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Mining Asteroids for Fun and Maybe Profit

Volatiles for propulsion and life support only scratch the surface of what we might extract once viable mining communities begin tapping the asteroids. Metals like platinum remind us how readily available some resources will be in space as opposed to trying to dig them out from the depths of our planet. Centauri Dreams regular Alex Tolley continues to explore these matters in today’s essay, which looks at how companies will turn a profit and what kinds of targets most justify early efforts. Key to our hopes for asteroid mining is reducing the costs of getting payloads into space. That’s a driver for an infrastructure whose demands may well produce the propulsion solutions we’ll need as we push outside the Solar System.

by Alex Tolley

“There’s gold in them thar hills” – M. F. Stephenson

Introduction

In 1848, James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill, on the American River, in foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains of California.  The California gold rush ensued.   Science fiction stories have been replete with such miners eking out a living in the asteroid belt, hoping for that lucky strike and the discovery of the gold asteroid. While gold is no longer used to back the value of fiat currencies, other metals have arisen to take their place as valuable elements, from platinum to the so-called rare earth elements.  John Lewis [5] estimated that the asteroid resources of the solar system vastly exceeded the potential supplies on Earth and that reserves were far more accessible than those deep within the Earth’s crust or even below it.

Despite this, there is not a single mining company currently extracting such vast wealth.  One reason is the same as the absence of seabed mining for manganese nodules – the legal position of those resources.  Those legal restrictions are now being actively changed as the possibility of being able to mine these bodies becomes more feasible.  Yet so far, only startups have formed with distant plans to extract those vast riches.

So assuming that those resources are legally owned by the prospectors, just how viable is the space mining business?

The possible approaches to mining include the classic platinum group metals,  Fe-Ni metals, carbon, rocks for radiation shielding, and most recently, volatiles, especially water, for propulsion and life support.  The question is what to target, and how to do it profitably.

Approaching the Economics of Financial Return

A business must generate positive value.  Traditionally, this is estimated by requiring a positive value for discounted cash flows, where the initial capital cost is recovered by a stream of net cash flows suitably reduced by the required risk-adjusted rate of return.

Sonter [7] derived the equation below as a baseline for determining the net present value of an asteroid mining business.

Figure 1 – the value of a an asteroid mining program.

The Sonter Equation

Sonter’s equation is a nice simplification, although it suffers from some operational assumptions.   The terms describe the present value of the material returned to an Earth orbit and the costs associated with that operation.   The equation explicitly assumes that the value is the orbital mass value by launch cost, for example for volatiles and commodity metals, but excludes precious metals that could be returned to earth.  The mass returned is adjusted by delta V costs for propellant for solar-thermal propulsion, mined concurrently.  Mass returned must be 250-500x the mass of the miner to be viable. Higher isp rockets would increase the fraction of mined payload returned to earth orbit. The discounted value is adjusted with a time value based on orbital mechanics, which assumes a one-shot operation of a single vehicle prospecting and returning to Earth orbit.  This is decoupled from the number of years of the operation.  The mining “season” was assumed to be short compared to the transfer time to and from the asteroid. Launch costs of the mining craft appear to be excluded too, which is a rather major component of the business cost.    This might be explained by reference to Oxnevad who, using NASA launch costs believed that launch costs were not a critical issue, although it is now thought that the drive to lower launch costs by the New Space companies does make this a relevant factor.

Sonter assumed that launch costs would decline to at least $200-500/Kg, a cost necessary for developing space assets probably driven by space tourism. Without that driver, there is little need for large mass space infrastructure and asteroid mining would probably be still-born.  1000 MT developments was Sonter’s tipping point for favorable asteroid mining conditions.

Asteroid Targets

 The best targets have low delta V and short return intervals.  The earth-approaching bodies such as the Apollo, Amor, or Aten asteroids, and possibly Mars’ moons, Phobos and Deimos.  Sonter goes into some detail on target selection based on orbits, although also allowing less delta V-favorable dead comets are suitable.

Sonter states as a conclusion:

Thus there will potentially exist a profit-rnaking opportunity for a resource developer who could develop a capability to recover space-based materials and return them for sale in low-Earth orbit to capture the developing in-orbit market at its inception.

Mining for platinum group metals

Let’s start by looking at those more high value elements, the platinum group metals.  Platinum is currently priced at around $30k/Kg.  But to extract such elements requires handling a lot of asteroidal rock.  Even the best concentrations are in the tens of parts per million (ppm), although higher concentrations may be found.

Gerlach [4] published work on his NEOMiner – a fairly extensive analysis of a large mining craft that would extract platinum group metals [PGM].  The craft was to be about 4.5 MT in size and return 14-35 MT of platinum using a chemical extraction method.  The cost of the craft was to be around $150MM

Ross [6] looked at various mining options, and estimated that the craft must return more than 100x its mass in valuable resources.

Andrews [1] also went big, with a plan returning $10s bn over 12 years, although positive cumulative cash flows were only appearing by year 10, a very long and risky time horizon.  The size of the operation required mining 5 million MT of regolith, equivalent to an open cast mine pit 250m in diameter and 125m deep.

Over long time horizons, the business faces forecast risks.  In 2003, Gerlach [4] assumed a doubling of the demand for platinum in a decade based on the hyped hydrogen economy and need for platinum in fuel cells.  However, platinum demand declined over that period as fuel cells used less platinum, and also switched to cheaper alternatives, a classic economics response that had largely invalidated resource shortage doom-saying in the 1970s.   A similar fate befell Dennis Wingo’s [9]  hopes for recovering platinum from lunar impact sites.

Mining for Water

The simplest resource to extract from stony and carbonaceous asteroids are volatiles, including water.  Unobe [8] showed that common minerals in asteroids might contain water and hydrated minerals up to 25% by mass.   Lab experiments on various simulated asteroid materials showed that volatiles, primarily water, could be recovered by heating the rocks up to 800°C and condensing the emitted gases in a cold trap for recovery.

The higher the capital cost, the higher the return risk.  This has led to smaller, lower cost, designs for mining craft.  At the 2017 IAC meeting, Calla et al [2] described a mining craft mission architecture to extract water using microwave heaters to extract and collect water.  Their baseline craft was less than 500 kg.  Their targets were NEAs with very low delta Vs, a short season for mining of less than a month while the NEA was close enough (less than 0.1 AU) to be teleoperated from Earth, and the returned payload just 100 kg of water. Total mission time was about 1 year. For simplicity, microwave heating was assumed for extracting the water, with an average of about 8.5% content by mass of suitable asteroids.  Mined water was to be used for propulsion, using an off-the-shelf electrolysis unit to separate the gases prior to combustion.

Their particular innovation was to use many copies to reduce unit costs.    The R&D costs of a single unit would be amortized, and scale economies would further drive down costs.  The value of water delivered to various orbits was simply their launch costs to certain earth orbits by mass.

Figure 2. Cost analysis and economic return for one spacecraft.

Figure 3. Cost analysis and economic return for two hundred and fifty spacecraft.

Figure 2 shows the payback from one spacecraft, and figure 3 shows the payback from 250 craft.   For a single craft, profitability is never attained, even for high cost, cis-lunar orbits. With 250 craft, the reduced unit costs allow for profitability when delivering water to cis-lunar space at $35k/Kg.  However, breakeven is not for 5 years.   Any reduction in transport costs would push out the payback period, perhaps disastrously.

Calla’s analysis failed to learn the lessons from earlier analyses that profitability requires high mass payload multipliers, of 2 orders of magnitude or more.  Clearly, the higher the return payload, the larger the craft to deliver mining energy, or the longer the mining operation.  By adapting the craft for autonomous operation, the craft could mine for 1 ½ orbits rather than just a 1/10th of an orbit, allowing for at least a 20 to 40x increase in payload.

High demand requires low launch costs = low commodity value

While delivering platinum and other precious metals to earth has been studied, most analyses assume that demand will be in space.  Water for propulsion and life support, metals for structures and even regolith as meteor and radiation shielding. As noted earlier, this demand requires much lower costs for access to space, reducing the value of these resources.

Sonter:

“A cost delivered into LEO of probably $200/kg or so will be necessary for space raw materials resources recovery to be a viable competitor against Earth-launch cost in the first few decades of the next century.”

With launch costs to orbit reduced 10-fold, plugging is suitable values to the Sonter equation shows that the value of water return to cis-lunar space becomes negative, only recoverable by a commensurate increase in the returned payload.  This implies more powerful mining equipment, higher rates and efficiency of processing material, and more powerful engines to make the return journey.   This may become a vicious cycle of adding spacecraft mass and cost, undermining the low cost, low risk, small mining craft approach.

Multiple lines of income?

It has been suggested that multiple lines of revenue might be needed, beyond the returned resources – scientific data and media broadcast rights might help defray the costs.  For example, SpaceFab has suggested that scientific information may be more valuable per kg than the resource itself.  Media rights are often sold for interesting projects that would attract viewers.  The Interplanetary Society’s failed Cosmos solar sail experiment was partially financed in return for media rights.  A proposed reality show of [doomed] Mars colonists was a brief sensation a few years ago. These alternative revenue streams might be possible in the early stages of the mining business, but once the business becomes established, the novelty wears off and the value of these revenue streams decline.

The future

A key issue is how to increase demand of space resourced materials by reducing the cost of access to space, while maintaining the relative value of these resources acquired from extraterrestrial bodies. Clearly, one issue is reducing the capital cost of the mining craft.  Calla’s use of multiple copies of the craft makes a lot of sense as it leverages the economic drivers of mass production.  Coupled with reduced launch costs as currently being pursued by New Space companies, capital costs and financial risks are reduced.  The CubeSat approach using off-the-shelf components and software shows the way.  Spacecraft need to manufactured like automobiles – scale economies reducing costs, rather than highly expensive, custom vehicles for specific missions.  The craft need to use common components and just adapt their equipment for the asteroid type and target resource.

Reduced launch costs are also needed to increase demand.  Launch costs of 5-10% of current costs, largely due to launch vehicle reusability are expected to drive increased use of space, of which tourism is a much hoped for business.

As we can see from the Sonter equation, once the NEAs are used up, the higher delta Vs and longer mission times of the main belt asteroids requires better propulsion systems.  Ideally, propellantless propulsion like solar sails  would be very useful to reduce costs, although the cost may incur increased delivery times and therefore higher discounts on the returned resources.   None of the published work on asteroid mining economics considers solar sails.  The reason may be because these sails would need to be very large.  Returning payloads of even 100 MT would require sails with millions of square meters of area, implying sails with sides or diameters of a kilometer and more, with a mass perhaps 10% of the payload.   These sails are currently beyond our experience to manufacture and deploy.  Nevertheless, such sails might be the most economical means of transporting asteroid material as their costs can be amortized over many missions and they are robust in terms of flexibility of asteroid types as they need no ISRU for propellant.

I leave the final say  to Jerome Wright [10]:

“What if we build such things, give them robotic brains, and turn them loose to accomplish thousands of tasks throughout our solar system?  What if those gossamer robots carry other robots: crawlers, diggers, crushers, and carriers, and distribute those around the solar system with instructions to support a bold, dynamic civilization spanning across the solar system, with thoughts of going to the stars?”

References

  1. Andrews, Dana G., et al. “Defining a Successful Commercial Asteroid Mining Program.” Acta Astronautica, vol. 108, 2015, pp. 106-118., doi:10.1016/j.actaastro.2014.10.034.

  1. Calla, P., Fries, D., Welch, C. “Analysis of an Asteroid Mining Architecture utilizing Small Spacecraft”,  IAC 2017

  1. Erickson, Ken. “Optimal Architecture for an Asteroid Mining Mission: Equipment Details and Integration.” Space 2006, 2006, doi:10.2514/6.2006-7504.

  1. Gerlach C. L. “Profitably Exploiting Near-Earth Object Resources”. 2005 International Space Development Conference. National Space Society, Washington, DC, May 19-22, 2005

  1. Lewis, John S. Mining the Sky: Untold Riches from the Asteroids, Comets, and Planets. Addison-Wesley, 1998.

  1. Ross, S.D. “Near-Earth Asteroid Mining. Space Industry Report” Control and Dynamical Systems, 2001

  1. Sonter, M.j. “The Technical and Economic Feasibility of Mining the near-Earth Asteroids.” Acta Astronautica, vol. 41, no. 4-10, 1997, pp. 637-647., doi:10.1016/s0094-5765(98)00087-3.

  1. Unobe,E.C., “Mining asteroids for volatile resources: an experimental demonstration of extraction and recovery” (2017).Masters Theses. 7688. http://scholarsmine.mst.edu/masters_theses/7688

  1. Wingo, Dennis. Moonrush Improving Life on Earth with the Moon’s Resources. Apogee Books, 2004.

  1. Wright, Jerome L. Space Sailing. Gordon and Breach, 1993.

{ 51 comments… add one }
  • PW November 17, 2017, 12:02

    I keep thinking about the exposed planet core, 16 Psyche, sitting out there in the asteroid belt. It’s all metal, likely with lots of heavy metals inside.
    NASA is sending a flyby mission to take a look at it. The media suggested that it is so valuable, it’s contents would crash the economy of earth were it accessible.
    Which it isn’t of course. Likely, it will sit there unmolested for many generations to come, if not forever.

    • Alex Tolley November 18, 2017, 18:28

      Such large bodies of metal would best be used in space to construct any space based infrastructure we want. What better source of iron for steel cities in the asteroid belt?

      • Jens Knudsen November 26, 2017, 12:08

        How do we use it? As far as I know, ‘meteoritic steel’, is a very good building material straight from the source, and does not need very much refining. What does it take to build a hull for a modestly sized habitat out of it?

  • DJ Kaplan November 17, 2017, 17:10

    I think it’s smart and cost-effective to let mining industries shoulder some of their share of space research, as long they are forthcoming with whatever discoveries come along.

  • Neil S November 17, 2017, 22:38

    When we become able to alter the orbits of sizable stones we become able to threaten the governments and people of earth (and likely any other inhabited planet). I don’t know what kind of detection equipment and force will be required to protect earth from any significant masses launched toward it, but it will be costly and it will need to be there.

    • Alex Tolley November 18, 2017, 18:26

      I would expect moving large rocks would be closely monitored so that an accidental orbit to intersect teh Earth would either not be possible or counteracted. Lubin’s DSTAR lasers that are now a contender for Breakthrough Starshot were primarily to be used for planetary defense.

      • Lake Matthew Team November 21, 2017, 10:12

        Yes, we can confirm that Lubin’s DE-STARLITE system is certainly a present contender for the movement of small celestial bodies. In our considered view, a modest DE-STARLITE laser, coupled to COTS instruments on a Shepherd satellite, can in fact deflect a small body precisely. E.g., and of course, deflection to a Mars impact for regional terraformation in 2036.

        Lubin, P., Brashears, T., Hughes, G., Zhang, Q., Griswald, J., & Kosmo, K. (2015). Effective planetary defense using directed energy de-starlite. In 4th IAA Planetary Defense Conference.

  • Steven Torry Rappolee November 18, 2017, 0:38

    We could phase in lower prices for rare earth to encourage new uses for newly cheaper resources however the term phase-in means a regulatory regime that involves an agreed to cartel
    As I suggest here
    http://yellowdragonblog.com/2017/07/24/a-legislative-cartel-regime-to-regulate-flows-of-asteroidlunar-derived-materials-to-economic-markets/

    • Alex Tolley November 18, 2017, 18:23

      Actually I would prefer rare earths to become more expensive forcing substitutions where possible. Interestingly the rapid explosion of large batteries for cars and energy storage has resulted in lithium to be in short supply. No doubt new reserves or extraction processes will be found for such a common element. back in the 1970s, it was thought we would run out of copper and this was one of the metals that there was some concern about. In that case we found new reserves. OTOH, platinum demand has been reduced as the amount used in catalysis has been reduced by more efficient use of the metal.

      In the case of rare earths, permanent higher prices would indicate an inability to substitute and make new sources, like those in space, more economic. However, rare earths are not rare on Earth, so I would expect new reserves to be exploited, e.g. in Afghanistan.

  • Jer November 18, 2017, 1:01

    A fascinating and compelling examination of resource access and development in the next great frontier, set into an appealing space-pioneer/ tech explorer/ investor engineer context — but of course, market-based economics/ business investment are just for nice people in non-scarce, low stakes industries. I am leaning more toward the notion of a resources-based international space race where locking in those assets necessary to establish a LEO or higher presence is the driver to solidifying various entities’ politico-socio-economic interests and eventually widespread public interest/ access.
    It would be interesting to see what the likely infrastructure configurations for first permanent presence, with a focus on human-based and auto/semi-auto manufacturing, would be and how much of that could be non-Earth sourced. Can the engineering and testing environments for further space craft/ habitat work be undertaken completely off the Earth’s surface? How would that affect which space objects to exploit and which agreements and partnerships to pursue? Is it possible to just pick 5 x 100m asteroids and create a future space-faring orbital industry off of that? What about a small cis-lunar space city? How could that development be configured to use ‘locally-sourced’ (read: extra-orbital) materials and near-autonomous construction/ procurement? Will the developments be planned 10 years in advance or consist of assemblages of ad-hoc construction projects and cast-off debris – which lends itself to asteroid-based extraction and manufacturing? It may well be that we don’t know the answers to these questions until the projects are already being mined, prepared, and fabricated hundreds and thousands of miles above the Earth’s surface, each project a collection of parts eking out an existence in an uncertain orbit, mixing with the debris and projects of thousands of launchings in the decades previous. Resource rush or well-planned construction project – this may be the difference between a space presence with regular human occupancy in the 2050s or the 2100s.

    • Alex Tolley November 18, 2017, 17:38

      All good questions. Extra-judicial homes for oligarchs and wealthy criminals might be a demand driver, or perhaps escape proof prisons for same (a new Alcatraz, Devil’s Island, St. Helena, or Planasia) ;)

  • xcalibur November 18, 2017, 3:22

    I think the issue of launch cost should be emphasized. As long as reaching low earth orbit is difficult and expensive, we won’t be able to bootstrap an interplanetary economy. Once that wall comes down, the rest should be straightforward, and progress will be driven by near-term profits. First an expansion of tourism, then mining asteroids, and eventually space colonies.

    The key breakthrough is to shift away from chemical rockets towards an economic launch system, e.g. launch loops or star-trams. These systems would ‘open the floodgates’ with their capability of providing cheap and frequent launches. However, this would require significant upfront investment of money & resources, which is the sticking point. We need governments and/or corporations to see the long-term benefits of expansion into space, which has been lacking in the past few decades.

    • Alex Tolley November 18, 2017, 17:31

      Thinking about the demand side rather than the supply side might be more appropos. Space tourism would create a potentially large demand for high volume transport to space. This demand would be price driven, which is what SpaceX is going for with its BFR rocket proposal. Recall his proposal a year ago with ITS to Mars was to drive teh flight cost down to the price of a US suburban house, implying folks could sell up and settle on Mars, or possibly pay for the trip with a loan (or perhaps 7 years of indentured work by a corporation?). Demand will drive technology which will drive a virtuous circle of increasing demand and reduced costs.

      • xcalibur November 18, 2017, 20:52

        I think supply and demand must work in tandem. Greater supply will increase demand, as space tourism and mining becomes more affordable. Likewise, growth of demand will encourage further investment in the requisite technology. What is needed is to get the positive feedback loop started. My thinking was to start with supply side, but demand side is also plausible.

        • Alex tolley November 19, 2017, 23:50

          Think how slowly air travel got going. Supply was available, but the idea of air travel for tourism and business took some time to grow, especially while other forms of transport existed. I suspect that destinations will need to be built to build the business – hotels, local transportation, entertainment, etc.

      • Curious November 19, 2017, 13:48

        All the models that involve humans neglect to factor in the reality that you literally cannot live on any other nearby world without significant and self sutainable infrastructure. Entirely new economic models have to be built that DO NOT rely on hackneyed examples such as settling the old west or the new world. Also don’t assume the resources need to be rbought back to Earth – the value proposition is entirely different off-Earth. For example air is free here and yes the most valuable commodity somewhere else. What I would like to see is someone start economic analyses for something realizable such as a Mars only economy.

        • Brett Bellmore November 19, 2017, 15:57

          IMO, the colonization of space will not really be economically feasible until we have self-replicating technology, due to the heavy infrastructure demands per individual colonist.

          OTOH, once we have self-replicating technology, settling the old west will be a reasonable analogy, because the key point about settling the old west was that you could live off the land. And with self-reproducing infrastructure, an isolated group could “live off the land” even if the land was just an old cometary core.

          But such technology makes a hash of current economics, the field will have to advance substantially to make sense of a world where a single machine unleashed on a planet can have an arbitrarily high return on investment.

        • Alex tolley November 19, 2017, 23:47

          SF author Charles Stross is skeptical of space travel because he thinks there is no “there” there. I think he is wrong for tourism at least – we have trips to the Amazon, the Antartic, to name 2 destinations that I would argue have no usable destination. A trip to the Moon just to view the sights and exp[erience low g seems like a decent destination to me.

          If humans can live in space, most likely in O’Neills, then we will create our own destinations. With potentially millions or even billions of such habitats, there might be more interesting places to visit than ever there were on Earth.

        • Lake Matthew Team November 20, 2017, 15:48

          Yes, self-replicating infrastructure robotics could improve the economics considerably. At the low end, perhaps a minimal ISRU factory system could be specified, for production of relatively simple robotics, such as construction and mining bots. If the complex electronics were shipped as low-mass cargo from Earth, and only the other components were manufactured locally, manufacturing complexity could be cut to the bare minimum.

          Just wondering: What is the simplest possible ISRU design for, say, a battery-powered front-loader?

          http://adammelton.com/media/2012lunabotics/DSC01306_600x450.JPG

          (Financial disclosure statement: the poster has financial interest in rapid expansion of martian PGM mining operations.) ;-)

  • David Herne November 18, 2017, 4:40

    I am yet to read beyond the introduction but scanning the article, it seems Paul that you and Alex have rewarded you readers with this treatise. Looking forward to taking it in carefully. A ‘Duesenberg’ for the initiated (or elderly) amongst us! (I saw one once in Western Australia of all places.)

    • Paul Gilster November 18, 2017, 10:49

      Lucky guy. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Duesenberg up close!

  • Michael Fidler November 18, 2017, 6:21

    I can see a couple of things that could cause this to happen much sooner then the day after tomorrow. A Unobtanium rush, EmDrive, Mach Effect Thruster, LENR, and the forgotten Mass Driver or as now we call it the Rail Gun.

    • Alex Tolley November 18, 2017, 17:26

      Conversely, cheaper mining methods on Earth, reduced demand for some minerals by substitution, new reserves, could delay such a scenario.

      The main driver is the demand in space. A large space infrastructure would make space resource extracction more viable. If that infrastructure was initially launched from earth and also housed humans, then low cost access to space would be a driver to that scenario. Reusable rockets and spaceplanes, and perhaps different high thrust propulsion systems would support that cost reduction.

      • Lake Matthew Team November 20, 2017, 16:11

        “A large space infrastructure would make space resource extraction more viable. If that infrastructure was initially launched from earth and also housed humans, then low cost access to space would be a driver to that scenario.”

        Just an observation on the psychology of space resource extraction:

        Thinking about what you wrote: Musk intends to launch a large infrastructure to Mars, principally for inhabitation, as soon as SpaceX can pull money and tech together. SpaceX is driving the bus today. And logically that SpaceX infrastructure could serve also as a base for ‘viable space resource extraction’. After all, the return flights are already committed, awaiting product.

        Putting myself in the mindset of a prospective resource miner, I ask, why not piggyback on those flights, and on all other committed (nascent) infrastructure, to offload that cost to SpaceX et al., instead of sinking the cost myself? For example, why build my own fleet of deep-space cargo craft, when SpaceX will deliver the cargo craft to Mars for me — and on someone else’s dime? I’d just pay a cargo shipping fee, and load boxes.

        It seems a fairly straightforward, cost-effective approach, and one that should win focused attention in those bars where space resource business plans are debated. Yet I’ve seen that most people who talk about asteroid mining — even at a high professional level — actively resist that line of thought. This, despite the fact that they cannot argue against the economics of piggybacked transport, etc.

        They just don’t want to talk about it. In fact, most simply turn away, silent. Then weeks later I’ll see them talking publicly about asteroid mining once again, as though automated zero-g factories were right around the corner, and Mars… non-existent.

        Why do you think this is?

        • Alex Tolley November 20, 2017, 19:07

          Musk intends to launch a large infrastructure to Mars, principally for inhabitation, as soon as SpaceX can pull money and tech together.

          He doesn’t. He wants to create the transportation system to Mars. Others are expected to build the infrastructure – habitats, farms, etc. Of course, one of your press releases also talks about dedicated infrastructure that I assume you want to build.

          (…) why build my own fleet of deep-space cargo craft, when SpaceX will deliver the cargo craft to Mars for me – and on someone else’s dime? I’d just pay a cargo shipping fee, and load boxes.

          Firstly, there is no ITS or BFR yet. It is just vaporware. Hopefully it will appear, but you cannot count on it. Maybe SpaceX will cut you a good deal on shipping costs to Earth, but as the only supplier, SpaceX might well want to squeeze your margins. Secondly, Musk has made it quite clear that the Moon will also be a destination, so why go all the way to Mars when the mining site could be almost next door? The economics and returns of materials mined from different sources has to be evaluated.

          Regarding the “build vs buy” argument you pose. Transport is just part of the cost. The mining equipment and operations also have to be built and run, and they will be dedicated to the mining operation. For a mining craft, you can buy the engines off-the-shelf, but Caterpillar doesn’t have a catalog of machines for off-world mining available (yet).

          Economically, all the bulk materials are best used locally, rather than shipped back to Earth orbit. As the cost of access to space declines, e.g. using the BFR, the cheapest supply of materials will come from Earth. The only elements that are currently worth shipping back to Earth are the PGMs. However, you cannot ship back too much or their market value declines. The main argument for mining extra-terrestrial platinum was that Earth’s reserves were limited for the projected demand (which never materialized). But suppose demand did increase, then planetary bodies like the Moon and Mars are unlikely to have accessible deposits greater than that of the Earth. The asteroids however, even though of lower aggregate mass, have all their mass accessible to mining, thus offering the vast wealth that John Lewis indicated in his seminal book. However, grinding up asteroids (or Martian impactors) to extract PGMs in ppm concentrations makes little sense when the base metals like iron are so useful when fabricated into structures and machines. The value of those structures and machines is local, not returned to Earth.

          If Mars does get colonized, then local mining will make sense, but primarily to make the infrastructure needed for colonial expansion. There may be a sideline in shipping PGMs back to Earth, but most of the mining operation will be for bulk materials for the colonists, not for export.

          Any mining operation has to be evaluated as an investment, where the competitive price is the material supplied from Earth. My guess is that sheet steel shipped from Earth will prove cheaper than any off-world operation to produce for quite a while. After all, China now produces steel at a price that cannot be met by US mills, despite the added shipping costs.

          • Lake Matthew Team November 21, 2017, 17:59

            “Maybe SpaceX will cut you a good deal on shipping costs to Earth, but as the only supplier, SpaceX might well want to squeeze your margins.”

            Well, SpaceX will need revenue for Mars launches. Mars PGM miners will need affordable launches for revenue. Seems a fair basis for haggling. (And Blue Origin is the dark horse pressuring SpaceX in this scenario.)

            What strikes me: asteroid miners seem unwilling to consider that sort of possibility. It’s the psychological “block” that seems odd.

            “Musk has made it quite clear that the Moon will also be a destination, so why go all the way to Mars when the mining site could be almost next door? The economics and returns of materials mined from different sources has to be evaluated.”

            Sure, he’s cool on a Moon base. But commercial ore isn’t there. You saw the reference, “Lunar resources: A review.” The metal survey was sensitive, but disappointing.

            Here again the psychology is odd. Moon miners rarely mention the actual survey results, speaking as though no survey existed. This is quite unlike terrestrial PGM miner psychology, where the latest survey results are quickly consumed and appreciated.

            “Economically, all the bulk materials are best used locally, rather than shipped back to Earth orbit.”

            Naturally, yes. Are you familiar with Invar? It’s just iron and nickel, an old alloy more easily produced than steel. And when you remove precious metals and cobalt from nickel-iron debris, you’re left with only nickel and iron, most conveniently.

            “The only elements that are currently worth shipping back to Earth are the PGMs. However, you cannot ship back too much or their market value declines.”

            Of course. A thought: if you put terrestrial PGM mines out of business, you take their revenue, which would be considerable even at lower PGM prices.

            Also actually I think gold price is historically dissociated from production rate. It’s not a PGM of course, but produced concurrently.

            Thanks.

  • Andrew Palfreyman November 18, 2017, 7:11

    Something along the lines of StarTram can kickstart a mining economy in space by providing low launch costs. But our innate untidiness is a potential problem when it comes to asteroid mining; what happens to the tailings? I can see the entire enterprise generating many tons of waste, perhaps in the form of dust and pebbles. Here on Earth, dead fish and even dead whales are being discovered full of plastic. We should try to not turn space into a garbage tip. We already have a mass of space junk in Earth orbit.

    • Alex Tolley November 18, 2017, 17:21

      Tailings can be minimized by subsurface extraction and surface containment with membranes. Loose material that esacpes would tend to co-orbit with the asteroid and return to it. If it was small enough, it would be slowly ejected from the solar system by the sun’s emissions.

      Maybe the HyperLoop folks could be interested in a StarTram generation 1 maglev system? Seems right up their technology alley.

  • djlactin November 18, 2017, 9:27

    As with many other technologies, the plan is to miniaturize. Launch von Neumann nanobots that assemble a factory and mining equipment in situ, then either mass-drive the spawn into near-earth orbit for recovery, or assemble vessels to carry them.

    • Alex Tolley November 18, 2017, 17:14

      That is very similar to Spacefab’s vision. naonbots may be a bit extreme, but self-replicating niners using ISRU is definitely a way to go.

      On Earth, we use biological nanobots, i.e. microbes, to extract some minerals. Arguably, bioengineered microbial mats, filamentous or macro algae, could be used to extract metals, like gold, from sea water. On asteroid with water, that might be a possibility too.

  • Jens Knudsen November 18, 2017, 10:51

    Are there any other iron – nickel asteroids out there, in a more accessible orbit than Psyche, and suitable for mining?

    • Randy Chung, SpaceFab.US November 18, 2017, 14:13

      We’ve checked the NASA database, and there aren’t many asteroids classed as iron-nickel. There are some near Earth asteroids that are thought to have minerals that contain metal, like iron sulfides, but none that are pure metal. There must be a few near Earth iron-nickel asteroids, but probably less than one in a hundred. They would also be small, too small to get good radar returns from Earth, so you’d have to spend money sending out a prospecting satellite.
      The only other iron-nickel asteroid candidate that we know of is 1986 DA. It’s classified as a near Earth asteroid, since its perihelion is 1.2 AU, but it has an eccentric orbit, and will go out almost to Jupiter.
      There are a few other suspected iron-nickel asteroids, but they have high inclinations, so they are more expensive to reach.

    • Alex Tolley November 18, 2017, 17:07

      3554 Amuin: Semi-major axis 0.97 AU, inclination 23.4 degrees.
      16-Psyche: Semi-major axis 2.92 AU, inclination 3.1 degrees.

      Even though Amun has a higher inclination, I believe the delta V is lower. More importantly, it is closer and therefor the mission time isshorter (faster ROI) and te nining season can be longer (larger return mass).

      Someone with more familiarity with orbital mechanics can provide the relative delta Vs.

      However, the problem with pure metal asteroids is that there are no volatiles to extract as propellant for a return journey, thus incurring a mass penalty. If an asteroid is a solid lump of Ni-Fe, it will need cutting equipment to extract material. (Melting is far too energy intensive). An asteroid with mixed composition with metal fragments in a looser regolith might be a far better target as the mining equipment can be much simpler. I think this is the type of target that asteroid mining companies looking for metals are after.

      Of course, the closest targets to go after are meteorites on earth. The Sudbury platinum mine in Canada is a meteorite source and we know that is profitable ;) There will be similar such meterotes on teh Moon, so the lunar return delta V (with or without ISRU for propellant) may be a baseline to improve upon.

      • Randy Chung, SpaceFab.US November 18, 2017, 19:52

        It’s true that pure metal asteroids don’t have volatiles that can be used for propulsion, but many metal meterorites have small amounts of troilite, a sulfide of iron. If we can extract the sulfur, we should be able to use it as a propellant in an ion engine, and we won’t need much of it if the ion engine has a high Isp.

      • Jens Knudsen November 19, 2017, 17:28

        What is the prospect of sending a ‘facility’ to such a world, that can ‘dig’ nickel-iron out of it, and then 3D print (‘weld’) it into structure onsite? Made to a suitable scale, is there a physical possibility of ‘printing’ the basic hull of a habitat, beginning with a facility that stands on the surface of the nickel – iron deposit? As far as I understand, this ‘steel’ is a good construction material.

        • Alex tolley November 19, 2017, 23:40

          Conceptually this is quite possible. However, metal printing machines are very large, so it won’t happen for a while. Possible more problematic is that structures need different materials to be usable, so the needed printers and feedstocks are more complex.

          An option I like is to create flat rolled sheets of metal and then fold them, origami-like to make 3-D structures. No doubt there will be a number of construction approaches that could be employed to use local resources.

          • Jens Knudsen November 20, 2017, 18:07

            How about using something like a long manipulator arm with an ‘extruder head’ on the tip, the size of one of these construction cranes used to build big buildings? It would have to be made very stiff, though. A carbon truss?

        • Randy Chung, SpaceFab.US November 20, 2017, 0:20

          That’s our (SpaceFab.US’) goal, to enable the construction of things small and large from asteroid metal. We plan to start with a “minimum viable factory” that can collect small pieces of iron and process them into machine parts, then assemble them into useful machinery. Gradually, the factory will grow large enough and capable enough to build large things like habitats.

          • Lake Matthew Team November 20, 2017, 17:26

            Very cool tech, Randy, and you’ve got an interesting focus.

            “Our first focus on asteroid mining is to mine metal, unlike other asteroid mining companies which are focusing on mining water, because metal processing enables exponential manufacturing growth.”

            Question: In your experience / opinion, are there particular advantages or disadvantages to metal processing in zero-g vs. under gravity?

            • Randy Chung, SpaceFab.US November 20, 2017, 21:57

              Advantages for processing in gravity:
              – separating melted material by density is easy, the light stuff floats to the top and the heavy stuff sinks to the bottom. In zero gravity, we’d have to use a centrifuge.
              – small objects won’t float away. In zero gravity, everything must be bolted down or held magnetically. We would advise mechanical designers to add bolt holes or gripping studs on everything.
              – dust falls to the ground immediately. In zero G, a centrifuge room might be needed to keep the dust down. In low G, a centrifuge room might not be needed, but it might necessary to wait 5 or 10 seconds for the dust to settle.
              Advantages for processing in very low gravity: it’s easy to pick up and move objects. A robot arm or gripper that can lift one pound in Earth gravity at 1000 milli-G, can lift 30 pounds at 30 milli-G and lift 1000 pounds at 1 milli-G. This means light weight robot arms can still be used to handle big heavy things (although it takes longer to move, of course). It makes conveying things easier, too. Heavy things don’t have to be moved by a conveyor belt or a lift truck, they can be moved hand-to-hand.
              – in very low G, machinery can be attached to a factory’s walls and ceilings, not just the floor.
              – it’s easier to get things into orbit. At very low G, rockets might not be needed. An electric trebuchet or other electro-mechanical device might be enough.

              • Lake Matthew Team November 21, 2017, 10:18

                Thanks, appreciate the voice of experience.

                And “electric trebuchet”, cool! Any idea what kind of launch force such a device might impart?

                • Randy Chung, SpaceFab.US November 21, 2017, 13:15

                  Escape velocity for a “medium” sized metal asteroid like 1986 DA (10^11 tons, 3 km diameter) is about 3 meters per second. You could throw a baseball faster than that.
                  A linear electric motor would probably work better than an electric trebuchet. That was a kind of joke.

  • Tom Mazanec November 18, 2017, 16:17

    The cost of the craft was to be around $150MM

    What is this? $150 Million Million? Over 10^14 dollars!?

    • Alex Tolley November 18, 2017, 17:08

      In finance, M is sometimes used instead of k and = 1000. So MM = million.

      • Brett Bellmore November 18, 2017, 18:36

        I have to admit that every time I see “MT”, I’m thrown off, because I read it as “Mega ton”.

  • Lake Matthew Team November 19, 2017, 23:40

    A good article with real mining research, and good comments. However you may be overlooking some advantages of Mars that can improve the economics of Metal mining well beyond the point at which low-g mining of asteroids loses commercial viability. Maybe Paul can reset his spreadsheet for a winner-take-all scenario, highlighting the case for Mars.

    Our take, summarized in a few press releases:

    ISEC presentation:
    Announcing the Omaha Trail, a system for high-efficiency transport between Earth and Mars.
    http://www.lakematthew.com/press/press-release-september-18-2017/
    The Omaha Trail proposal would cut the cost of transport significantly. Mars would become the least expensive destination beyond cislunar space.
    Update at British Interplanetary Society:
    http://www.lakematthew.com/press/press-release-november-7-2017/

    OEMF 2017 conference talk:
    Winner-take-all: a case for rare-metal mining on Mars with MATT
    http://www.lakematthew.com/press/press-release-september-21-2017/
    Some other potential advantages of Mars mining, vs. low-g asteroid mining:
    High likelihood of a variety of metal-core asteroid debris, preserved near surface.
    Spacious indoor facilities with MATT.
    Local VR telerobotics.
    Real gravity.
    Committed spacecraft, for leased cargo transport.
    Assertion: “When Martians scoop their first bucket of ore, low-g metal mines lose commercial viability.”

    Omaha Shield:
    a triad of radiation protection systems, to enable the Unlimited Mars Career (UMC)
    http://www.lakematthew.com/press/press-release-november-16-2017/
    With the UMC, no mining crewmember suffers a career-limiting radiation dose, over any career duration on Mars. This would improve Mars mining economics even further.

    • Alex Tolley November 20, 2017, 12:44

      Some interesting ideas in the proposal.
      A few points:

      1. You cannot take that expensive infrastructure as a sunk cost and assume that no amortized cost must be recovered. It seems to me your group needs someone familiar with finance and investments.

      2. Impactors are going to just as common on the Moon. All those costs of going to Mars and using local humans is avoided mining for the same minerals on the Moon using teleoperation from Earth. Similar infrastructure to reduce transport costs has been proposed for the Moon by O’Neill.

      3. Minerals mined on Mars are probably best used on Mars to build local infrastructure. Treating Martians trying to colonize as labor for the mining operation smacks of 19th century colonialism to me. Those colonists may not like it. There may also be a “Red Mars” faction.

      4. I agree about using water for radiation shielding. See the Spacecoach concept to optimize spacecraft using water as propellant: A Stagecoach to the Stars

      • Lake Matthew Team November 20, 2017, 13:30

        Hi. Thanks, a few notes.

        1. Costs: Yes, we’ve had discussions around investment and ROI, within and outside our team. There’s an article in press now, focusing on business options (abstract at LakeMatthew.com).

        There are several investor exit options, staged at different times or milestones. Notably, there are reasons for State investment, as e.g. with the Lavrion silver mine. And no one asks the State for an ROI timetable. ;-)

        http://ancient-greece.org/archaeology/lavrion.html

        2. Moon: Actually the lunar impacts appear to have been poor in HSEs. .2% enriched lunar surface, vs. .7% terrestrial and .8% martian. Mars swept out the E-belt, the likely source of enrichment; and given low relative speed, the likely source of preserved metal-core impactors.

        See Crawford, I. A. (2015). Lunar resources: A review. Progress in Physical Geography, 39(2), 137-167.

        2a. teleoperation from Earth: Desirable if possible, yes. I chatted with a leading space teleroboticist about this, and he’s downbeat presently. The simulated lunar delay has made teleoperation very awkward. And when operations are performed in VR, even experienced testers get quite sick! Possibly the only good VR solution will be local to the celestial bodies.

        3. colonists may not like it: We suggest taxation WITH representation. :-)

        4. water: Yes, pound-for-pound, water really is a good shielding material. As for propellant, yes, you could apply it for propulsion if you really needed to; though I think the Mars hop isn’t long enough to justify that R&D effort. Return trip can be especially fast: Omaha Trail facilities would enable return flights with delta-v high enough to produce maximum tolerable g-force at Earth EDL: 6 g+.

        Thanks for those thoughts.
        LMT

  • Michael November 21, 2017, 18:18

    We should go to the moon first as it can be used as the base for a powerful laser beam to propel us around the solar system not just Mars. If starshot gets up and running it could also be used as a means to solar panel the moons surface by melting it to form a smooth printable surface.

  • ljk December 4, 2017, 13:33

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