Spacecraft landing on asteroid, computer illustration. getty
What happened to the space-mining industry? A decade ago, the mainstream media was full of articles about how mining asteroids for precious metals, metal composites and even rare earth metals would revolutionize the commercial space economy.
There were grandiose plans to reap untold fortunes from near-Earth asteroids (NEAs), either robotically or even by sending private commercial astronauts to act as space miners.
But there has been little action since. It’s precisely this kind of space hype that makes the mainstream public so cynical and weary of the best laid plans. How many times will we hear the mantra ‘it’s back to the Moon and then on to Mars,’ before anyone ever sets foot on the red planet? Much less thinks about mining Mars? Or reaping the riches from an accessible mineral-rich asteroid?
“I think we all overestimated what could be done,” Jeff Kargel, a former U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) geologist who is now a senior scientist at The Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, told me.
There has yet to be any commercial mining reconnaissance and the idea of sending astronauts to reconnoiter near-Earth asteroids now seems antiquated.
“I don’t think sending astronauts to an asteroid makes a whole lot of economic sense,” said Kargel, an expert on asteroid compositions. He argues that there’s not much that can’t be managed via robotics when it comes to mining water, iron and nickel, as well as platinum group metals (PGM)s from asteroids.
The advent of small and very inexpensive cubesats are a potential major boon for the space mining industry, says Kargel. Most of these new-type spacecraft are spin-stabilized and don’t last long, he notes. But the basic idea of having very inexpensive spacecraft which can be mass produced are fortuitous for future asteroid mining efforts, he says.
Can we do that in situ or do they need to be lassoed and towed back into some sort of cis-lunar orbit?
Kargel has soured on the idea of moving asteroids for mining into low earth orbit or cis-lunar space simply because it would be extremely dangerous to tamper with such an object’s orbit.
As for mining KREEPs (rocks containing potassium, rare-earth elements, and phosphorus) from the Moon?
Kargel says the KREEP soils from the Moon would seem to be the better source because it’s extremely enriched in Rare Earth Elements (REEs).
As for mining Helium-3 from the Moon?
There’s been talk about mining Helium-3 on the Moon for the past thirty years at least and it still hasn’t happened.
A decade ago, I was distinctly unimpressed about Helium-3 because it is tied to controlled nuclear fusion, says Kargel. But Helium-3's practicality is tied to national and international physics making big further progress, he says.
Helium-3 mining would not be that hard or expensive, relatively speaking, says Kargel. But the energy market for it depends on needed further physics advances which seem potentially near, possibly this decade, he says.
Although the Moon may offer commercial space prospectors a more immediate commercial space mining than asteroids, these potentially PGM-rich bodies still hold an allure for anyone in need of precious metals for potential use in the building of space architecture.
A Human Mining Colony On The Surface Of The Moon. (Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group ... [+] Universal Images Group via Getty Images
By some estimates a 100-meter diameter metallic asteroid might contain PGMs worth as much as $12 billion.
And if PGMs are ever imported back to Earth, as Kargel told me in a Forbes post nearly a decade ago, “Metals used sparingly because of their high prices would suddenly become much more available for applications that we might not even dream of now.”
Thus, Kargel says that commercial mining of PGM asteroids may still have a future but refuses to put a date on when he thinks it will finally happen. It’s going to take an Elon Musk-type figure to either kill the idea or proceed with the idea, he says.
Kargel says note only will asteroid mining require additional new advances in both spacecraft technology and launch capability, it will need someone with deep pockets to fund serious space-mining development in a way that enables them to absorb losses of billions of dollars year after year until the technology and mining operations can be scaled up to be profitable.
Then unless the metals mined from the asteroids are only used for offworld construction and resources, there’s a potential problem with the economics of importing innumerable quantities of PGMs back to Earth.
Paradoxically, what was extraordinarily precious may become extraordinarily cheap. While that may lead to new ingenious and more economical uses of PGMs on earth, it would probably make a space-mining operation’s balance sheet insolvent.
If the PGM price per troy ounce is driven down on earth due to this new cornucopia of asteroid metals, says Kargel, prices for space metals would be driven down to such an extent that launch and space operational costs would again make space-mining untenable.
“That to me is a conundrum,” said Kargel.