Asteroid mining is one of those topics that sounds like it’s straight out of science fiction. But, in recent years, with the growth of lower-cost launch options, mining space rocks could become downright economical. As an added plus, getting important resources from asteroids could help drive the switchover to clean environmental practices and technologies right here on Earth.
In a recent exploratory paper, a group of academic researchers at Colorado School of Mines led by Dr. Maxwell Fleming joined an International Monetary Fund member Martin Stuermer to explore the topic. Their work looks at a variety of factors, including those lower launch costs, and asks the question “What if these costs continue to decline, making mining from asteroids or the Moon feasible?”
They analyzed the most relevant factors and used a Ramsay growth model to look at cost savings and investment dynamics involved with a transition from Earth-based to space mining. That model outlines a steady economic growth rate in terms of labor, capital, and technology. For space-based mining, labor is an open question, since such activities probably would be mostly robotic. Investment capital probably isn’t a problem, but the development of such technology has challenges.
After examining the costs of mining here on Earth—both economic and environmental—the answer is fairly simple. They write, “We find that a transition of mining from Earth to Space could potentially allow for continued growth of metal use on Earth while limiting environmental and social costs. At the same time, such a transition could require an upper limit on the environmental and social costs on Earth to incentivize investment into R&D for space mining.”
Mining on Earth and Asteroids
Earth-based mining is an old and familiar concept. In the “olden days”, it was fairly cheap to get ores out of the ground. Miners dug ore and sent it to market. In more modern times, most mining uses automation in addition to some human labor. These days, the cost of extracting minerals has increased 60 times over the past century. It’s also incredibly environmentally damaging.
Many minerals today are important to the clean energy technologies needed for more efficient transportation, communication, and other facets of modern living. A complete clean energy transition leans heavily on the availability of copper, cobalt, nickel, zinc, silver, and others. Increased mining costs and depletion of these resources have an effect on the clean energy transition. And, of course, there are always the environmental effects of such mining.
The Challenges of Space Mining
With that in mind, people are looking toward space-based resources. That means asteroids and possibly the Moon. Asteroids are a particularly tasty target. They’re just floating around out there, and appear to be rich in many ores. Of course, there are challenges to getting those ores. First, miners have to get to the asteroids. Or, we need to build robotic mining operations that work on asteroids in the harsh environment of space. Then, all that ore has to be transported back to Earth for refining and eventual incorporation into our clean technologies. That could, in the long run, stimulate economic growth back here on the home planet.
Leaving aside questions of “Who benefits?” and “Should we worry about the environmental damage to asteroids and near-Earth space?”, mining asteroids does present an interesting and profitable challenge.’ just floating around out there, and they appear to be rich in many ores. Of course, there are challenges to getting those ores. First, miners have to get to the asteroids. Or, we need to build robotic mining operations that work on asteroids in the harsh environment of space. Then, all that ore has to be transported back to Earth for refining and eventual incorporation into our clean technologies. That could, in the long run, stimulate economic growth back here on the home planet. Leaving aside questions of “Who benefits?” and “Should we worry about the environmental damage to asteroids and near-Earth space?”, mining asteroids does present an interesting and profitable challenge.
The Challenges of Space Mining
One potential sticking point is basically “How do we know which asteroids are rich in ores?” While planetary scientists know a fair amount about these leftovers of Solar System creation, a lot remains unknown. For example, based on asteroid samples, scientists know that the abundance of some minerals in asteroids is higher than here on Earth. Cobalt, Nickel, and iridium, for example, are more abundant on asteroids. But, how much are we talking about? That’s unknown because scientists don’t have good data on any “reserves” existing on these objects. Of course, as NASA and others send more probes to asteroids, that knowledge base will change. Eventually, companies interested in mining will be able to develop more concrete plans based on feasibility studies and missions (such as OSIRIS-REx) sent by space agencies.
Another potential barrier is the development of the actual mining technologies. There are issues of usability, safety, and cost. Any equipment will have to work consistently in a low-gravity, near-vacuum environment. It’s one thing to send a small test robot to poke at an asteroid, and that does give some initial ideas about mining equipment. But, extensive mining to solve some of the environmental challenges here on Earth will require a full-scale operation. Once those challenges are met, the authors of the paper expect that the space environment will hardly be affected. Also, they state that costs to transport ores back to Earth (or Earth orbit) will benefit from utilizing the gravity well. A number of challenges on the technology side need solutions.
What Do We Gain?
The authors of the study employed a growth model to chart a possible plausible future for space mining. They came up with the following conclusions. First, eventually, there could well be a shift from mining Earth resources to exploiting asteroid resources. This will be influenced by the amount of environmental damage done here on the home planet. Second, there will need to be a pretty substantial investment in R&D for mining asteroids. Third, costs should drop as companies deploy more technology for mining. Fourth, in the short term, as ores are depleted on Earth, costs could rise, which could slow down a clean energy transition. But, if massive amounts of ores from space become available, eventually costs drop. That could signal a speed-up of the transition.
There’s an important factor that will affect future mining in space: who owns the asteroids? While the goal of the paper was to examine an economic model for space mining, the political and social aspects also need to be examined. Property rights in space have to be clarified, particularly in light of the Outer Space Treaty. Some countries and companies are very interested in exploiting resources and the Treaty may or may not stop them from doing so. In addition, questions about the market, public-private partnerships, taxation, and other aspects of doing business also come into play.
The authors end their exploration of the topic by asking, “How can the government help “buy down” the risk to encourage private investment? What public–private partnerships provide all parties with a fair distribution of potential gains?” The answers remain for future investors to determine.