[meteorite-list] Asteroid Mining: Key to the Space Economy

From: Ron Baalke <baalke_at_meteoritecentral.com>
Date: Thu Feb 9 16:30:22 2006
Message-ID: <200602092128.k19LSQ615248_at_zagami.jpl.nasa.gov>


Asteroid Mining: Key to the Space Economy
By Mark Sonter
National Space Society
09 February 2006

The Near Earth Asteroids offer both threat and promise. They present the
threat of planetary impact with regional or global disaster. And they
also offer the promise of resources to support humanity's long-term
prosperity on Earth, and our movement into space and the solar system.

The technologies needed to return asteroidal resources to Earth Orbit
(and thus catalyze our colonization of space) will also enable the
deflection of at least some of the impact-threat objects.

We should develop these technologies, with all due speed!

Development and operation of future in-orbit infrastructure (for
example, orbital hotels, satellite solar power stations, earth-moon
transport node satellites, zero-g manufacturing facilities) will require
large masses of materials for construction, shielding, and ballast; and
also large quantities of propellant for station-keeping and orbit-change
maneuvers, and for fuelling craft departing for lunar or interplanetary

Spectroscopic studies suggest, and 'ground-truth' chemical assays of
meteorites confirm, that a wide range of resources are present in
asteroids and comets, including nickel-iron metal, silicate minerals,
semiconductor and platinum group metals, water, bituminous hydrocarbons,
and trapped or frozen gases including carbon dioxide and ammonia.

As one startling pointer to the unexpected riches in asteroids, many
stony and stony-iron meteorites contain Platinum Group Metals at grades
of up to 100 ppm (or 100 grams per ton). Operating open pit platinum
and gold mines in South Africa and elsewhere mine ores of grade 5 to 10
ppm, so grades of 10 to 20 times higher would be regarded as spectacular
if available in quantity, on Earth.

Water is an obvious first, and key, potential product from asteroid
mines, as it could be used for return trip propulsion via steam rocket.

About 10% of Near-Earth Asteroids are energetically more accessible
(easier to get to) than the Moon (i.e. under 6 km/s from LEO), and a
substantial minority of these have return-to-Earth transfer orbit
injection delta-v's of only 1 to 2 km/s.

Return of resources from some of these NEAs to low or high earth orbit
may therefore be competitive versus earth-sourced supplies.

Our knowledge of asteroids and comets has expanded dramatically in the
last ten years, with images and spectra of asteroids and comets from
flybys, rendezvous, and impacts (for example asteroids Gaspra, Ida,
Mathilde, the vast image collection from Eros, Itokawa, and others;
comets Halley, Borrelly, Tempel-1, and Wild-2. And radar images of
asteroids Toutatis, Castalia, Geographos, Kleopatra, Golevka and
other... These images show extraordinary variations in structure,
strength, porosity, surface features.

The total number of identified NEAs has increased from about 300 to more
than 3,000 in the period 1995 to 2005.

The most accessible group of NEAs for resource recovery is a subset of
the Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs). These are bodies (about 770
now discovered) which approach to within 7.5 million km of earth orbit.
The smaller subset of those with orbits which are earth-orbit-grazing
give intermittently very low delta-v return opportunities (that is it is
easy velocity wise to return to Earth).

These are also the bodies which humanity should want to learn about in
terms of surface properties and strength so as to plan deflection
missions, in case we should ever find one on a collision course with us.

Professor John Lewis has pointed out (in Mining the Sky) that the
resources of the solar system (the most accessible of which being those
in the NEAs) can permanently support in first-world comfort some
quadrillion people. In other words, the resources of the solar system
are essentially infinite? And they are there for us to use, to invest
consciousness into the universe, no less. It's time for humankind to
come out of its shell, and begin to grow!!

So both for species protection and for the expansion of humanity into
the solar system, we need to characterize these objects and learn how to
mine and manage them.

Once we learn how to work on, handle, and modify the orbits of small
near-earth objects, we will have achieved, as a species, both the
capability to access the vast resources of the asteroids, and also the
capability to protect our planet from identified collision threats.

Since the competing source of raw materials is "delivery by launch from
Earth," which imposes a launch cost per kilogram presently above $10,000
per kg, this same figure represents the upper bound of what recovered
asteroidal material would be presently worth in low earth orbit.

Future large scale economic activity in orbit is unlikely to develop
however until launch cost drops to something in the range $500 to $1,000
per kilogram to LEO. At that point, any demand for material in orbit
which can be satisfied at equal or lower cost by resources recovered
from asteroids, will confer on these asteroidal resources an equivalent
value as ore in true mining engineering terms, i.e., that which can be
mined, have valuable product recovered from it, to be sold for a
profit. Now, $500,000 per ton product is extraordinarily valuable, and
is certainly worth chasing!

Note that the asteroidal materials we are talking about are, simply,
water, nickel-iron metal, hydrocarbons, and silicate rock. Purified,
and made available in low earth orbit, they will be worth something like
$500,000 per ton, by virtue of having avoided terrestrial gravity's
"launch cost levy."

These are values up there with optical glass, doped semiconductors,
specialty isotopes for research or medicine, diamonds, some
pharmaceuticals, illicit drugs. On the mining scene, the only metal
which has ever been so valuable was radium, which in the 1920's reached
the fabulous value of $200,000 per gram!

Platinum Group Metals (which are present in metallic and silicate
asteroids, as proved by the "ground truth" of meteorite finds) have a
value presently in the order of $1,000 per ounce or $30 per gram.
Vastly expanded use in catalysts and for fuel cells will enhance their
value, and PGM recovery from asteroid impact sites on the Moon is the
basis of Dennis Wingo's book, "Moonrush."

When will we see asteroid mining start? Well, it will only become
viable once the human-presence commercial in-orbit economy takes off.
Only then will there be a market. And that can only happen after NASA
ceases acting as a near-monopolist launch provider and thwarter of
competition, and reverts to being a customer instead.

A developing in-space economy will build the technical capability to
access NEAs, almost automatically. And regardless of the legal
arguments about mineral claims in outer space, once the first resource
recovery mission is successful, what's the bets on a surge in interest
similar to the dotcom-boom and biotech-boom?

The first successful venturers will develop immense proprietary
knowledge, and make a mint. And some as-yet unidentified (but almost
certainly already discovered) NEAs will be the company-making mines of
the 21st century.

Mark Sonter is an independent scientific consultant working in the
Australian mining and metallurgical industries, providing advice on
radiation protection, industrial hygiene, safety, and remediation of
radioactively contaminated sites. His career includes 2 years as a high
school science teacher, 6 years as a University Physics lecturer in
Papua New Guinea, postgraduate studies in medical physics, and 28 years
in uranium mining radiation safety management, including 5 years as
Corporate Safety Manager for a major mining corporation. Mark was a
visiting scholar at U of Arizona in 1995, and during 1995-97 wrote a
research thesis on the Technical and Economic Feasibility of Mining the
Near-Earth Asteroids. He was granted funding by the Foundation for
International Non-governmental Development of Space (FINDS) to develop
concepts for mining the near-Earth asteroids. He can be reached at

NOTE: The views of this article are the author's and do not reflect the
policies of the National Space Society.
Received on Thu 09 Feb 2006 04:28:26 PM PST

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