Off-Earth mining: The challenge of turning asteroids into “gas stations in space”

Some of the technologies required to mine in space already exist. Steve Carter, vice president of product alignment at Dassault Systèmes GEOVIA assesses the risks and rewards for those who boldly venture.

Some asteroids contain water, in the form of ice, other frozen gases and metals. If mined, the raw materials on these asteroids could provide the air, water, fuel and other consumables required to support permanent settlements in space.

Asteroids could become ‘gas stations in space’ where, according to Rick Tumlinson, of Deep Space Industries, whose company plans to analyse then mine asteroids, “you can get air and propellants”.

Carrying water into space is hugely expensive and requires large rockets that consume vast amounts of fuel. Using the resources already in space overcomes those lifting problems, at least for consumables and other raw materials, and would allow people to travel further at lower cost.

Another space exploration company, Planetary Resources, lists Richard Branson and Google’s Larry Page as investors. Its co-founder Eric Anderson estimates that some platinum-rich asteroids just 500m across could contain more than the entire known reserves of platinum group metals here on Earth.

Meanwhile, Wall Street research firm Bernstein notes that a big asteroid called 16 Psyche, in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and measuring some 200km across, may contain 17 million billion tonnes of nickel-iron – enough to satisfy mankind’s current demand for millions of years.

The analysis of asteroids that have fallen to Earth has shown that they contain iron, rhodium, iridium, rhenium, osmium, ruthenium, palladium, germanium and gold as well as platinum. Many of these are in purer forms than occur on earth.

This supports the theories that copious amounts of these metals exist in asteroids, they just have to be found and mined, in space.


Making off-Earth mining a reality

Mining and living in space like the movie Avatar (2009) or The Jetsons TV series (1962-1988) seem like real possibilities with the availability of water, fuel and high value elements.

However, there is a lot of technology that still needs to be developed before off-Earth mining becomes a reality.

While it is highly unlikely that we will see mining on the moon in ours, or our children’s lifetime, many people have been speculating on what is possible with mining on asteroids.

Mining will be required to provide raw materials to support permanent settlement on other planets or moons. However, until we have people based long term on other planets or moons, there is no case for it.

The step that will precede this is asteroid mining, as this will support the permanent settlement of space, and because it’s a lower cost proposition than lifting everything from Earth.

There are 1,500 known asteroids within relatively easy reach of the Earth. And, although yet to be proven, there is an expectation that minerals in asteroids are evenly distributed, making them easier to detect and extract. Further, it has been estimated that a single water-rich asteroid 500m wide could contain 40Mt of water – providing a valuable resource to space travellers.


Jobs in space

Once resources are secured, manufacturing in zero gravity conditions offers the promise of new technologies, while finding raw materials ‘locally’ would save the thousands of dollars per kilogram in production costs compared to lifting them out of Earth’s gravity.

Fabricating transportation vehicles and their fuel in space offers many advantages to mankind. The reality is that this is still a long way off, but there are important things happening today on Earth that are precursors to asteroid mining.

Some things will be similar, exploration and resource modelling in particular, because asteroids have to be found and assessed prior to mining. This is likely to employ very different techniques though, perhaps using high-powered lasers to heat small parts of an asteroid to analyse the emitted light spectrum in order to assess its composition.

The act of mining itself is likely to be different through making use of remotely operated and fully autonomous robots. This is where current activities by large miners – Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton for example – to develop this type of mining equipment, are likely to be of benefit.

Although it’s likely that some people will still need to be in space, the use of robotics will go a long way to mitigating the associated risks.

The cost of asteroid mining will also drive companies to use much more sophisticated techniques for exploration and mining than are currently in use.

For example, Dassault Systèmes 3DEXPERIENCE technology has been used across a wide range of industries – automotive, aerospace, industrial equipment and mining – to improve the quality of designs and the efficiency of processes. There is every reason to believe that it will help with mining in space.


Advancing the asteroid mining industry

Mining touches the whole of human activity, and has throughout history been correlated with human advancement.

Setting up colonies to mine on other planets is not just a matter of technology, but also of will; in 1900 man could not fly, but by 1969 we were on the moon. The will focussed the technology and the mission was accomplished.

The technology exists, or could be developed to get to space, develop transport and robotics, map model and analyse asteroids, determine their content and release their value, and companies such as Planetary Resources are currently recruiting engineers.

The risks, hazards and rewards are new, different and unknown. Not unlike those that faced the Wright brothers in 1903.

Images courtesy of Dassault Systèmes.

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