The economic viability of asteroid mining
Even without any paydirt, incidental tech will still earn big Metal Tech News - November 1, 2023
Last updated 11/25/2023 at 8:53am
Arguments against the expense and impracticality of space exploration have been ongoing since before the Apollo missions ever got off the ground. In fact, NASA's budget has hovered between a minute 1% and 0.4% of the total federal budget since the 1970s. Missions fail, lose funding, or fall out of favor between presidencies.
But there is one assurance that private investors can take to the bank-innovation in the face of space exploration always pays.
"You have to innovate, an engineer comes out with a new patent to take you to a place – intellectually, physically – that has never been reached before, those become the engines of tomorrow's economy," said Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium. "The first trillionaire there will ever be is the person who exploits the natural resources on asteroids."
Not just shuttles and rovers
Today, the topic of space exploration covers a wide range of private industries and investment opportunities, from shuttle delivery systems and a host of specialized satellites to the more exclusive space tourism and asteroid prospecting. Even if we never hit pay dirt on an asteroid, incidental tech that comes from the attempt invariably changes the world.
Technological advancements rooted in the space program constantly find their way into practical applications that affect nearly every aspect of our lives and have created outstanding business opportunities for private companies partnering up with space agencies.
The obvious space-pioneered achievements are common knowledge – solar cells are one of the key green energy sources today, satellites allow for worldwide communications, handy driving directions via GPS, and increasingly detailed global imaging as well as glimpsing the stars.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) invented a small, low-power, high-quality imaging system in the 1990s to take photos from space that evolved into today's digital and cellphone cameras. The laptop, wireless headphones, and computer mouse have similar roots.
Spacesuits gave us polymers that make up the advanced cooling and flame-retardant suits and masks worn by firemen. CAT scans and radiography have ancestry in digital signal technology originally used to recreate images of the moon. Shock absorbers designed to protect equipment during launches are fortifying bridges and buildings in locations prone to earthquakes. Goodyear's long-lasting radial tires came from the Viking Lander's parachute shrouds.
And from nursing shoes to Nikes, the first sports shoe has its roots in the shock-absorbent insulation of astronaut helmets. Thank NASA for your next trip to the gym, as modern stationary workout equipment was born in space.
Why mine in space?
"Space mining and traditional mining are similarly at a crossroads. Without proper and accurate modelling and simulation, both industries will fail to attract the investment they need to sustain and grow," wrote Dr. Adriana Marais, director of the Foundation for Space Development Africa. "But by bringing together the science and business of mining through the use of technology, the mining industry can continue to innovate and support humanity's greatest ambitions."
Some companies have begun to consider the oceans as a preferable mineral resource – the seafloor has been found to harbor superior amounts of valuable metals. But aside from incurring costs associated with deep-sea operations, which are surprisingly similar to space's extreme environments, the oceans have as many anti-mining defenders as on land.
That has led to investors contemplating the costs and dividends associated with harvesting asteroids.
The International Council of Mining and Metals has established best practices for the environmental performance of mines here on Earth, including water stewardship, tailings management, pollution prevention, reduced energy use, and emissions. Overall, this suggests that environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors are the more likely sources of risk to terrestrial metal supply over actual depletion.
As the costs of rocket launches rapidly decline, visionaries are looking to extraterrestrial sources of the metals we need and the potential trillionaire status foreseen by famed astrophysicist Tyson.
What economists say
Even back in 2017, the investment bank Goldman Sachs was bullish on asteroid mining, reassuring its clients in a report that "The psychological barrier to mining asteroids is high, the actual financial and technological barriers are far lower." With prices quoted along the same lines as developing mines on Earth.
Two teams of specialists have recently conducted encouraging economic assessments of mining asteroids, with both groups' papers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.
Those estimates suggest that in as little as 30-40 years, harvesting material from asteroids as both in-situ and terrestrial resources could become not only profitable but also the predominant means of mining precious metals as demand rises and the cost of working in space declines.
The first team, with economists from the University of Tor Rome Vergata, the University of Maryland and Middlebury College, looked at asteroid mining as the next logical step in monetizing space exploration. Their paper noted that space research and technologies have often stimulated "economic spillover" – advancement and profits for companies who capitalized on them.
The second team from the Colorado School of Mines and the International Monetary Fund focused on the challenges that would have to be surmounted to capitalize on assets retrieved from asteroids.
This paper focused on whole-picture costs from research and development through to designing and building the equipment and robotics sent out and payloads they'd bring back.
Our technical ability to achieve asteroid mining is fast approaching, while understanding the trade-offs between terrestrial mining at higher ESG costs against extracting higher-quality deposits from asteroids is becoming more plausible each year.
Leading the charge
There are several well-supported companies making headlines with specialized resource extraction technologies, each developing missions to nearby asteroids as well as facilitating technological solutions for industries closer to home.
TransAstra doubles as an intellectual property developer, selecting collaborative projects that forward all aspects of its own asteroid mining technology while satisfying existing market needs like orbital logistics and debris traffic management.
They've also developed the Sutter Turnkey Observatory (TKO), with funding from the U.S. Space Force. TKO is self-contained, remotely operable, and can house up to 18 telescopes delivered to any chosen location at a fraction of the cost of traditional telescopes and observatories.
Origin Space also has several immediately applicable solutions in addition to its host of futuristic satellite tech, mining robots and rover designs in the works. The most pressing might just be its space debris removal and traffic management. As Earth's orbit becomes more crowded, the very real danger of collisions and subsequent debris fields grows. (Humanity has launched over 12,000 satellites since 1957, according to the European Space Agency, with more than 7,000 remaining in orbit today-leaving nearly 3,000 defunct spacecraft circling the planet at speed alongside bulky debris like upper-stage rocket bodies).
Asteroid Mining Corp. is working on spider-like robots called Space Capable Asteroid Robotic Explorers (SCAR-E) designed to drill into asteroids, process what they extract on-site in space and then send the materials to Earth via commercial spacecraft. However, their ability to navigate rough terrain and climb surfaces makes them perfect for jobs planet side, including dangerous exploration, repairs, search and rescue, nuclear decommissioning, remote sensing, and disaster relief.
Last but not least, AstroForge is already set to attempt the world's first commercial deep space mission to an undisclosed asteroid on a SpaceX launch in 2024. The flyby is designed to capture high-resolution imagery to confirm the existence of metals at its target.
If in-demand metals can truly be found at higher concentrations than are available on Earth, it means that more can be produced for less cost in the traditional sense to help counter the expense of a non-traditional source.
With the cost of doing business in space being driven down by SpaceX and other private companies in the field, over time, it will be possible to transition to space resources to supply the planet's needs and in-situ resource development, aiding longer stays on the Moon and Mars.
In this new era of ESG, breaking even isn't just about money anymore. And once it's cracked, the space mining nut could easily be worth quintillions.
CORRECTION: This article was updated on Nov. 17 to clarify the launch of AstroForge's asteroid mission.