What resources could be gained from asteroid mining that would be worth the effort?

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11

Obviously asteroids are abundant in many of the raw materials we use today, but considering the (presumably) large expense involved in mining from asteroids it may not be worthwhile to mine some materials since it is more cost-effective to get them on Earth.

There are mainly three issues here:

  1. What is the approximate cost to develop an asteroid mining enterprise?
  2. What would the approximate on-going cost of operations be?
  3. What resources are available on asteroids that would be more cost-effective to mine that way (considering the above expenses) than to obtain using conventional methods?

I don't know if any of these issues have been addressed in a technical paper or discussion to this level of detail, but I would appreciate as much detail as possible.

(Another matter of consideration is when we start developing the asteroid enterprise and how long it would take to develop, because these things affect both the cost and benefit. Please take these into account in your answer.)

Edit for clarification

I'm looking primarily for asteroid mining of resources for use on Earth, though an answer addressing asteroid mining of resources for use in space would also be interesting. Obviously the answer to the latter would be very different since it is probably more worthwhile to mine resources in space for use in space.

called2voyage

Posted 2013-07-22T14:25:58.393

Reputation: 13 142

1There are no forests to destroy when mining the asteroids.gerrit 2014-08-06T16:30:31.503

Re use on earth vs use in space. Our economic activity isn't restricted to earth's surface. We have extremely valuable orbital assets (comm sats, GPS, weather sats etc.). Fuel high on earth's gravity well could make travel about earth's neighborhood much cheaper. It could also cut cut the transportation costs that presently prohibit ROI asteroidal gold or platinum.HopDavid 2014-04-11T16:18:53.973

Answers

31

NASA has actually published a study on this. This study was the primary motivator for Planetary Resources to start its work on mining an asteroid. And there is more work being done by NASA to learn more as well. And there's the approach that Planetary Resources has set in place, which seems to be the best overall approach.

The first thing that should be noted is that Asteroids have large amounts of precious metals. Estimates show that even a small asteroid could have a fortune in Platinum, at least at today's prices. Work would need to be done to ensure that the value didn't plummet the economy. But, there are other options as well out there as to how an asteroid could be valuable.

There are 3 primary types of asteroids. C-type, S-type, and M-type. The latter two contain significant amounts of iron, and the C type carbon. Now, metal on the ground is quite cheap. The cost of Iron Ore is about \$115 per ton. It would therefor be difficult to make money on Earth using Iron Ore. However, there is an alternative way to make money. The Falcon 9 has a cost per pound of \$1800+ if loaded to it's maximum capacity. Thus, if you can make something useful in space of your asteroid, it's value has suddenly increased dramatically. The key for the short term profitability in space is the ability to manufacture and otherwise assist satellites. The amount of money that can be made increases dramatically if you can pull it off. Rocket Fuel, which could easily be made from an asteroid, has the same cost of \$1800/pound, if you can get it to the source. It might even be worth more, as fuel would extend the lifetime of the satellites, which are significant investments.

So, what does it take to make a space mining operation profitable? Manufacturing. If you can develop an autonomous set of manufacturing robots, then you might be able to make something work. There is a number often quoted of \$2.6 billion to break even, but that depends on making these advanced robotics work. It could work, but I think only time will tell.

There is also a whole world of microgravity manufacturing possibilities which has barely been touched. It's far easier to make some things in microgravity, but we haven't really explored that space very much yet.

The closest we've done to real space mining is the Apollo program. In total, it brought 382 kg of rocks, for a cost of around \$125 billion in today's dollars. Asteroids would be cheaper to go to than the Moon, and using unmanned spacecraft should make it cheaper, but the proven numbers we have gives a cost of about \$9200/ounce (\$325/g). If that cost can be reduced, which should happen by making it unmanned and the primary mission, then gold could be profitable fairly soon.

The bottom line is, it's a long time before the Earth mining industry will be affected by Space Mining, but it would likely significantly affect the aerospace industry, moving operations to on orbit. And some day, some of those materials will return to Earth.

PearsonArtPhoto

Posted 2013-07-22T14:25:58.393

Reputation: 67 296

I wouldn't put much credence in an economic-based study coming from NASA. It's too hard to predict the costs of complicated space missions, and frankly there isn't much expertise at NASA when it comes to entrepreneurial endeavors.robguinness 2013-07-25T07:24:57.197

2@robguinness If you have better sources, cite them in your answer.called2voyage 2013-07-25T14:00:39.923

As to whether NASA is good at economics-based studies, just look at its record on estimating mission budgets. One would be hard-pressed to find many missions that were completed on budget. Here is one article on the subject: http://www.nbcnews.com/id/29513895/ns/technology_and_science-space/t/cost-overruns-plague-us-space-agency

Just search "nasa cost overruns" and you'll find plenty more references.

robguinness 2013-07-26T05:48:56.503

As to references regarding my answer, I can't really cite the fact that there are no major mining companies investing in asteroid mining. But if anyone can find even a single reference to refute that claim, I'd be interested to see it.robguinness 2013-07-26T05:49:31.957

@robguinness one of simple explanation why mining companies do not invest into space mining is that their core competency is mining on Earth. It would require huge and long-term investment in something they do not consider core skill - unlikely to increase profit of current quarter, which means no bonuses for CEOs.Peter Masiar 2014-12-10T17:14:10.197

@robguinness And wrong NASA budget estimates? If you are doing something first time, you are prone to make wrong estimates. That's why it is research. And they knew that Congress is also interested in short term thinking only, and will not pay for important projects now if payoff is way into the future (see global climate change), beyond reelection interest of the politician.Peter Masiar 2014-12-10T17:14:35.387

1Re "Asteroids have large amounts of precious metals": It should be obvious that if you can mine precious metals in large amounts, then by the economic law of supply and demand, they will no longer be precious.jamesqf 2015-03-03T19:31:09.813

@jamesqf Certainly the price of precious metals would drop if there were a large new supply of them. However, they also commonly have inherently useful properties, such that lower prices would render them more widely usable in more applications, thus tending to stabilize prices, albeit at a lower level.Lee Woofenden 2015-07-24T18:13:41.203

One might also be able to sell simple polished asteroid rocks as gems. Marketing "Asterjems" ("Star Stone" might be difficult to trademark) would probably be more difficult than for Moon rocks (which have more romantic sentiment attached), but "authentic" stones from an asteroid (not just some meteorite material ☺) might be able to command a sufficient premium if costs could be reduced somewhat (perhaps subsidizing a science mission?). Even "space dust" could probably be marketed at a price far above the value of its chemical composition.Paul A. Clayton 2014-02-28T20:42:26.980

"Rocket Fuel, which could easily be made from an asteroid, has the same cost of $1800/pound, if you can get it to the source." Propellent cost is a tiny fraction of space transportation. It's expensive because we throw away costly hardware each trip. High delta V budgets, doable mass fractions and the rocket equation force us to do this. However propellent sources in orbit would enable 4 km/s or less delta V budget for trips between orbits. And with this sort of delta V budget, reusable vehicles are possible.HopDavid 2014-04-11T16:24:44.400

3Thanks, @PearsonArtPhoto, that's exactly what I was looking for.called2voyage 2013-07-24T13:53:20.317

@called2voyage: Glad to be of service:-)PearsonArtPhoto 2013-07-24T13:55:58.713

Theres another advantage to space mining, sure we have lots of iron ect on earth, but it it likely cheaper to mine in space and drop off at somewhere that doesnt have an abundance of those resources, say, mars. likely cheaper than trying to lift it up from earth given the reusability of space mining and the repeated need to lift stuff from earthRhysW 2013-07-24T15:30:22.103

@RhysW: I tried to communicate that by making satellites, but sure, the same thing could be done on Mars.PearsonArtPhoto 2013-07-24T15:41:17.437

3

The answer will depend on how we deplete our Earth resources.

I'm fairly sure uranium would be extremely welcome since I've seen estimates that we have maybe 100 years worth of its supply, although it's yet to be found in bulk in space.

While iron is abundant on Earth, smelting its ores is costly both environmentally and financially, so a "space forge" using meteoritic iron ores and processing them into ready products (and delivering ready forms directly to the customer through aerial drop) would be viable. In this case lack of gravity and air could reduce the costs.

Lunar He3 is targetted as a potential energy source.

Still more in realm of sci-fi than actual science, but Jupiter's vast hydrogen supply could provide energy both for long-distance space travel and for power for Earth (although projects of "beaming power" (powerful masers) are more viable than just hauling hydrogen).

In more distant future, when sources of hydrocarbons on Earth are depleted, methane sources like Titan may become economically viable.

Currently, though, robguinness' answer "None" is correct. We're still quite a bit away from the break-even point of costs vs profits. I'm sure once "cheap" sources of energy (both oil and uranium) get depleted, that will begin changing rapidly.

SF.

Posted 2013-07-22T14:25:58.393

Reputation: 23 066

As your talking about Uranium, after Uranium is depleted the humanity will move to the use of Thorium http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liquid_fluoride_thorium_reactor so there is no need for Uranium

Quonux 2013-07-28T00:34:47.793

Uranium can also be extracted from the sea: http://phys.org/news/2013-11-sorbents-efficiently-uranium-seawater.html Higher energy costs will make space exploration harder, not easier; I can't see how it could ever make sense to import hydrocarbons from Titan when you have to burn hydrocarbons to get there.

pjc50 2014-01-28T14:16:19.657

@pjc: Hydrocarbons? What kind of space rocket uses hydrocarbons for fuel?SF. 2014-01-28T15:31:24.430

1http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RP-1 ; commercial hydrogen production is usually from natural gas rather than electrolysis. The general point stands that the energy of hypothetical fuel landed from Titan is unlikely to be greater than the energy of the fuel used to get there.pjc50 2014-01-28T17:11:21.217

1@pjc50: Currently, when natural gas is cheap. When the price of hydrocarbons rises enough, surely production of hydrogen will switch to water (be it as electrolysis or fractional distillation of plasma, or whatever). And of course energy will be way higher, and our descendants will look at us with disgust, for burning up the hydrocarbons, which are so essential in manufacturing and chemistry, that using them up as plain energy source is just criminal barbarism!SF. 2014-01-28T18:29:45.487

1

This is somewhat a matter of opinion, but I believe the answer to your title question is "NONE". That's why there aren't any major mining companies that are even remotely close to doing this. If there were resources on asteroids that merited the costs of mining them, then such companies would probably start to do so.

The first two questions you raise (the ones labeled #1 and #2) are not really answerable in a general sense. There are so many parameters affecting the costs (either development or operating) that any "general" answer would be pretty much meaningless.

That being said, there may be a time in the future when mining asteroids becomes economically reasonable. And despite the current economics, there have been plenty of serious attempts to start asteroid mining companies. The most notable presently is Planetary Resources, Inc.. Despite the all-star line-up, however, none of the people involved have any mining experience (as far as I'm aware). They are mostly space enthusiasts who believe strongly in the long-term potential of exploiting space commercially. I would argue that they are motivated largely by their ideals, rather than by economics (which isn't a bad thing, and I wish them success!).

robguinness

Posted 2013-07-22T14:25:58.393

Reputation: 447