There’s been a lot of kerfuffle about so-called asteroid mining lately, and recent headlines have pushed the concept back into the public eye. “Luxembourg has Announced a Plan to Mine Asteroids, and it Could be Worth Trillions,” they read. But as is the case more often than not, this “plan” is a bit more abstract than it seems.
We’re not counting down to lift-off
Yes, Luxembourg did make an announcement regarding asteroid mining, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to grab GERTY. In a statement last week, Luxembourg Deputy Prime Minister Etienne Schneider simply confirmed the country’s commitment to work in tandem with existing asteroid mining R&D firms. In other words, they’re opening the checkbook, in hopes of jump-starting potential projects, and volunteering their existing tech for the taking. The reality is that we won’t see asteroid mining in action for years – likely a decade.
We haven’t got the tech sorted
Among the firms involved in the Luxembourg deal are Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources. Companies like these certainly have their sights on the stars, the immediate goal being to figure out (key phrase) how to extract the water trapped inside of space rocks, and transform it into rocket fuel on a large scale. Experts suspect this will be the most profitable venture for asteroid mining companies, as it’s extremely costly to send fuel to space – but we just aren’t there yet. What I’m saying is that it is possible that this is a trillion-dollar industry, but as of yet, it’s a completely unrealized one.
“Another obstacle is simply our lack of experience with mapping and analyzing the resources in asteroids to extract material from them,” adds NASA. In a 2012 interview with Nerdist, Planetary Resources chief engineer and president Chris Lewicki predicted we’d see extraterrestrial water extraction come to fruition some time in the 2020s.
Harvesting platinum-group metals would most likely come into play even later, because massive quantities of them would need to be carried back to Earth to make the endeavor economical – we’ll come back to that.
We’re not heading for Star Wars-style moisture farming
Yes, we are – in a sense – talking about real-life moisture farming. But it’s important to note that the vision for the future doesn’t involve human miners. “All of our activities are with robots, robotic spacecraft, unmanned things,” says Lewicki. “Certainly with the progress in technology that we’ve seen in the last 10-20 years, it has been growing exponentially in terms of information technology and autonomous and embedded systems. If you can imagine ten years out from now how much farther along we’ll be, we think it’s extremely likely that everything we’ll be doing will be possible either with robots or using things like tele-presence.” Sorry to any who were planning an interstellar career jump.
It’s illegal to mine asteroids
When it comes to legality, asteroid mining is a grey area, like a 50-shades-of grey-area. As it stands, asteroids are governed by the Outer Space Treaty, which states that objects in space don’t belong to an individual party or nation. So who owns the material within them?
“Anybody who wants to go to an asteroid now and extract a resource is facing a large legal open question,” International Institute of Space Law director Joanne Gabrynowicz told NPR.
And things are only getting more complicated. Last year, the U.S. passed the the Space Act of 2015, which essentially legalized space mining for American companies under the claim that extracting substances from celestial bodies isn’t a declaration of sovereignty or ownership. But what happens if another country passes a similar law? Or those laws contradict each other? Who trumps who? What treaties must be formed? We don’t know because these issues haven’t come up yet. At this stage, the future of asteroid mining very much hangs in the legal balance.
But We Are Making Moves
Asteroid mining has piqued the attention of more than just private firms and the Luxembourg government. Nearly a decade ago, Japan sent a probe to rendezvous with and collect samples from asteroid Itokawa. It crash-landed, and wasn’t able to complete its mission, but the spacecraft did return to Earth with thousands of tiny particles, apparently lodged in one of the collection containers during impact. A follow-up mission is currently en route to target.
NASA, too, has an asteroid-probing expedition in the works – OSIRIX-REx (name convention points!)– currently set to launch in September 2016. And while its primary goal is scientific, the team hopes any recon will aid asteroid-mining efforts down the line.
There is potential here
Complicated as it may be, asteroid mining has a ton of potential – and not just for those of us living in sector 2814.
“Water is a critical life-support item for a spacefaring civilization, and it takes a lot of energy to launch it into space,” says Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx. “With launch costs currently thousands of dollars per pound, you want to use water already available in space to reduce mission costs.”
And if water extraction does become a possibility, breaking it into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen would mean we’d have fuel deposits moving through space. “The other thing C-type asteroids have is organic material – they have a lot of organic carbon, phosphorous and other key elements for fertilizer to grow your food,” adds Lauretta.
Now to mention that metal. Let’s get back to that. A single 10-meter, S-type asteroid contains about 1,433,000 pounds (650,000 kg) of metal. Only 110 pounds (50 kg) of that is rare metal like platinum and gold – but when you consider that it costs hundreds of millions (if not billions) of dollars to build and launch a space mission, that weight starts to lose its pull. Sending a spacecraft to mine 0.000076% of an asteroid for riches doesn’t make sense, but Planetary Resources has another end goal in mind: 3D-printing.
The team recently 3D-printed a model out of meteorite, an attempt to show how extraterrestrial materials might help with space travel. Instead of manufacturing something on Earth, strapping it to a rocket, and sending it into the great-wide forever, the team imagines a future where parts needed for extended space travel could be manufactured in orbit.
The meteorite was vaporized using plasma, collected, and melted layer, by layer, using a powerful laser. How we would do this in microgravity remains to be seen. “We’re in the literal iron age of building in space,” says Lewicki.
IMAGES: WolfieK (Wolf Hartnell)/Flickr, LucasFilm, Shepperton Studios