary Resources has attracted some very high-profile investors and advisers, it's probably a good idea to take a step back and understand why we don't already have refineries attached to near-Earth asteroids.

At face value, asteroid mining seems to make a whole world of sense. Ahead of today's much-hyped announcement, Peter Diamandis, a long-time space entrepreneur, space tourist and founder of the X PRIZE, pointed out that a fairly small asteroid - 30 meters wide, say - could contain platinum worth $25 billion to $50 billion.

"Many of the scarce metals and minerals on Earth are in near-infinite quantities in space. As access to these materials increases, not only will the cost of everything from microelectronics to energy storage be reduced, but new applications for these abundant elements will result in important and novel applications," he said in the Planetary Resources press release.

Forget the California Gold Rush of the 19th century, there's an unlimited supply of gold in the solar system. What's more, asteroids have very weak gravitational fields, so we could send spaceships to build a refineries on these interplanetary interlopers and send back chunks of refined minerals very cheaply - we wouldn't have to worry about exorbitant launch costs as there's no gravitational well to launch out of. As you may have guessed, this is why everyone wants to mine asteroids and not the moon or Mars.

Platinum and gold to one side, asteroids are thought to contain untold riches held in other precious metals and rare minerals - asteroids, after all, are built from the same "stuff" as Earth (albeit in varying quantities) as they were formed in the same proto-planetary disk of material when the sun was a baby. It's reasonable to say that if we have the technology and if we can establish a mining outfit in space, the first company to do so could have access to resources that would make today's oil companies drool.

But Planetary Resources isn't just going to build the world's first refinery tomorrow. Like the majority of commercial space companies, they are going to take an incremental approach to the endeavor, building an observation satellite first and then developing new technologies for robotic probes that could autonomously prospect nearby asteroid candidates. They hope to make some profit along the way to develop the next technology needed to reach their ultimate goal.

It is known that asteroids contain water, so the first operation carried out on asteroids probably wouldn't be mining per se, it'll be extracting water and refining it for spaceship fuel. One of the costliest things to launch into space is propellant for in-space maneuvers; if there's a supply of fuel already floating in orbital "fuel stops," cheap and sustainable spaceflight may be possible - the spin-off technology potential seems more exciting than asteroid mining itself.

"Water is perhaps the most valuable resource in space," said Eric Anderson, co-founder of Planetary Resources. "Accessing a water-rich asteroid will greatly enable the large-scale exploration of the solar system. In addition to supporting life, water will also be separated into oxygen and hydrogen for breathable air and rocket propellant."

As discussed in previous articles about finding ways to invigorate the development of a sustainable low-Earth orbit infrastructure, we need an ultimate goal. If the goal is making money from asteroid mining, it would be desirable to have a low-cost means of launching equipment into space. This would invigorate competition between private rocket companies, in turn spurring a new era of launch technology development. Ideally.

Science will also be done - in the pursuit of prospecting asteroids, incredible insights to these primordial chunks of space rock will be acquired. Docking with, and perhaps even controlling the trajectory of asteroids would be beneficial to any asteroid mining outfit - all of a sudden we are developing an asteroid impact mitigation infrastructure, all in the pursuit of the ultimate goal of making money.

In the pursuit of profit, very real technological advancements may be possible. For example, Elon Musk, billionaire entrepreneur and SpaceX founder, has built a rocket company from the ground up. Granted, he's done it with a lot of help from NASA and government contracts, but he is seeing a future profit in launching satellites and carrying out space station resupply runs.

Recently, Musk also announced plans for a commercial route in getting humanity to Mars. Like mining asteroids, getting to Mars is a long-term, lofty goal; so long as there is money to be made from developing the technology to reach that goal, these private space enterprises have a fighting chance of getting there.

So Planetary Resources' premise isn't unreasonable, but there are many cons to these few pros.

We Don't Have the Tech

The biggest hurdle facing any hopeful space mining company is that we don't have the ability to refine precious metals and rare minerals in a microgravity environment. Every asteroid mining plan in the past has come with a huge caveat: we don't have the technology. This may not seem like a huge hurdle - especially considering the amazing feats of human ingenuity in space technology over the past six decades - for investors who actually want to see a return on their investment, it's probably a deal breaker.

Perhaps it's not desirable to refine asteroids in situ - might it make sense to capture asteroids in Earth orbit and use them as a near-Earth smorgasbord of resources, cutting off chunks as needed? In this case, I'm highly skeptical that there would be any international agreement about steering potential city-killer asteroids near Earth. That's one Planetary Health and Safety meeting I'd love to sit in on.

Also, Planetary Resources specifically single out near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) as their target. "Of the approximately 9,000 known NEAs, there are more than 1,500 that are energetically as easy to reach as the Moon," says the press release. This may be true, but NEAs don't hang around. They orbit the sun just like the Earth. So is the plan to jump on board, set up a mining platform and then watch billions of dollars of equipment zoom off into deep space until it comes back a year (or ten, or a hundred years) in the future? Or are we going to slow the small NEAs sufficiently so they can be parked in Earth orbit? Once again, messing with an asteroid's trajectory is a huge technological unknown.

During the announcement, Diamandis kept referring to "risk tolerant investors" investing their "smart money" in the biggest opportunity ever. He also emphasized that Planetary Resources' goals would enrich humanity as a whole and that their goals were in alignment with NASA's aims to push humanity into space. Bold words for sure, but, again, there are problems with this vision.

Countering the "Gee Whiz" factor, as my cohort and business/space analyst Greg Fish would put it, there's a thick forest of formidable red tape an asteroid mining company would have to wade through.

For starters, mining and refining materials on Earth is a costly and risky endeavor. Can you imagine trying to insure an extraterrestrial mining outfit? If the refinery is totally automated, at least you don't have to worry about workers' benefits, health and safety. But humanity would need to have mastered our solar system to an incredible degree to assure the safety of in-space assets. Losing a multi-billion dollar robotic mining operation wouldn't look so good at the end of the next quarter's budget report.

But the biggest selling point for asteroid mining is, of course, all the gazillions of dollars we stand to make from sucking precious metals like platinum from asteroids. As Diamandis kept emphasizing, by exploiting the solar system we would enrich the entire planet with huge wealth. How a profit-making industry became a world-wide charity, I'm not too sure. Last time I checked, BP wasn't busy enriching the world with the profits from their oil drilling.

And, as Fish has pointed out countless times, flooding the world's economy with much-fabled trillions of dollars-worth of "cheap" platinum and other rare minerals could kill global markets. On the basis of supply and demand, the price of platinum group metals could collapse as supply routes from asteroids become common.

However, to set up and maintain an asteroid mining industry, it would be unimaginatively expensive - perhaps the price of asteroid material would be naturally high due to the sheer risk and overheads required. In short, we have no idea about how an influx of asteroid resources could impact the world. But to say it would benefit mankind as a whole? That's as speculative as predicting the world's economy in 50 years time.

In short, the only thing that seems unique about today's announcement is that a group of very well respected and smart entrepreneurs and billionaires have clubbed together and thought asteroid mining seemed cool.

Sadly, the plan is deliberately vague (who knows how many technological iterative steps are needed before a sustainable mining operation can begin anyway?), there is no realistic timescale and as far as I can tell, there's been only limited analysis as to how much investment will be needed.

Regardless of how "risk tolerant" Google's investment may be, the corporation certainly isn't stupid with their investments. Seed money may be very forthcoming in the early stages (and that's all that may be needed if Planetary Resources turns rapidly into a profit making space technology company), but in the long term, hinging this enterprise on making vast wads of imaginary cash from mining asteroids will leave any investor looking for a way out.

While I'm personally very excited to hear about any enterprise that can drive innovation in space and invigorate private investment into building a sustainable space infrastructure, I don't believe that getting all hot and heavy over mining asteroids is the way to do it. Although I hope asteroid mining is an industry of the future, we'll have to wait some time before it becomes a realistic proposition. Setting unachievable goals for an undefined future - regardless of the amazing technological advances this will inevitably generate - leaves the plan open to criticism and ultimately rapid loss of interest.

I think I'll wait until one of the big oil companies starts to launch rockets before I go getting too excited about yet another plan to pillage asteroids.

Image: The double asteroid 90 Antiope - what riches are inside? Credit: ESO, edit by Ian O'Neill The opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the official views of Discovery Communications.