We’ve talked about asteroid mining as being something aliens may well do as they exhaust their resources and possibly make it easier to detect them, and as a factor making alien invasions less likely. But we very seldom even touched on the economics of mining asteroids, which are actually somewhat dismal with any of the conventional technology we use today. If you’re not refining an asteroid in situ on the cheap, you will make absolutely nothing from the mine. Actually, you would lose money even if you’re bringing back tons of platinum or iridium back to Earth, and all the schemes to capture and land an asteroid either on the Moon or our planet will be out of the question because they’re so dangerous and expensive, they’ll put you in the red for decades since you’d basically be trying to float down a small mountain or a mountain range in the wilderness and then mine it over decades. Oh, and whose wilderness will you use and who will allow what would be a weapon of mass destruction far, far mightier than any nuclear stockpile to be controlled by a private entity? Nevertheless, a company called Planetary Resources, backed by a throng of billionaires, really wants to try mining asteroids and they’ve actually come up with what sounds like a very smart plan to use the resources they’ll find.
Just because mining asteroids for precious metals to sell on Earth isn’t profitable, doesn’t mean that the idea is a complete wash. Asteroid mining would be a huge boon for deep space exploration because you can use an asteroid as an orbiting fuel depot which would allow fairly lightweight SSTO craft to dock with a fully fueled, ready for exploration craft just waiting for a crew. And this seems to be the core of the Planetary Resources big plan since they’re trying to find water and other relatively easily obtainable assets needed to maintain habitats in space, storing them for future use when the actual mining will begin. Meanwhile, they could easily try to sell access to all these resources to space agencies. Of course the thorny issue of space property will come into play here and we’ll have to confront it sooner rather than later. While the U.S. and every other space power did not sign on to a UN treaty declaring that all resources mined in space are to be evenly distributed between all nations, The Outer Space Treaty presents challenges to claiming ownership of an asteroid and charging fees to access its resources, challenges discussed in far more detail in the previous link. But assuming this issue will be addressed, we can say that so far, the idea is fairly solid and quite doable because it cuts out the step that will financially crush an asteroid mining venture, i.e. bringing back all the material to be refined.
But this leaves us with a gap between getting everything prepared for mining and setting up a robust network of filling stations in orbit to support mining operations, and actually extracting the valuable materials. What will actually happen there hasn’t yet been disclosed, perhaps because it’s a company secret or perhaps because the vast roster of idea men behind it doesn’t know yet and is counting on its engineers to come up with a plan which I’m guessing should involve nanotechnology. As science fiction-esque as it sounds, it really is the only viable way to mine asteroids. Rather than refine vast quantities of raw materials, most of them easily found on Earth and bought dirt cheap, by the ton, on the commodities market, Planetary Resources may want to inject a few trillion particles designed to bond specifically with the molecules of precious metals they want to sell. The particles will flow through the veins and back, gathering platinum, gold, iridium, and other useful metals along the way, then presenting a mostly refined clump of valuable material to be placed in a spaceship and flown to the planet’s surface below. A new spaceship arriving to collect more mined materials can bring back more of these particles, which could technically be recycled as they’re stripped off the metals they retrieved. We have a blueprint for making such nanities today, just not the resources or the ability to manufacture them on industrial scales. With a company willing to put this technology to good use, this may well change in 10 to 15 years.
Again, to reiterate, the nanotechnology aided mining process is my guess, not part of their plan, but since they are taking such pains to scout for appropriate asteroids and set up basic resource havens on them, I wouldn’t doubt that they’ve taken the costs of bringing back raw ore for refinement back to Earth in their business plans and thought of something very much out of the box to do the mining in situ. Peter Diamandis and Sergey Brin are both involved with the Singularitarian movement and are no doubt well aware of the advances slowly, but very surely, being made in the field of nanotechnology. It stands to reason that they would at least consider an industrial applications for custom nano-particles and know researchers who can make them. However, there is a huge leap from a few proof of concept tests in the lab to practical commercial use, and it will take years of testing on larger and larger scales to get to invisible extraction of precious metals from asteroids, which may be why they’re starting out with the basics and building out their fuel depots. They could make enough money from that alone to finance the R&D of their mining techniques. Of course I might be barking up the wrong tree here but so far, in the absence of any detailed plans, I feel comfortable enough about my hunch to stick with it.