Asteroid Mining for Fun and Profit

A recently formed company called Planetary Resources has announced ambitious plans to extract billions of dollars' worth of water and precious metals from near-Earth asteroids.

For decades now, John S. Lewis, a planetary astronomer at the University of Arizona, has been been thinking outside the usual box when it comes to exploring the solar system.

Back in the 1980s he started touting the idea that many asteroids in Earth's vicinity are treasure troves of almost unimaginable potential — giant space repositories of precious metals and water that could be extracted and sent to Earth or to interplanetary filling stations. "The truth is," he wrote in his 1996 book Mining the Sky, "that the resources available to us are, for all practical purposes, infinite."

If a bold, commercial plan succeeds, about a decade from now a robotic spacecraft could scoop up a primitive chondritic asteroid and extract its water to fuel future space industries.
Planetary Resources
Not a lot of the managers at NASA headquarters were paying much attention to Lewis's prognostications back then — but I'll guarantee you that they are now. That's because a group of space-exploration entrepreneurs have banded together to form Planetary Resources, a two-year-old company intent on finding suitable near-Earth asteroids and extracting the mineral wealth they contain. Water coaxed out of primitive asteroids could fuel a bustling space-based economy (you can sustain life with it or use its hydrogen and oxygen for high-performance rocket propulsion). Rare metals such as platinum could be worth trillions of dollars once ferried back to Earth.

(Amazing but true: the metals we prize most — all the gold, platinum, iron, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, tungsten, and several others — wouldn't exist in Earth's crust if they hadn't been delivered here by asteroids in the final throes of planetary formation.)

Dreams of asteroid mining aren't new — the first speculations date back a hundred years. More recently, others besides Lewis have urged the world's space-faring nations to exploit asteroidal resources (check out the detailed studies here and here). Just this month, an A-list team of academics and engineers at Caltech's Keck Institute for Space Studies unveiled a plan to capture small bodies and bring them back to Earth's vicinity for study and exploitation. Even President Obama has jumped on the asteroid bandwagon, directing NASA to abandon the Moon as its next target for human exploration and instead find a nice NEO to land on.

What gives the Planetary Resources plan credibility are two key factors that've been missing from prior schemes: a space-savvy management team, and investors willing to fund them.

I'm not into "fantasy sports," but if I were to field a space-exploration dream team, it'd have many of the luminaries who took turns today at the podium of Seattle's Museum of Flight. The company's founders, Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson, are high-octane visionaries who've partnered before on the X-Prize and Space Adventures. Their chief engineer, Chris Lewicki, directed operations for the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity and the Phoenix lander. Company advisors include planetary scientist (and former astronaut) Tom Jones, asteroid specialist Mark Sykes, and exoplanet guru Sara Seager. Even filmmaker James Cameron has joined the team, as has Lewis.

Money will be no object, at least for now. Investors include high rollers Charles Simonyi, Google's Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, and Ross Perot Jr. (the first person to fly a helicopter around the world). "This wouldn't be an appropriate investment for NASA," Simonyi noted today. "This is where private enterprise comes in. Private investors can take the risk."

Arkyd 101, now under construction, will carry a telescope with a 9-inch (22-cm) telescope to spot near-Earth asteroids and, when pointed down, to survey Earth.
Planetary Resources
And risky it will be. Plans call for a three-phase approach. First, a series of small orbiting telescopes to find and track thousands of of NEOs. The first of these — dubbed Arkyd 101 is already under construction at the company's plant in Bellevue, Washington, and should be launched within two years. Next come clusters of Arkyd 200 satellites, equipped with propulsion packs to rendezvous with promising targets and assess their resource potential.

Finally, perhaps a decade from now, robotic miners will land and start harvesting the cosmic paydirt. "We're creating simple, elegant designs," says Lewicki. "We're going to create robotic explorers that cost one to two orders of magnitude less than current systems."

By then, the investors should start seeing a return on their investment. "An asteroid the size of this auditorium would be hundreds of billions of dollars," Diamandis noted. Still, cashing in won't be easy. "Even a platinum-rich chondritic or iron body contains only around 1 ounce of platinum per ton, so a pretty big mining and smelting operation is called for," notes asteroid specialist Alan Harris. "You can't just put a 500-meter asteroid in your checked luggage and fly it home for processing."

So is all this a well-planned juggernaut or a far-fetched space odyssey? Judge for yourself at the Planetary Resources website — and then post your comments below.

15 thoughts on “Asteroid Mining for Fun and Profit

  1. Phil

    Smash an asteroid into Central America to dig a canal? Almost as brilliant a plan as using nukes for earth-moving! Collateral damage? Just a minor inconvenience to the neighbors, I’m sure. Was this being pushed by Washington when the Sandinistas were running Nicaragua? Where did all those wonderful and wacky Soviet scientists go? I miss them!

  2. Phil

    There’s been a lot in the news about this asteroid mining proposal. While I’m sure they could do it more cheaply than NASA (anyone with a pulse probably could), I think they’re going to find it a LOT more expensive than they think. It will cost plenty to boost mining equipment and a refinery/smelting plant into space and out to a NEO asteroid. They don’t call it "rocket science" for nothing. I read today a claim of $50 billion worth of precious metals in a 100 foot diameter asteroid, which I find hard to believe. Well, I’m sure they won’t be lacking for eager investors looking to get rich quick!

    Who owns the asteroids? Has that little detail been settled yet? While I don’t think many will object to grinding up and melting down something in an Earth-crossing orbit, in general I think there will be objections to private concerns profiting from this while everyone else gets nothing, even if there are just fewer rocks in the sky that few can see. Will there be any controls on pollution (big gas or dust clouds that interfere with astronomy and/or are visible from Earth)? Finally, what about liability if they try to tow a big rock to Earth’s vicinity for processing and it kind of gets away from them?

  3. Bruce

    Two excellent comments Phil. Is anyone else reminded by the first illustration (not the one of Kelly, I hope) of a cheesy original Star Trek planet eater episode? This venture seems only a little less implausible.
    The second illustration however is another matter entirely. Imagine what a fleet of 9 inch scopes in space might be able to discover or image.

  4. Richard

    Hey! I thought Sky&Tel was a scientific magazine – not a pulp tabloid!

    This article is one of the most irrelevant and ignorant pieces of literary trash I have ever seen in a respectable magazine.

    Particularly the notion of mining water from asteroids. No one has yet to profitably tow an iceberg to arid tropical coasts to provide water for dry areas.

    Too many people – even science magazine writers get too carried away with Flash Gordon nonsense to realize the actual costs and dangers of going into even near earth orbit.

    Even the ISS needs continual boosting to prevent its crashing back down. As soon as it is no longer boosted, it will soon become a special short meteor show.

  5. jerry searcy

    Good luck! As soon as some seriously proposes bringing an asteroid near earth, an outpouring of outrage will appear! We cab barely get into low earth orbit…going out & mining asteroids at this time in human history is…BOLD! Good luck!

  6. Robert Constant

    I was very disappointed to see Dr. Neal deGrasse Tyson on the Colbert Report saying this endeavor was NOT BS!

    C’mon Dr. Neal, I know you like to spark people’s imaginations to broader frontiers, but this whole proposal reeks of nothing but a lame publicity stunt.

  7. Rom

    Heard about another dang fool project a while ago. Some loon was talkin bout sendin man to the moon… what the dang would ya wanna do that fer? Sides, how would ya even do it… need some dang fool rocket 300 feet tall and some loons to volunteer to sit on top of the thang? Next you’ll be talkin bout a huge space station in orbit where folks can stay for months at a time or telescopes that can see planets around other stars. Nope, can be done! …. dang fools…

    Um, what happened to the idea that we can do anything we set our minds to doing folks?

  8. Peter

    Everything on their website adds up until you get to the actual mining: "Recovery and processing of materials in a microgravity environment will occur through significant research and development." In other words, magic. It is one thing to send a tiny prospector robot with hi-tech sensors to determine what it is made of. It is another entirely to send a loader, sorter, smelter, solar panels to power it and all that stuff. Microgravity means virtually anything can be knocked away and lost forever. The whole operation has to work seamlessly together, and be entirely robotic. Should provide a lot of hi-tech jobs in the Seattle area.

  9. Ben

    A few things come to mind when reading the comments here. First, naysayers galore! Without a doubt, there are problems to be surmounted with doing anything in space, whether money/time/investment etc., but as Rom mentions above, what happened to the thought that our reach should exceed our grasp?
    As for the estimated value of these NEOs, such an object would be immensely valuable in terms of the science we’ll do to get there in addition to whatever resources can be extracted. If NASA can drop rovers on Mars and have them operate (mostly) autonomously, it doesn’t seem to be a far cry to build robotic explorers in order to operate in microgravity for whatever task. As for the problem with smelters and solar panels and other mining processes–who’s to say the smelting has to be done on the asteroid? Maybe pieces can be fired to the moon or Earth for further extraction? If anything, let’s be glad somebody is putting money into overcoming the hurdles we’ll certainly encounter.
    Finally, we’re not sending all these robots and satellites to Mars just to see if we could. These furtive attempts to expand our space-faring abilities should be applauded for their part to ensure that humankind isn’t a sitting duck for extinction by the very objects we’re looking to capture and use.
    Tentative steps into space are still steps into space, and that ain’t half bad.

  10. Joe

    Responding to the comment "I read today a claim of $50 billion worth of precious metals in a 100 foot diameter asteroid, which I find hard to believe." One hundred feet is roughly 30 m, so the radius is 1500 cm. The volume is 4/3*pi*1500^3 cm^3. The density is roughly 3 gm/cm^3 (values range roughly from 1 to 5, depending on porosity). The article quotes 1 ounce of platinum per ton. One ton is 1000 kg=10^6 gm. And platinum is selling for roughly $1600 (US$) per ounce. So, a 100 foot diameter asteroid would have a value of:
    4/3*pi*1500^3*3/10^6*1600 = $70 million
    So, Phil seems to be correct on this point. Someone (maybe me) missed some decimal places.
    Nonetheless, I completely agree that this is clearly the next type of endeavor needed for humanity’s emergence into space.

  11. Bruce

    Rom, were ya talkin’ ta ME? As a Texan, I resemble that remark! On second thought, I see that in trying to make a witty comment (sorry Kelly) I may have went to far. While Phil’s points in his 2nd post are valid (thanks for doing the math, Joe), I really concur with Ben. So, ifin dem dar fellers with more money than sense (no, change that to more money than they know what to do with, for if they were dummies they wouldn’t be bazillionares) want to go prospectin’ ‘mong dem dar ‘roids, I say let ‘em. (Only be, very, Very, VERY careful, please.) In addition to the metals mentioned, other elements such as the Rare Earths mentioned in the June 2011 National Geographic might be mined as well. Yes, it’s advanced "rocket science" fer sure, but it’s now a buyer’s market for that kinda talent what with the shuttle shut-down ‘n all. Solar system science should also be advanced by this a fer piece, I’d wager. So gents, I’m a-gona leave off a-chunkin’ rocks at this har thang fur a spell, seein’ as how dem dar fellers might soon be able to go a-chunkin’ much bigger rocks with a fer piece more kinetic energy. Let’s go ona ‘roid ’round up! Yea ha!

  12. Rodney Austin

    I recall an after-dinner talk at the "Asteroids and Planet X" conference, by Gerald O’Neill and Gene Shoemaker way back in March 1979.They were discussing this very subject. The conclusion they came to was that it is not only a good idea, but that we had better get moving on it soon, preferably within the next 50 years (then). The alternative would be to spend the rest of our time on this planet merely trying to stay alive, as all our resources would have been wasted, leaving no chance to get out there and survive.

  13. Lihu

    I am flagergasted by the deep cynicism and deafitism among the commenters. I thought people reading SKy and Telescope are more open minded.
    Certainly, it is not a thing for a couple of years – nobody claims that. even the optimists say it will take 10-15 years to see an ounce of metal comming back from a Neo.
    My guess is ROI in 20-30 years. However just because the horizon is far away is no reason to sit tight and despair.
    Some (very bussiness saavy) enterpreneurs and venture capital providers are willing to risk very large sums of money on this venture – are they absolute fools ?
    Yes, we have not solved the problems of mining ans extracting/smelting ores etc. but to say it’s impossible is a far cry from truth. Difficult, Yes!, even very difficult ! but not impossible. Perhaps it may take more time and more R&D and money to get a ROI here, but you start a journey of a thousand miles by taking a first step and not by saying it cant be done.
    If we listened to all the Naysayers and bean counters of the world we will still be sitting in a dark cave holding a big club and waiting for the tigers to come in and eat us.

  14. Richard

    "Rare metals such as platinum could be worth trillions of dollars once ferried back to Earth."

    Supply and demand. Rare metals are valuable precisely because they are rare.

    To make this commercially viable, those mined here would have to be doled out slowly in very small quantities. That would of course take far too long to recoup the project’s massive startup costs.

    Interesting concept and piece, though.

  15. tom hoffelder

    As with everything else, all the sciences have slipped into sensationalism. There is a big difference between dreaming big and dreaming impractically.