Asteroid mining could yield untold riches

asteroid mining, the venture magazine

If space is the final frontier, its gold rush period is about to begin. Investment bank Goldman Sachs and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson have predicted that asteroid mining will be where the world’s first trillionaires make their fortunes. NASA estimates that one asteroid, 16 Psyche, is worth $10,000 quadrillion by itself. Most likely, private companies will be the first to try their hands at striking it rich in space, but how the mining will play out and how it will affect the global economy are very much up in the air.

What’s to Mine? 

asteroid mining, the venture magazine

Near-Earth asteroids, of which there are more than 16,000, contain a variety of precious metals and elements. The “metal world” 16 Psyche, which measures about 200 kilometres in diameter, is a massive block of iron and nickel.

Goldman Sachs estimates an asteroid the size of a football pitch could contain $35 to $70 billion worth of platinum. Dr. Brad Tucker, an astrophysicist at Australian National University and the Australian Asteroid Mining Project, estimates an asteroid 4 to 5 km wide could yield half a million tonnes of precious metals. “You could get 300 years’ worth of platinum from one asteroid, which will completely change the platinum market,” he told WA Today.

“You focus on the rare things that only have a few pockets on Earth. We can get a huge pocket and dominate the market.”

Perhaps just as valuable are the hydrogen, oxygen, and water. Planetary Resources, one of the pioneers in asteroid mining, estimates there are 2 trillion tonnes of water locked in near-Earth asteroids. Extracting that could help make space colonisation more feasible, both in reducing the amount of drinking and crop water needed to be brought from Earth, and for the rocket fuel that can be produced from separating water into hydrogen and oxygen.

“We’re talking about an economy in space, so if it costs you $10,000 a kilogram to launch something, if you can produce a litre of water in space for less than $10,000 a kilogram then you’re ahead,” Prof. Andrew Dempster from the University of New South Wales’ Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research told news.com.au.

The Race to be First

The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) landed Hayabusa2 on the asteroid Ryugu in February, grabbing what engineers hope was a good sample of its contents. They won’t know exactly what Hayabusa2 collected until it returns to Earth at the end of 2020. By shooting a specially made bullet into Ryugu’s surface, Hayabusa2 stirred up asteroid dust and created a crater, which the spacecraft will explore over the coming months. In 2010, Hayabusa1 successfully collected a surface sample from the asteroid Itokawa, but its bullets failed to fire, thus there was no sample from the body of Itokawa. Whilst Hayabusa2’s feat was impressive, it underscores how slow-going actual asteroid mining has been thus far. When the craft embarks on its journey back to Earth at the end of this year, it will take about a year for it to get home.

The Asteroid Mining Corporation plans to launch a prospecting satellite in 2020 to survey 5,000 near-Earth asteroids to determine which are most ripe for mining. The corporation will commercialise the information collected via the Space Resources Database. In 2023, AMC plans to send up a probe to conduct a spectral survey of high-platinum bearing asteroids, with a lander unit attaching to an asteroid. Its first commercial mining mission is set for 2028 with a capacity to recover up to 20 tonnes of platinum, about a tenth of the current global supply.

Planetary Resources will deploy several spacecraft in a single launch to explore and collect samples from predetermined asteroids. The data gathered will include “global hydration mapping and subsurface extraction demonstrations to determine the quantity of water and the value of the resources available” in the aim of opening the first mine in space. The company believes asteroid mining will reduce the costs of space travel by 95 per cent thanks to oxygen and hydrogen resources.

The Laws

asteroid mining, the venture magazine

There are actually a couple of internationally recognised treaties dealing with activity in space: The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and the Moon Treaty of 1979. The former is mostly concerned with preventing weapons of mass destruction from being put in orbit around Earth or stationed on celestial bodies, and more than 100 countries are signed on. It also states, “The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorisation and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty,” meaning that the nations private space mining companies are based in have the responsibility to oversee the companies’ activities.

The Moon Treaty, which has just 18 signatory countries, applies more specifically to asteroid mining. It requires that the exploration and use of celestial bodies to have the approval or benefit of other states. It also declares that countries have an equal right to exploration of celestial bodies and that any samples obtained must be made available to other countries and scientific communities. Critically, it bans private ownership of extraterrestrial property. Though only the moon is specifically named, Article I of the treaty states, “The provisions of this Agreement relating to the moon shall also apply to other celestial bodies within the solar system, other than the earth, except in so far as specific legal norms enter into force with respect to any of these celestial bodies.” So, whilst the treaty technically applies to asteroids, there is room for different laws to supersede it.

The Woomera Manual project aims to create a document governing international space law. The project is led by The University of Adelaide, the University of New South Wales-Canberra, The University of Exeter, and the University of Nebraska. It is primarily concerned with military space operations, which University of Adelaide Dean of Law Melissa De Zwart believes will become more important with mass commercialisation of space. “Where you have resources, where you have competition for those resources, where you have investment of money in the extraction of those resources,” she told the ABC, “there will be an expectation of security around that investment.”

Luxembourg and the United States have passed laws granting mining companies ownership of resources gleaned from space. Russia seeks to join them, “In January we offered Luxembourg a framework agreement on cooperation in the use of (mining) exploration in space. We expect an answer from Luxembourg,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova said on a March visit to Luxembourg.

Economic Impact

asteroid mining, the venture magazine

The annual value of Earth’s minerals is just under $1 trillion. If we’re suddenly out in space mining $10,000 quadrillion asteroids containing more minerals than all of Earth, what will that do to commodities prices? After all, given the law of supply and demand, minerals and precious metals are lucrative because they are rare.

Well, for starters, mining projects will be quite expensive at the outset, which will keep prices high. Also, there will be relatively few companies with asteroid mining operations, and they will be able to control the supply and avoid flooding the market. Plus, as Australian National University public policy research fellow Zsuzsanna Csereklyei told WA Today, demand will soon rise. “By 2050 we are going to have about 10 billion people on Earth and as societies get richer, more energy is being used. Can we achieve energy transitions with the help of asteroid mining?” she asked.

Brad Tucker of the Australian Asteroid Mining Project — which hopes to launch a mining prototype by the mid-2020s — said Australia, with its mining history and newly launched space agency, could be a power player in asteroid mining. “If asteroid mining becomes successful,” Tucker told WA Today, “it will be the only time in human history when we have an infinite supply of resources.”