Friday, 22 February 2013

Asteroid (Meteor) Mining - The Basic Concept

I noticed that there was some interest in the news post last month concerning the go-ahead date for the space mining operations therefore I have decided to offer a bit more detail into what this will encompass.
[I would also like to clarify that it is technically asteroid mining. By definition asteroids remain in space and only once they enter earth's atmosphere do they classify as meteors.]

Is Asteroid Mining a Good Idea?
  One of the main arguments for the start of a space mining program is the obvious fact that we are currently consuming the earth's resources at an increasing rate. Much of this problem stems from the fact that modern technology relies heavily on precious metals which due to their limited availability results in them being expensive to process. Current mineral deposits won't run out in the near-near future but they will eventually run out. We need to look at either alternative materials or alternative sources and while many seem to choose the former there are some who are beginning to believe in the latter.
  Another benefit is that this will increase the interest in pushing forward space technology. In the last 50 years, the technology required to get into space has made huge advances and yet it is still incredibly expensive and risky. We've already seen a huge leap in space exploration this century with the start-up of many private companies (with SpaceX and Scaled Composites being the two biggest names) and pretty soon we're going to start seeing space tourism for the first time ever, however this is a limited niche in the market. The creation of a mining program will expand that niche market to allow for others to come along and come up with new and cheaper way to get objects up into space. Essentially, we’re talking about starting an industrial revolution in space.

  On the other hand, one of the big problems is that to achieve this advancement in space-flight technology, a huge amount of money needs to be invested into the program (we’re looking at billions of dollars) as the required technology to make this venture successful does not exist yet. This means that whoever is involved will be putting up huge sums of money without any payout for a while and many investors are not comfortable with such a long-time investment coupled with an unknown chance of failure. This hasn’t however turned most people off and the program has attracted the bank accounts of Google CEO Larry Page and Hollywood Director James Cameron, both of whom are no strangers to this type of investment (Google have set up the Google Lunar X which awards a $20m prize to the first private lunar rover while Cameron holds the record for deepest undersea dive). As a result it seems that the interest required to make the mining operation worthwhile is not yet enough however this will definitely change if and when Deep Space Industries announce their first successful mining mission.
  While it’s all very well to get a mining craft up into space there’s still the problem of actually getting it to land on an asteroid to begin the extraction process. The average asteroid speed is governed by its orbital rotation around the sun (much like the planets) and normally registers around 25km/s. Although up in space this does not amount to much, it does leave a very small timeframe from which the asteroid can be mined without the craft disappearing into space, presenting another obstacle that needs to be cleared before any progress can be made. In addition to this, the time to get a mining craft into space, onto an asteroid and start extracting minerals could under current circumstances take well over a year therefore the deployment time also needs to be significantly improved.

Economic Viability
  In the end the biggest factor that will affect whether a space mining program will be successful or not will be how much money it can make. As I’ve already pointed out, the initial costs are massive however they also need to factor in the cost of each mission. All spacecraft are limited by their payload on account of for every pound of weight you take into space you need a certain amount of fuel to get it there. As a result all launches are rated on a cost of fuel per weight ratio, which currently stands at around $10,000/lb and is the main reason why space travel is so expensive. Pioneers believe that in the next 10 years the ratio could be as low as $500/lb, but again this requires huge amounts of money to be invested to make it a reality.

  Asteroid surveys have shown them to be mineral rich, particularly in rare-earth materials such as platinum and gold. Platinum currently has a market value of around $25600/lb, so assuming you can extract the mining craft’s weight in it then you have essentially broken even for that mission. Also when you consider that a 1km wide asteroid could hold more precious metals that have ever been collected on earth, the financial opportunity could be huge in the long run.

  A key current financial problem would be that repeat launches would prove to be significantly expensive. One innovation would be to allow the mining craft to jump from one asteroid to the next, essentially making it a one-launch vehicle. Assuming the craft is not responsible for transporting the collected minerals back to earth and acknowledging the fact that it won’t be able to be upgraded or fixed, the only significant problem would be in refuelling the craft, however there is an easy fix.

  As well being high in minerals and ores, asteroids are also rich in water (ice) and this could prove to be an invaluable resource for any future space project. Water is used in many instances as propellant for spacecrafts as it is not likely to combust unexpectedly, but it is also one of the most valuable resources in space due to its limited [almost zero] availability. Taking into account that to transport large quantities of water into space to begin with can cost millions of dollars, the idea of having a ‘reservoir’ ready and waiting would reduce the cost of many space-flight missions by a significant factor. It is highly likely that mining companies will charge for water much like oil companies charge for petrol.

How Does It Work?
  One of the greatest problems that will be faced will be to find a way to allow for mining to take place over a long period of time without the asteroid continuing on its planned orbit. There is a lot of discussion at the moment over the possibility of pulling asteroids to orbit the earth. The obvious benefits here will be that the speed of the asteroid will decrease substantially but also that it will always remain in close proximity for travel to and send resources from. This method isn’t without its controversies however with the majority of people pointing out the disastrous effects should the asteroid decide to collide with earth. There is also the issue of how to get a kilometre-wide asteroid to orbit the earth to begin with however scientists believe that the same technology used to pull them into orbit with us could also be used to push potential meteors away.

  Then there’s the issue of the actual mining process which, although techniques have not exactly been discussed in great detail, there are only a few ways in which it can be carried out. The obvious method would be to drill as this allows for sensors to pick up mineral rich deposits and target them accurately however there are also talks of ‘combing’ the asteroid in order to ensure that a maximum possible area is covered. This method also allows for a much higher degree of accuracy over choosing which ores and minerals to collect and which to dump. With no oxygen available, all motors would have to be electrically powered and would therefore be heavily performance limited.

  There is also a lot of debate over the return system. The crafts themselves could serve as vessels for carrying the raw materials, given that it requires a lot less energy to re-enter the atmosphere than to leave it, but then you are still stuck with sending it back once it has been unloaded, again factoring in further launch costs. One popular method is to send them back down in containers or pods which would then be collected by the mining companies.

Political Repercussions
  One of the greatest worries over the space mining innovation is who will benefit from it. It is a highly restricted industry with only a few wealthy key players but if they are able to pull it off it would give them full control over a wide range of materials that are key in modern society. This in turn would put them at a huge financial advantage. What this would then lead to is essentially watching the rich get even richer. This could also lead to political instability among world leaders if all the benefits of the campaign were only ever seen by a few elite countries. The last we want is for control over mining rights in space to develop into a scenario similar to the oil monopoly.

  So what’s the solution? The original Space Race was a competition between two countries on the brink of nuclear war however it has now become a beacon of combined efforts between countries all over the world. Countries who 10 years ago wouldn’t have even dreamed of having a say have managed to establish and launch a space program. The concept of space mining has the potential to act as a unifier between nations, with everyone benefiting from the rewards so long as everyone has a chance to be involved or ensuring that everyone gets a taste of the profits.

Final Thoughts
  Space really is the next big conquest and to motivate an entire industry to invest in it is the only way it will ever get the scientific leap it needs to succeed. The risks are certainly high but the rewards, properly moderated, could be instrumental in mankind's dream of living among the stars.

Sources (check out for more information)

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