Saturday, October 25, 2014
In order to be successful, a mining company in space has to do just what a mining company on earth does. They have to prospect for potential mother loads. Then figure out how to extract the materials they want. And finally transport all of that material to some one who will buy it to build a space station or a cellphone.
Several companies are already working toward the goal of exploiting the resources which are available in space. Planetary Resources in near to launching their first asteroid tracking satellites and Deep Space Industries is developing technologies which will allow humans to refine and use the materials mined from the asteroids.
Mining has always been one of the main reasons for going to space. The vacuum above our atmosphere is not as empty as many believe. An abundance of raw materials float aimlessly in space. Approximately 37,000-89,000 tons of these rocks fall to Earth each year. The value of asteroids comes from the fact that many many of them are expected to contain quantities of rare earth metals, such as platinum, as well as basic elements like iron and sources of water.
Planetary Resources is currently focusing on the rare earth metals that asteroids could supply to earth markets.
However, many critic mining companies who are going for the rare materials which appear to be abundant in asteroids. The traditional argument is that as soon as a company creates as steady supply of the materials to the earth then the market will become saturated, prices will drop, and the ability to finance the expensive space missions will disappear.
While this argument is legitimate to a point (if gold were common it would not be valuable) it is short-sighted.
Secondly, companies like PR are nowhere near to creating a supply that will saturate the market. Within ten years they might be able to retrieve an asteroid the size of a basketball.
When space mining companies do grow they will quickly grow out of the need to rely on earth-based markets to pay the bills. Once the infrastructure is set up, these companies will be the ones to provide the water and raw materials to build space stations and colonies. The prime technology behind DSI is their zero-gravity 3-D printing technology which will allow them to turn rock and raw iron from an asteroid into a beam or plate or someday a rocket nozzle.
And concerning the inability to pay for expensive missions with the profits from mineral returns, that assumes that space launches and missions will remain expensive. This is clearly not the case seeing that space launch companies like SpaceX have already dramatically reduced the cost of launch and are continuing to do so.
In reality asteroid mining has far fewer market obstacles than many of the other space ventures being pursued.
Unlike the space launch industry, there is currently more than enough demand for the materials space mining companies intend to deliver. And that demand is not within the space industry but across many ranging from battery manufacturing to catalytic converters.
Mining companies also have an unlimited growth potential, however far into the future you look. No matter how technology changes the raw materials will always need to be collected to build the stuff.
Space mining is a great industry to be on the ground floor of right now because the demand is there and the possibilities are many. The only problem a fresh entrepreneur may have getting into the race is the cost of creating the technology to deliver the goods. Even though PR and DSI are using off the shelf components and micro vehicles they are still not cheap companies.
But, if someone in a garage would like to contribute to space mining there are some technologies which could be pursued quite easily.
Currently there is no definitive way to securely land a craft on small space body. The lack of gravity makes it almost impossible to just set down on the surface. Stemming from this problem is the problem of grabbing a rock and putting it in tow. And then once the asteroid is secured tools and techniques for actually mining it in space are still on the drawing board. Any of these problems are hardware and even software problems which can be pursued and solved on a shoelace budget and a little clever design.
Asteroid mining is happening. True, it is only in its early stages but there always has to be the first prospector to go to California and find the first nugget. Asteroid mining will be one of the foundations of the future space economy. The infrastructure it creates, information it gathers, and the materials it refines will support nearly every other aspect of space travel, colonization, and commercialization.
Here is a great presentation on the quantitative aspects of asteroid mining