It has been said that the world's first trillionaires will be the ones who make their fortune in mining... asteroid mining! Over the years, this eventuality has been predicted by people like famed futurist Peter Diamandis, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and financial firm Goldmann Sachs.
While the concept has been the stuff of science fiction for decades, it's only in the past few years that it's come to be viewed as a serious possibility. This had led to the creation of asteroid mining firms and the passage of legislation that recognizes the right of companies to prospect, claim, and extract space-based resources.
With multiple companies now emerging for the express purpose of asteroid prospecting, exploration, and mining, it is clear that the idea is moving from the realm of science fiction into the world of science fact.
But what are the odds that anyone will create a viable asteroid-mining business? When might this become a regular part of our economy? Most important of all, is this something that we can, or even should be doing?
What are Asteroids?
In order to answer that question, a little refresher on the history of the Solar System seems in order. Roughly 4.6 billion years ago, our Sun formed from a nebula of gas and dust that experienced gravitational collapse at the center.
According to one common model, having consumed most of the material from the solar nebula, the rest of the gas and dust formed into a large, flat disk around the Sun's equator - a circumsolar accretion disk. Over the next few eons, this disk gradually condensed in place to form the planets.
Asteroids, according to our current astronomical models, are the material leftover from the formation of the Solar System. In this respect, asteroids and planets like Earth formed from the same starting materials.
On Earth, gravity pulled most of the heavier elements (like iron and nickel) into the core during the Achean Eon - roughly three and a half billion years ago. This process left the crust depleted of much of its heavy metals and heavier elements.
One model hypothesizes that, during the Heavy Bombardment Period, around 4.1 to 3.8 billion years ago, a disproportionately high amount of asteroids collided with the terrestrial planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars).
These impacts would have then re-infused the depleted crust with metals like iron, nickel, gold, cobalt, manganese, molybdenum, osmium, palladium, platinum, rhenium, rhodium, ruthenium, and tungsten. Other researchers hypothesis that bombardment was constant over a longer period of time.
Why mine asteroids?
The argument in favor of asteroid mining is simple: within the Solar System, there are countless bodies that could contain a wealth of minerals, ores, and volatile elements that are essential to Earth's economy.
Asteroids, as we saw above, are believed to be the material left over from the formation of the Solar System. As such, many asteroids are thought to have compositions that are similar to that of Earth and the other rocky planets (Mercury, Venus, and Mars).
All told, there are thought to be more than 150 million asteroids in the inner Solar System alone, and that's only the ones that measure 100 meters (330 ft) or more in diameter.
These can be divided into three main groups: C-type, S-type, and M-type, which correspond to asteroids composed, respectively, largely of clay and silicates, silicates and nickel-iron, and metals. About 75% fall into the category of C-type; S-types account for 17%; while M-type and other types make up the remainder.
These latter two groups are thought to contain abundant minerals, including gold, platinum, cobalt, zinc, tin, lead, indium, silver, copper, iron, and various rare-Earth metals. For millennia, these metals have been mined from the Earth's crust and have been essential to economic and technological progress.
In addition, there are thought to be many asteroids and comets that contain water ice and other volatiles (ammonia, methane, etc.). Water ice could be harvested to satisfy a growing demand for freshwater on Earth, for everything from drinking to irrigation and sanitation.
Volatile materials could also be used as a source of chemical propellant like hydrazine, thus facilitating further exploration and mining ventures. In fact, Planetary Resources indicates that there are roughly 2.2 trillion US tons (2 trillion metric tons) of water ice in the Solar System.
Of course, this raises the obvious question: wouldn't it be really expensive to do all this mining? Why not simply continue to rely on Earth for sources of precious metals and resources and simply learn to use them better?
To put it simply, we are running out of resources. To be clear, learning to use our resources better and more sustainably is always the most important idea. And while it is certainly true that Earth-based mining is far cheaper than going to space would be, that may not be the case indefinitely.
Aside from the fact that off-world minerals and ices would be of considerable value to Earth's economy, there is also the way that growing consumption is leading our reserves to become slowly exhausted.
In fact, according to some estimates, it is possible that our planet will run out of key elements that are needed for modern industry and food production within the next 50 to 60 years. This alone is a pretty good incentive to try and tap the seemingly inexhaustible supply of elements located off-world.
Plus, there are a lot of benefits to expanding humanity's resource base beyond Earth. Here on Earth, mining takes a considerable toll on the natural environment. In fact, depending on the methods used, it can result in erosion, sinkholes, habitat destruction, and the destruction of native animal and plant life.
There's also the dangers of toxic runoff and the contamination of soil, groundwater, and surface water, which is a danger to humans, as well as to wildlife and the natural environment. As for smelting, machining, and manufacturing, the environmental damage that results is well-documented.
Combined with power generation, these industrial processes are some of the leading contributors to air and water pollution. By shifting these burdens off-world, humanity could dramatically reduce the impact such mining has on the natural environment.
Before asteroid mining can begin, there is the necessity of "asteroid prospecting." In short, asteroids will first need to be identified, cataloged, and assessed for the value of their minerals and resources.
In 2012, NASA commissioned a project called Robotic Asteroid Prospector (RAP), intended to assess the feasibility of asteroid mining. They identified four different classes of asteroid mission that would be possible using conventional technology (or what is already in the process of being developed).
These included prospecting, mining/retrieval, processing, and transportation. Prospecting, the logical first step, involves studying and identifying asteroids that could provide good economic returns.
For a summary of how prospecting would work, there’s Roadmap to Space Settlement (3rd ed. 2018) produced by the National Space Society (NSS). As it states in Part 5: Asteroid Mining and Orbital Space Settlements:
“Telescopic observations will initially identify asteroids as Near Earth Objects (NEO’s), Earth threatening NEOs, main belt asteroids, and other orbital groupings. Initial robotic missions to NEO asteroids of commercial interest will confirm the size and composition of different types of asteroids as being rocky, metallic or carbonaceous, and identify the actual abundances of minerals on each one.”
“The probes will also estimate the structure of the asteroids, as being apparent “rubble piles” of loose fragments, or made of solid, non-fractured rock and metal. Some missions may bring back actual samples of asteroid material for analysis. All this information will assist governments in planning planetary defense against threatening NEOs and will assist mining companies to decide which asteroids to focus on.”
The next step, actually mining the asteroids, would require that a considerable amount of infrastructure be built in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and beyond to support operations.
For starters, a fleet of mining robots and haulers would need to be built, capable of extracting ore and resources from Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) and hauling them back to Earth.
The most cost-effective way to do this would likely be to build them in space, which could occur on assembly platforms where automated robots could construct and repair mining and transportation vessels.
A series of orbital platforms where vessels can dock, offload ores and other resources, and refuel, would also be needed. Once mining operations extend beyond NEOs, these platforms would need to be built further out as well.
Eventually, such platforms would probably need to be set up in orbits around the Moon, Mars, and in the Asteroid Belt, or wherever mining operations are taking place. It would also be wise to build foundries wherever the mining is taking place so that minerals can be processed in space.
The construction and maintenance of this infrastructure will involve a process known as in-situ resource utilization (ISRU). This involves using locally-harvested materials for manufacturing necessities like a propellant, components for orbiting platforms, oxygen, and even construction of spacecraft.
This would not only simplify mining operations, but it would also lead to dramatically lower costs.
Once the prospecting is finished and the infrastructure created, the process of mining can begin. There are several possible techniques that can be used, ranging from the more basic to the highly futuristic.
These include surface mining, where minerals could be removed by a spacecraft using scoops, nets, and augurs. Shaft mining is another possibility, where spacecraft equipped with drills bore into asteroids to extract the materials within.
Another idea is to capture asteroids in nets and then tow them closer to Earth. Once in Lunar or low-Earth orbit (LEO), they could be mined by smaller, extractor spacecraft, which would then transport the resources to orbiting platforms.
Steam-propulsion is another method that has been proposed for asteroid mining. In this case, robotic spacecraft would harvest the oxygen in water ice to manufacture propellant, giving them a degree of self-sufficiency and the theoretical ability to mine indefinitely.
Applying heat to asteroids and then collecting the ores or ices as they melt away is another possible method, as is chemical disassociation. At the higher end of the technology tree, there's the process of using self-replicating robots to harvest resources.
This concept was first explored in a 1980 NASA study titled "Advanced Automation for Space Missions," which suggested the creation of an automated factory on the Moon. This factory would use local resources to build a copy of itself while the more complex components would be imported from Earth.
Over the course of many years, the factories would be able to grow exponentially and would be able to extract and process mineral ores, helium-3, and other resources. This same concept could also be applied to asteroid mining.
Much like steam-powered asteroid mining, self-replicating spacecraft would use ISRU to manufacture more copies of themselves. These copies would assemble more copies, and so on.
As indicated by subsequent studies, developments in the fields of robotics, miniaturization, and nanotechnology could someday allow for a completely self-sufficient mining process. According to studies produced in 2012 and 2016, a closed supply chain using self-replicating robots could be created in just a few decades.
Solar System Bodies
As noted, there are maybe more than 150 million good-sized asteroids in the Inner Solar System alone. However, astronomers have identified several in near-Earth space and the Main Asteroid Belt that could provide abundant resources.
For starters, there's the asteroid 16 Psyche, a metallic body that exists within the Main Asteroid Belt. Given its size and composition - around 140 mi (225 km) in diameter - this body is thought by some to be the remnant core of a proto-planet that lost its outer layers.
According to radar observations, the asteroid is likely to mostly be made up of metals such as iron and nickel. More recent observations performed with the Hubble Space Telescoperevealed surface spectra that was consistent with pure iron.
However, it's estimated that this body might also contain vast quantities of precious metals (like gold and platinum). In fact, financial analysts estimated the asteroid's net worth at $700 quintillion (that's 700 followed by 18 zeroes!). In comparison, the entire global economy was estimated at $142 trillion in 2019.
NASA is currently planning a mission (also named Psyche) to explore this asteroid using an orbiter, which is scheduled to launch in 2022. This orbiter would arrive around Psyche by 2026 and would examine it with an imager, magnetometer, and a gamma-ray spectrometer to learn more about its composition and history.
There are also over 20,000 Near-Earth Asteroids and 100 short-period comets that could be harvested in the not-too-distant future. For example, there's Ryugu, a near-Earth Asteroid that is currently being surveyed by Japan's Hayabusa2spacecraft.
This body orbits Earth at an average distance of 1.1896 AU (a little more than the distance between the Earth and the Sun). This body is estimated to contain $83 billion USD in nickel, iron, cobalt, water, nitrogen, hydrogen, and ammonia.
There's also Bennu, an NEA that is currently being studied by NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft (this mission includes a sample-return to Earth). Bennu orbits Earth at an average distance of 1.1264 AU and may contain an estimated $700 million USD worth of iron, hydrogen, ammonia, and nitrogen.
Then there's Didymos, a sub-kilometer synchronous binary asteroid that is considered a potentially hazardous asteroid (PHA) - i.e., it could potentially collide with Earth at some point. It orbits Earth at an average distance of 1.6446 AU and may contain an estimated $62 billion USD in nickel, iron, and cobalt.
Topping the charts is the NEA Anteros, which could contain an estimated $5.57 trillion USD in magnesium silicate, aluminum, and iron silicate. This asteroid measures between 1.25 to 1.4 mi (2 to 2.4 km) in diameter and orbits Earth at an average distance of 1.4305 AU.
There's also 21 Lutetia, an anomalous asteroid that measures 120 × 100 km (75 × 62 miles) and orbits Earth at an average distance of 2.435 AU (more than two times the distance between the Earth and the Sun). It was the first M-type asteroid to be imaged by a spacecraft.
This imaging was done by the Rosetta probe, which visited the asteroid on July 10th, 2010. Based on the readings Rosetta obtained, this asteroid is believed to be composed of metal-rich rock.
Another M-type asteroid, 216 Kleopatra, was imaged by radar via the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. This hambone-shaped asteroid has two "moonlets" and measures 135 × 58 × 50 miles (217 × 94 × 81 km) and orbits Earth at an average distance of 2.794 AU.
Beyond the Main Belt, there are also the two families of asteroids that orbit Jupiter - the Greeks and the Trojans. In 2006, the Keck Observatory announced that 617 Patroclus and other Trojan asteroids are likely extinct comets that consist largely of water ice.
In addition, Jupiter-family comets, and maybe even near-Earth asteroids that are extinct comets could also provide water.
There are no shortages of people who want to see asteroid mining become a reality. Not the least of these are futurists and space exploration advocates, as well as industrialists and venture capitalists.
In 2008, he predicted that asteroid mining was the way of the future, a claim he expanded in his 2015 book Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World.
Another advocate is Scott Moore, the CEO of the Toronto-based company, Euro Sun Mining. Recently, he said the following about the future of the mining industry:
“The ‘Titans of Gold’ now control hundreds of the best-producing properties around the world, but the 4-5 million ounces of gold they bring to the market every year pales in comparison to the conquests available in space.”
Dr. Phil Metzger, who is currently a planetary scientist at the University of Central Florida, spent 30 years working for NASA. During that time, he co-founded a lab to develop the technology for space mining and interplanetary living - known as Swamp Works. As he put it:
“The solar system can support a billion times greater industry than we have on Earth. When you go to vastly larger scales of civilization, beyond the scale that a planet can support, then the types of things that civilization can do are incomprehensible to us … We would be able to promote healthy societies all over the world at the same time that we would be reducing the environmental burden on the Earth.”
"Energy is limited here. Within just a few hundred years, you will have to cover all of the landmass of Earth in solar cells. So what are you going to do? Well, what I think you’re going to do is you’re going to move out in space … all of our heavy industry will be moved off-planet and Earth will be zoned residential and light industrial”.
You also have organizations like the B612 Foundation, a California-based non-profit made up of scientists, former astronauts, and engineers from the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Stanford University, NASA, and the aerospace industry.
The foundation was founded in 2002 for the purpose of advancing planetary science and planetary defense against asteroids and other near-Earth objects (NEOs). Their proposed small telescopes would rely on synthetic tracking to study potentially-hazardous asteroids, which will then be added to the catalog in their Asteroid Decision Analysis and Mapping (ADAM) project.
In addition to advancing the science of planetary protection, this method could also help advance asteroid prospecting in the near future.
In 2015, US President Barack Obama signed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA, or H.R. 2262) into law. The stated purpose of this Act was:
"To facilitate a pro-growth environment for the developing commercial space industry by encouraging private sector investment and creating more stable and predictable regulatory condition."
In essence, the Act established a precedent whereby US companies and private citizens were henceforth allowed to own and sell resources that they extracted from asteroids and other astronomical bodies (like the Moon, Mars, and beyond).
On May 24th, 2018, the Trump administration signed Space Directive-2, and executive order that sought to simplify the regulatory framework to "promote economic growth; minimize uncertainty for taxpayers, investors, and private industry... and encourage American leadership in space commerce."
This was followed by another executive order titled "Executive Order on Encouraging International Support for the Recovery and Use of Space Resources," which was passed on April 6th, 2020. Among its more salient articles was the declarationn that:
"Americans should have the right to engage in commercial exploration, recovery, and use of resources in outer space, consistent with applicable law. Outer space is a legally and physically unique domain of human activity, and the United States does not view it as a global commons. Accordingly, it shall be the policy of the United States to encourage international support for the public and private recovery and use of resources in outer space, consistent with applicable law."
This order ended decades of legal ambiguities arising from international treaties by formally recognizing the right of private American interests to lay claim to resources mined or harvested in outer space.
Who's Up for the Challenge?
There's also no shortage of companies and ventures working towards making asteroid mining a part of Earth's economy. Most were founded within the past few years by a combination of advocates and industrialists, many of whom are already invested in commercial aerospace.
One of the first to emerge was Planetary Resources, formerly known as Arkyd Astronautics. This company was founded in January 2009 by futurist Peter Diamandis, entrepreneur and aerospace engineer Eric Anderson, and former NASA engineer Chris Lewicki.
In 2012, the company was renamed to Planetary Resources and announced that it had new backers, including Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, filmmaker James Cameron, former Microsoft Charles Simonyi, and Ross Perot Jr. (son of the former presidential candidate).
By 2016, the company had raised $50 million in seed capital, $21 million of which came from big-name investors like Google's Eric Schmidt and James Cameron.
The company launched two test satellites to orbit. The first was technology demonstrator Arkyd 3 Reflight (A3R), which was sent to the ISS in April of 2015 and deployed from there by July 16th, 2015. Arkyd 6, their second demonstrator satellite, was successfully launched into orbit on Jan. 11th, 2018.
In October of 2018, owing to financial troubles, the company assets were purchased by the blockchain software technology company ConsenSys. By May/June of 2020, ConsenSys made all of Planetary's Resources intellectual property public domain and actioned off all of its remaining hardware assets.
Deep Space Industries:
Deep Space Industries (DSI) was founded in 2013 by a group of entrepreneurs and scientists that included entrepreneurs and investors Rick N. Tumlinson and David Gump. They were joined by John C. Mankins, a former NASA engineer, and Bryan Versteeg - a conceptual artist and architect.
Between 2013 and 2018, the company raised $3.5 million, which was supplemented by a few government contracts. However, they still managed to research a series of cost-cutting space technologies and developed a conceptual framework for a fleet of spacecraft.
On Jan. 1st 2019, the company was acquired by Bradford Space, Inc., a multinational aerospace corporation dedicated to deep space exploration, water-based propulsion, space station facilities, and attitude control systems.
Trans Astronautica Corporation:
Also known as TransAstra, this Houston-based company was founded in 2015 with the purpose of "building the “transcontinental railroad of space” to open the solar system to humanity."
In April of 2019, the company received Phase III development funding from NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program for their Mini Bee concept. This small, robotic miner is essentially demonstration technology for the eventual creation of a family of flight systems known as Asteroid Provided In-situ Supplies (Apis).
These range from the experimental Mini Bee (which weighs 550 lbs/250 kg) to the larger Honey Bee and Queen Bee – which would be capable of capturing asteroids measuring 33 and 130 ft (10 and 40 m) in diameter.
The Mini Bee utilizes a series of innovative technologies like optical mining and resource harvesting method (aka. laser mining), solar reflectors, and an asteroid containment system similar to the one that was proposed for NASA’s now-canceled Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).
As with other Arpis concepts, the Mini Bee design calls for a water-based Omnivore solar thermal thruster to provide propulsion. Like the WINE engine, this technology relies on water ice and other volatile compounds harvested from asteroids as a supply of propellant.
Respecting the 'Wilderness'
In a recent paper titled “How much of the Solar System should we leave as Wilderness?" Dr. Martin Elvis and Dr. Tony Milligan examined how overpopulation and climate changes are humanity’s most pressing existential threats and the main driver behind ideas like asteroid mining.
Taking into account the past few centuries of human history, the pair recommends that limits be established now before exponential growth strips our solar system of its resources.
Since the Industrial Revolution began in earnest in the 18th century, natural resource exploitation and population have grown in tandem. In fact, between the years 1800 and 2000, the global population multiplied six times over, going from 1 billion to 6 billion.
This represented the largest population explosion in history, but the rate of increase continued to accelerate for some time. Where it took 120 years for Earth’s population to go from 1 to 2 billion (between 1800 and 1920), it took just 33 years to reach 3 billion (by 1960).
By 1975, Earth's population reached 4 billion; by 1987 and 1999, it had reached 5 and 6 billion, respectively. By 2011, the world's population reached 7 billion, and by 2017, an additional 500 million people were added. Notice the pattern? That's right, and the rate is continuing to increase, although the latest estimates suggest that world population growth will stop in around 2100, and then begin to decline.
The same holds true for consumption. Looking at energy usage alone, humanity went from a global consumption of about 5650 terawatt-hours (TWh) in 1800 to over 150,000 TWh in 2017.
Essentially, while our population increased sevenfold, energy consumption increased thirtyfold. Here we see yet another exponential trend, where resource consumption has grown in a way that vastly exceeds population growth.
What's more, it is estimated that Earth’s population will reach 9.7 billion by 2050 and could peak at nearly 11 billion by 2100. This will be happening at a time when climate change will be causing the very systems we depend upon to feed, house, clothe, and sustain ourselves to undergo drastic shifts.
So, while looking off-world for new resources may be necessary to our survival, it could also simply shift the burden of resource dependency onto a larger environment.
It might, therefore, be a good idea to take all claims of "inexhaustible resources" with a grain of salt, and start setting aside a large portion of the Solar System as 'off-limits' to commercial development.
Can/Should We Do It?
In addition to laying out the necessary steps that would need to be taken, NASA's RAP report also offered some interesting conclusions regarding the viability of certain types of mining. When it comes to the economic feasibility of the entire enterprise, the authors concluded:
"There is no economically viable scenario we could identify that depends solely upon returning asteroid resources to LEO or the surface of the Earth. To be economically feasible, asteroid mining will depend predominantly upon customers in-space who are part of the space industrial economy and infrastructure."
In short, until the day that LEO and deep-space are able to be commercialized, it doesn't make sense to look off-world for essential resources that can be more cheaply harvested at home. However, the report also stipulates that in the long-run, harvesting minerals and ices from asteroids makes good economic sense.
For instance, not only would the creation of space infrastructure benefit from the mining of elements like platinum, aluminum, iron, nickel, and manganese, it would also be cheaper for habitats and facilities in space to get their water from local asteroids rather than Earth:
"A first order calculation of the cost of returning water from a Near Earth Asteroid to a staging base at EML1 yields a cost of $5,205 per kilogram, which compares quite favorably to the $12,295 cost of delivering water there from the Earth using a Falcon Heavy. Once all of the initial costs of establishing the asteroid mining enterprise have been retired, and the cost of the returned water can be based solely on the operations cost of asteroid mining then that cost could fall to $1,733 per kilogram. Several techniques exist that could reduce these costs by a factor of two or more."
These recommendations address another important issue, which is the impact that the influx of all these resources would have on Earth's economy. By tapping resources that are far more abundant than what exists at home, humanity will be able to transcend its current economic models.
For as long as human beings have conducted trade and businesses, scarcity has been a crucial element. By having abundant sources of necessary resources, humanity could effectively become a post-scarcity species. At the same time, if supply should suddenly exceed demand, then the value of these resources will drop considerably, and all the wealth that is measured using them will also suffer.
As such, it is much more likely that asteroid mining - rather than being a savior to Earth's economy - will be one of the means through which humanity expands into space. Saving planet Earth could very well happen as a result, but only in the long run.
In the meantime, we still need to come up with solutions to the problems of overpopulation, hunger, resource depletion, and climate change - ones that emphasize sustainability and green technologies.
However, between growing demand, the danger posed by climate change, and the possible need to look off-world for human survival, asteroid mining may be an inevitability. In other words, it's not a question of "can we" or "should we," but "when will we?"
In this respect, asteroid mining could parallel efforts in human space exploration and off-world settlement. In a few centuries, it would not be farfetched that human settlements and human industry will reach from the inner Solar System all the way to the Kuiper Belt.
Intrinsic to that will be a vast infrastructure dedicated to harvesting everything from metals and ices to hydrogen and helium-3 from rocks, moons, and planetary bodies.