Study Looks at Making Asteroid Mining Viable

Artist concept of the Robotic Asteroid Prospector. Credit: Marc Cohen et al.

There’s been a lot of buzz in the media lately about mining asteroids, largely brought on by the introduction of Planetary Resources, Peter Diamandis’ new venture into the industry. But is this business proposition actually viable? NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts is funding a study that hopes to answer that question.

Called the Robotic Asteroid Prospector proposal, the project is part of the NIAC’s Phase I program awardees. It is headed by Dr. Marc Cohen, an architect based in Palo Alto California, with help from Warren James, a trajectory expert, Kris Zacny, a roboticist at Honeybee Robotics and Brad Blair, a mineral economist. Their proposal studies the fundamentals of some major questions facing the asteroid mining industry. What kinds of mission and spacecraft design are necessary? Is the right kind of mining technology available? And most importantly, is there even a viable business model for doing it in the first place?

Dr. Cohen himself is skeptical that there is, but points out that’s part of the reason he’s so interested in performing the research. Contributing to his skepticism are the numerous assumptions the proposal is based on. These include a telescope in Venus orbit to help the search for near-Earth objects (one of NASA’s primary mission statements, and similar to the B612 Foundation’s space telescope that will hunt for Near Earth Asteroids) and regular commercial access to a service base located in a Lagrange point from which to launch the missions.

“We’re trying to make the assumptions really clear, specific and explicit, so we understand what the trade-offs are,” Dr. Cohen told Universe Today. “One thing we’re being very careful about is not going in with any preconceptions.”

The assumptions lead to a spacecraft design, possibly using a solar-thermal propulsion system, that launches to a NEO from the Lagrange point station, mines and processes the material at the asteroid and then returns it to the Lagrange point for shipment back to Earth.

Dr. Cohen explained that the team is trying to find the requirements that would make a robotic asteroid program commercially successful.

There are still plenty of challenges to solve, including developing trajectories that allow the spacecraft to make repeated, short trips to the asteroid it is mining and handling any sort of technical problems without a human presence nearby. If it manages to resolve some of those difficulties, the project could result in the outlines of one of the backbones of the future space economy. It might also attract funding for the Phase II round of funding from NIAC next year.

For more information about the RAP, see the NIAC website

11 Replies to “Study Looks at Making Asteroid Mining Viable”

  1. Please, move forward. We need the exotic materials that can be produced in space. Just think about what types of alloys that can be created in zero G.

    They can be made into, filliments, films, crystals, nano tubes/particulates, and my favorite Foam Metals which are extremely lite and strong.

    We just need the raw materials, the energy is readily available from the Sun, think of a 100 meter diameter mirror focused on your melting crucible.

  2. There is no harm thinking about it but there is no way, in the foreseeable future, asteroid mining could be a viable economic model. Pie in the sky. By the time you build all the needed infrastructure a pound of anything returned to Earth the cost would be many, many, times what it would cost to find and mine it on earth. Even if you just return it to near Earth space and plan to use it there – well there is another huge infrastructure to be designed and built.
    I would love to believe in asteroid mining but… not going to happen.

    1. I keep thinking about the cost of a copper cable going across/under the Atlantic Ocean and how that exceedingly expensive concept will never happen!

      At current prices this mission does sound implausible if not an economically insane venture, BUT when launch costs come down due to the repeatability of production line regularity, who’s nose? Robotics are key? Were we to get automated factories set up in LEO or on Luna, the rest of the pieces would fall into place. I _like_ the idea of using ‘wet’ asteroids for fuel and breathable air.. or NiFe rich space rocks for other metals or even AS a mined hollow spacecraft.

      “…not going to happen.” Maybe not in our lifetimes.. but…..

      1. Well, the idea of hollowing out a small asteroid (and processing the material for useful stuff) and turning it into a habit/spaceship is very attractive. Much more than this idea of mining and turning a profit by shipping stuff back to earth. Not economically feasible anytime soon. But the habitat/spaceship ain’t happening anytime soon either.

      2. I share your pessimism, but I applaud any movements towards asteroid mining. Even if we spend billions putting down the infrastructure and then it turns out to be totally uneconomical, the advances in space-tech made along the way will be good for everyone.

    2. If NASA does wind up putting a station out at L2 this whole concept becomes much more viable. Nothing like having a ready and waiting customer.

  3. NASA’s analysis will suggest that mining the first asteroid will cost 500 billion dollars, take 40 years, and the materials gathered will only be worth 1 billion dollars. Private industry will get there for 500 million, take 10 years, and net a profit of 2 billion on the first asteroid mined.

  4. When I look at the 80’s quality of these rendered images, then I doubt the success of this project.

    1. lol. Well obviously they don’t want to spend any more than a pittance on graphic design – they need to scrape together those pennies for the exhorbitant operational costs 😉

  5. What I would like to see as one of the next steps:
    A production plant for spacecraft fuel, either on the Moon or on an near-Earth object. And then flights of fuel-ferries to whatever points of interest we have in the Solar System.

    Because I think launching fuel for Solar System exploration from Earth is quite limiting.

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