so how would you mine an asteroid profitably?

April 26, 2012

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.

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  • TOM

    Interesting idea, i wouldnt have thought about that.

    My imagination went so far, that they will manufacture rockets from asteroid material itself, so once you have the factory, you dont need to send up ships. Maybe they dont even have to bring it down, just send it to orbit, for building space stations.

  • Jordan

    Two questions:

    1) Is the nanotech enabled process you described being used today, or is viable with today’s technology?

    2) Wouldn’t the cost of fueling and running a space ship to ferry asteroid resources be a prohibative cost? For what I understand shap launches are extremely costly.

  • BOB

    Point it towards the earth (you decide where or on whom it should crash) and then drive your equipment over to it and collect the pieces.

  • Paul451

    There’s a tendency in these topics to jump from step 1 to step 101. Ie, Step 1: send small probe out to a candidate asteroid. Step 2: Build rockets/SPS/nanobots/etc etc. Ummm, no.

    Also, I think these guys might be thinking in terms of being a supplier of asteroid mining equipment, rather than asteroid miners themselves. Ie, sell cheap space telescopes. Then sell cheap space probes. Then cheap probes capable of mineral assaying. Then for sample return. Then for processing volatiles. Etc etc. That way every step in development has a revenue stream, long before anyone actually sells a gram of asteroid-platinum.

    “The particles will flow through the veins and back”

    No flowing water, no volcanism, so no “veins” of minerals. Layers maybe, if there’s differentiation, if we’re lucky.

  • Greg Fish

    Is the nanotech enabled process you described being used today?

    @Jordan. No, it’s not but it is based on an idea that has been tried in medicine, siRNA carrying particles which target diseases by shutting down the expression of genes the tumors of bacteria need to grow and multiply. The chemistry involved could be similar enough to make something like that happen.

    Ferrying resources mined from asteroids if those resources are already refined isn’t a big deal, especially when you have a convoy of craft ready to go. Today’s launches are expensive because a) there are few capable spacecraft, b) these craft aren’t reusable, so one flight and they’re done, and c) there are few places from which to launch them. With an actual business model under which frequent flights make money, expect a lot of reusable craft launched from numerous spaceports, driving launch costs down.

    Point it towards the earth… and then drive your equipment over to it.

    @Bob. Sounds simple but when you work out the math, it’s the equivalent of dropping several nuclear warheads on a territory and as said in the post, there is a treaty which could interpret this as an act of war. Controlling a giant space boulder flying at 17,000 mph or more is like controlling an entire thermonuclear stockpile. One wrong move or miscalculation and you could easily kill millions of people with a direct impact or the tsunami caused by dropping it into the ocean. It’s just too dangerous.

    No flowing water, no volcanism, so no “veins” of minerals.

    @Paul. Yes, they’re not veins in a conventional sense but like materials do tend to get clumped together. It’s more like clumps but I wanted to use a quick and dirty analogy, not delve too deeply into asteroid geology.

  • http://www.orionsarm.com Steve Bowers

    I’m a great enthusiast for nanotech mining of asteroids but there are many design hurdles that need to be addressed. First; how do you power the ‘bots? They need a lot of energy to penetrate asteroid material, to search for their target minerals, to extract those minerals and to collect them together for export. I suspect that the first thing a nanotech mining system would construct would be extensive solar panel collector arrays. Although some radioactive elements might be present in the asteroid itself, they is likely to be very old and decayed, or not very active.
    Second how do you control the ‘bots? They will breed quite complex detection equipment to ensure they are extracting the right minerals. I expect that some sort of chemical testing would be necessary to maintain quality control; not easy in a swarm (but ants do it- so why can’t ‘bots?)

    Thirdly, how large a swarm are we talking here? Unless the swarm is self-replicating, the entire mass of bots will need to be transported en masse. Self-replication would require a whole extra layer of sophistication that would take much longer to develop, and would require much more energy as well. But self-repping ‘bots would be ideal in the long run.

    Note that I don’t call them ‘nanobots’; in practice mining robots would ptobably need to be much larger than the nanoscale, simply because they would be complex devices in a very harsh environment. But they would probably perform many activities at the nanoscale level.

    I haven’t mentioned some of the other problems, like losing mined material in low gravity and rapid rotation regimes- some of the smaller rocks have negative gees at the equator. But you get the picture…

  • Greg Fish

    Steve, oh I’m aware of the design hurdles and addressing all your questions would take a post or two in their own right. But I can tell you that in terms of detecting all those precious metals, you don’t need a complicated system for this. You simply need to know a really, really good chemist who can design nano particles to adhere to the right molecules.

  • Paul451

    Greg, the tone in my last comment was bitchier than I intended, apologies.

    Re: “The particles will flow through the veins and back”

    I was also thinking nanobots when I read this. Now realise you mean… well, particles. Chemistry not robotics. In which case, how would you get the particles to flow through the asteroid, and especially back?

    Makes sense if you’ve already extracted the ore, you pump a solution of nano-particles through a tank of ore, or a solution of ore over plates covered with nano-particles. But I can’t see it being able to avoid the actual digging/crushing stages.

  • http://www.orionsarm.com Steve Bowers

    One useful thing about many asteroids is that they seem to be covered in a fine layer of regolith, which could be sorted and processed first.

    However the low gravity would probably allow the dust to rise up and form a loose cloud around the object, causing material loss from the mining site and other problems. asteroid mining is like nothing we’ve ever done yet.