Rare-earth metals and other minerals are essential for green tech like EVs and renewable energy. Trouble is, we need a lot of them and their availability on Earth is limited. But what if we could tap into all the materials flying around in space? Some scientists claim we could mine asteroids in the future. Yes, asteroids. Is it just an Armageddon remake or will we eventually…dig into them…?
Star (mining) wars
So, what will we mine in the future? Asteroids? The moon? Or should we just stick with Earth? The problem with the last option is Earth’s mining resources will run out sooner or later. How long will that take? For certain metals and elements it could be less than 50 years according to some estimates.1 For example, Indium, which is a crucial rare-earth element used for thin‐film solar panels, may disappear in the space of 18 years.2 What about platinum? You might know that fuel cell electrical vehicles (FCEV) rely on it as a catalyst. Well, if we converted 500 million vehicles over to fuel cells, we would run out of platinum within 15 years to keep them operating. And that’s including recycling along with mining new platinum.3 You can probably see why it makes sense to look around for alternative supplies. I know space mining may sound like sci-fi talk at the moment, but what if I told you we could mine on the Moon by using solar power?4 No pickaxe, no…Bruce Willis…nothing else. Or that we could literally bag an asteroid and suck water and elements out to use as rocket fuel?
Before exploring the most futuristic ideas on space mining, let’s just try to figure out its viability compared to earth-mining.
According to NASA, the cost of an asteroid-mining mission is about $2.6B. This estimate is based on a Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS) feasibility analysis5. KISS’s study considered the capture of a 500 ton C-type Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) and its transport into a high lunar orbit. These types of asteroids are key for space colonization as they contain water and other elements which could be used as fuels. But how do you capture such a massive rolling stone? Just stick with the … KISS rule … well, it’s not as simple as that. Matching the asteroid rotation speed, a robotic spacecraft would use its solar electric propulsion to de-spin it and enclose it into a container. The unit would then carry the giant rock into high lunar orbit. The study authors claimed this operation would be feasible by 2025 as long as we achieve 3 things: 1) Identify more asteroids that can be brought back near the Earth; 2) improve the solar electric propulsion technology to reduce the transport time; and 3) build up human settlements on the Moon. If this sounds out of reach, remember that 6 years ago the Rosetta spacecraft managed to land on a 2.5-mile-wide comet.6
Now, NASA’s estimate of $2.6B might sound like a crazy amount of money for asteroid mining, but we need to put it into perspective. Setting up a rare-earth-metal mine, let’s say for platinum, would cost $1B. Obviously cheaper than going to space, but according to Planetary Resources we could get up to $50B worth of platinum out of a 98-foot asteroid.7 8 That sounds great, right? But, as you might expect, things are a bit more complicated.
The cost of transporting resources from space to Earth is…astronomical…$35,000/Kg of platinum based on a profitability analysis.9 This study considered platinum because it would be worth space hunting due to its high value-to-mass ratio. Their model assessed the effect of different factors on mining feasibility, such as price elasticity. They also considered the introduction of space-based platinum into the Earth market and the resulting decrease in terrestrial production. Overall, they showed mining asteroids and returning platinum to Earth is profitable only in a few unlikely cases. Researchers suggest increasing the mining efficiency and upscaling the production of small spacecraft as key drivers to improve the economics of platinum mining on asteroids. Also, reusable spacecraft would maximize profit. Space X has shown how big an impact reusability can have with space flight…(re-)launching their flight-proven Falcon rockets has saved Space Force $52.7 million.10 I still have trouble saying “Space Force” without rolling my eyes.
In terms of asteroids that are available for mining, a study by the National Space Society said that 10% of the known NEAs are more accessible than the Moon,11 and 50% of them may bear water and hydrocarbons.
So what about the lunar surface? The lunar exploration company ispace has launched the Hakuto program12. The first of a series of missions is scheduled for next year, which will land the first robotic spaceship ever on the lunar surface. In two years a second mission will follow with a rover for testing the lunar water…yes, water is what they’re mostly interested in. There’s up to tens of billions of metric tons of water in the form of permafrost and ice at the moon’s poles.13 Water is the oil of space industrialization. Besides quenching astronauts’ thirst, water is a source of hydrogen which could be used to propel rockets.
But there’s an even cooler way to get fuel out of water. A Silicon Valley startup is using plant photosynthesis.14 Feeding CO2, water and electricity to an electrolysis cell, Opus 12 can generate methane. And liquid methane is the SpaceX Raptor engine’s favorite drink.15 Also, they could implement this process directly on the Moon or on Mars where you get plenty of carbon dioxide out of the air. This would help overcome one of the major limitations for space missions, i.e. fuel availability. Cislunar space could become a space gas station.
But water isn’t the only precious thing we could get from the Moon. According to Dr. Carlos Espejel, a mining industry veteran and engineer at ispace, the lunar surface could harbor plenty of rare earth elements too. Another driver for Moon scavenging is Helium-3. This isn’t the gas that makes your voice sound funny after sucking it out of a birthday balloon. It’s a rare isotope that accounts for about 0.0001% of all the Helium on Earth.16 The side note of why that’s interesting is because we could feed Helium-3 to future fusion reactors and make nuclear power safer and more eco-friendly. It’s because this Helium isotope isn’t radioactive and wouldn’t generate toxic waste.17 But that’s a completely different video.
Clearly, moon resources would be strategic not only for our planet sustainability but also for near-Earth and deep space exploration. But are we promising ourselves the Moon? Ian Crawford, a professor of planetary science and astrobiology, thinks we are. He doubts the economic viability of mining the moon, mostly because of the astronomical cost of transporting the ore back to Earth. Crawford thinks we’d be better off building up new renewable energy facilities on our planet.18 A case study from the Bocconi School of Management assessed the feasibility of lunar ice mining for propellant production. The researchers estimated the overall cost of exploring moon ice reserves, developing mining infrastructures and bringing back water to Earth to be around $7B.19
The space cowboys propelling the stars rush
Although we may be…light years…away from making it cost-effective, the space mining market could be worth trillions of dollars.20 For example, NASA valued a single asteroid at more than the global economy.21 The asteroid is called 16 Psyche and is predominantly made of iron and nickel.22 NASA is planning to reach its surface in 2026 to take a closer look. Although, this rolling rock isn’t a NEA because it’s out between Mars and Jupiter. Also, keep in mind that this rich asteroid would turn into a cheap stone here on Earth. That’s because flooding our market with that amount of materials would decrease their value. It’s only worth that much because it’s still out there where we can’t access it.
And that raises an interesting point. There’s a balance between cost, value and utility. These asteroids have a value in part because the materials they contain are in finite supply here on earth. But flooding the market with a large supply reduces their value. However, there is the utility of the material itself. Going right back to the previous example of platinum. Aside from its use in jewelry, if we need it to support energy production as a catalyst in a fuel cell, tapping into additional resources from space mining would be needed for utility … even though it might drive down the monetary value.
But that’s a moot point if we aren’t making the technological advancements necessary to make space mining a reality, which we actually are.
TransAstra is priming the pump to get water out of the moon’s surface. They developed a Lunar Polar Gas-Dynamic Mining Outpost (LGMO) architecture. Their rovers, powered by solar panels, would heat the permafrost covering the lunar craters with a combo of radio-frequency, microwave and infrared light. This radiation mix would produce water vapor, which then gets captured by “cryotraps” and stored in a liquid form. TransAstra technology could drive down the cost of setting up and maintaining a lunar polar station. This will make life easier for future explorers and lays the groundwork for the development of settlements like lunar hotels.23
TransAstra has also been busy developing their APIS (Asteroid Provided In-situ Supplies) project to mine NEA. After running small-scale experiments on their MiniBee, they’ll upgrade to two larger spacecraft: Honey Bee and Queen Bee. The Queen should be able to handle an asteroid of about 40m in diameter. The way these craft work is that they bag up an asteroid and suck out the water and other elements that can be used as propellants for rockets. So, what’s special about this system? The company has designed two ground-breaking technologies. The first is the Omnivore™ thruster24, which is the propulsion system for all their spacecrafts. As the name suggests, its key advantage is that it can consume a wide range of fuels: ammonia, hydrogen and, above all, water. As the ships travel back to earth, they take a small portion of the mined water they’ve collected to use as their own fuel. But how does that work? The system injects water into a ceramic sponge. When sunlight hits the porous ceramic insert, water vaporizes and flows out through a nozzle … giving the spacecraft thrust. The second innovation is called optical mining. Using very large thin-film solar panels, their device reflects solar light and focuses it onto the captured rock to fracture it and pull out the water.25 The highly concentrated sunlight is lighter, less expensive, and better performing than electric power.26
But, it’s time to come back down to earth. Although very promising, these technologies are still a long way from being upscaled. In the meantime, we may have alternatives closer than we think, like right in our houses. A recent study reports using copper and gold recycled from waste TV sets to be more cost-effective than mining for new metals.27 Apple designed a robot to extract valuable materials from discarded iPhones, including rare earth metals. Their creation, Daisy, goes through 3.33 phones per minute.28 And it’s not just a small-scale thing. The Urban Mining Company (UMC) is producing thousands of tons of magnets per year using rare-earth metals recycled from e-waste.29
While technological advancements and eco-friendly fuels such as water and CO2 may make asteroids and the Moon within reach for mining, it will take quite a bit of time for space mining to become viable. Also, just like Earth, asteroids and other planets have finite resources. Whichever future mining path we end up on, recycling and reuse will always be a necessary component.
- “Future availability of non-renewable metal resources and … – Nature.” 1 Sept. 2020 ↩︎
- “how much is left.pdf | Extinction | Jordan – Scribd.” 10 Sept. 2020 ↩︎
- “Metal stocks and sustainability – PNAS.” 31 Jan. 2006 ↩︎
- “No Digging Required: Space Mining on the Moon and Beyond May ….” 4 Sept. 2019 ↩︎
- “Asteroid Retrieval Feasibility – Keck Institute for Space Studies.” 14 Mar. 2012 ↩︎
- “Rosetta Spacecraft: To Catch a Comet | Space.” 28 Feb. 2017 ↩︎
- “The asteroid trillionaires – Physics World.” 11 Jun. 2018 ↩︎
- “Planetary Resources: Google Execs And Director James … – HuffPost.” ↩︎
- “A Techno-Economic Analysis of Asteroid Mining.” 9 Oct. 2018 ↩︎
- “SMC Saves $53M Reusing SpaceX Boosters For GPS III « Breaking ….” 25 Sept. 2020 ↩︎
- “The Technical and Economic Feasibility of Mining the Near-Earth ….” ↩︎
- “PROJECT | ispace.” ↩︎
- “The global race to mine outer space – MINING.COM.” 22 May. 2020 ↩︎
- “CO2 as a commodity, not waste: turning emissions into cost ….” 17 Dec. 2020 ↩︎
- “The wild physics of Raptor: SpaceX’s methane-guzzling … – Wired UK.” 31 Jul. 2019 ↩︎
- “Helium-3 could be bound-up with iron and oxygen deep within the ….” 4 Jan. 2019 ↩︎
- “ESA planning to mine the Moon – Industry Europe.” 4 Feb. 2019 ↩︎
- “ESA planning to mine the Moon – Industry Europe.” 4 Feb. 2019 ↩︎
- “MINE in Streaming, 15.04.2020 – SDA Bocconi.” 15 Apr. 2020 ↩︎
- “The Potential $100 Trillion Market For Space Mining | TechCrunch.” 9 Jul. 2015 ↩︎
- “Mining: “NASA finds rare metal asteroid worth more than global ….” 29 Oct. 2020 ↩︎
- “HST UV Observations of Asteroid (16) Psyche – IOPscience.” 26 Oct. 2020 ↩︎
- “Lunar-Polar Propellant Mining Outpost (LPMO) | NASA.” 10 Apr. 2019 ↩︎
- [“Space Propulsion — TransAstra Corporation.” http://www.transastracorp.com/space-propulsion ↩︎
- “Apis™ Flight Systems — TransAstra Corporation.” ↩︎
- [“How Close Are We to Mining in Space? – YouTube.” 14 Aug. 2019, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d44TQRewClc. Accessed 27 Apr. 2021. ↩︎
- “Urban Mining of E-Waste is Becoming More Cost … – ACS Publications.” 4 Apr. 2018. Accessed 27 Apr. 2021. ↩︎
- “Apple’s new robot, Daisy, recycles high-quality materials from up to ….” 24 Apr. 2018 ↩︎
- “Urban Mining Company’s Rare Earths Recycling Helps Us Tackle ….” 11 Jun. 2020 ↩︎