We’re Getting Serious About Mining Asteroids

By Nathaniel Scharping | June 6, 2016 4:43 pm
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Asteroids could one day provide the components for your smartphone. (Credit: Dabarti CGI/Shutterstock)

As humanity gobbles up natural resources to satisfy the demands of economic expansion, a growing number of enterprising corporations are eyeing outer space as the next source of valuable commodities.

Asteroid mining is making the leap from science fiction novels and into corporate boardrooms as new technologies bring the idea within reach. We’ve already landed a probe on a comet, satisfying the first requirement for potential mining activities. Figuring out how to extract potential resources and return them to Earth, well, that’s another question.

Big Investment from a Small Country

Asteroid mining ambitions received a boost last week when Luxembourg announced that it would commit $223 million to developing and carrying out the first asteroid-mining expedition. The tiny European country has already made steps toward becoming a player in the space race, but its latest proposal solidifies a commitment to pursuing cosmic resource extraction operations.

“Luxembourg’s aims [sic] is to be in the top 10 space faring nations in the world,”  said deputy prime minister Etienne Schneider, speaking to Reuters.

Luxembourg is already developing legislation aimed at protecting the rights of future space miners — the United States has done the same — and has partnered with Deep Space Industries, an asteroid-mining company based in the U.S., to produce their Prospector-X satellite, an experimental nano-spacecraft that will test key cosmic mining technologies. They say that they could potentially begin scouting operations within the next five years.

Rare Metals

Asteroids could provide new sources for the rare metals used in smartphones and computer chips. While these elements are scant on Earth, there are countless resource-rich asteroids scattered throughout our solar system that could serve as potential sources. Asteroids are also sought after for their water content — a necessity for lengthy human missions, and a potential source of fuel for spacecraft.

Today, the big challenge is developing a means to ship astro-mined resources back to Earth. Towing asteroids closer to Earth using rockets, or deploying small robots to mine resources and ship them back to Earth piecemeal are two proposed solutions for the shipping problem. But both would require significant amounts of fuel or machinery, which increases payloads and costs. 

Asteroid + Spaceship = Astership?

Another company has proposed a simpler plan: Instead of using spacecraft to move the asteroid, California-based Made in Space wants to turn the asteroid into a spacecraft. The concept recently received funding through NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program.

The company, which has supplied 3D printers to the International Space Station, proposes sending small “seed craft” to asteroids. Using resources from the asteroid, the craft would 3D print a propulsion system and rudimentary guidance mechanisms. Once completed, the asteroid would simply “drive” itself back to Earth, where it could be harvested for resources.

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An artist’s illustration of Made in Space’s design for a self-powered asteroid. (Credit: Made in Space)

Made in Space has laid out a Steampunk-esque plan to create what amounts to an analog computer built of gears, rods, pulleys and flywheels to get an asteroid back home. Electronics and combustion systems are too complex to manufacture on-site, so any devices built on the asteroid would have to be 3D printed with native resources, and mechanical in nature.

A giant catapult that flings portions of the asteroid backwards would serve as the propulsion system. In concordance with Newton’s Third Law, chucking material off the asteroid would propel the spacecraft in the opposite direction toward Earth. Similar systems would be used to steer the asteroid. If all goes well, the asteroid would make its way back to Earth under its own power, where it could be easily mined for resources.

However, the plan is still in its early stages and has a long road ahead, as Space.com‘s Mike Wall writes.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Demonstrate 3D printing self-production from native bulk resources on the ground, with an extension cord, re Shapeways. How did the USCSS Nostromo work out for everybody, including the Weyland-Yutani Corporation? If you can steer asteroids into Earth orbit, you have geosynchronous satellite scrubbers and weapons of mass destruction. End spaceflight with one good fragmentation, then chain reaction. No nation will tolerate it.

    chucking material off the asteroid would propel the spacecraft in the opposite direction ” The Saturn V lofted 130 tonnes into low Earth orbit, 21 tonnes propellant/tonne cargo.. Yer gonna be throwing rocks as propellant.

    • zlop

      “End spaceflight with one good fragmentation”?
      Intelligent drones will sweep up the mess.
      Need to pulverize into particles, swept by the solar wind.

  • OWilson

    Still science fiction, and a long way to go. First comes the E.U. legislation to regulate space mining activities and settle the inevitable international disputes over rights (see fishing and Arctic sovereignty claims)

    Then the CBA to determine if the $1,000,000,000,000.00 cost of a kilogram of moon dust could be modestly improved upon.

    Sounds like a job for private enterprise who will line up to get a share of the quarter of a billion dollars to at least draw up a proposal or two.

    Then you have the exciting prospect of 3D printers on asteroids building its own “propulsion system and rudimentary guidance mechanisms. Once completed, the asteroid would simply “drive” itself back to Earth”

    That guidance system had better be more than rudimentary if it is being used to send large chunks of rock to Earth.

    But, hey this is the Star Trek generation. They grew up with these technologies on TV. :)

    • http://lukeparrish.rationalsites.com Luke Parrish

      Don’t be such a naysayer! 😛

      In any case, the idea is more to move the rocks to orbit around earth (or perhaps around the moon). Factories in orbit would process them into additional factory equipment, growing the total factory.

      When the overall size of the factory (which would be a swarm of inter-networked robotics, many of them teleoperated by humans from earth) gets big enough, we redirect a portion of the output to things we need in space like solar collectors, habitats, and so on.

      • OWilson

        How about the EPA allowing a de-salination project in California?

        I believe in progress, but one step at a time.

        Trying to install a roof, before the foundation and walls are built may be impractical, but if a government decides to do it regardless, you’ll have no shortage of crony capitalists at the trough, looking for a piece of the action.

        Don’t forget we are still going cap in hand to USSR KGB Master Putin, to give us a ride to the Space Station LOL

        And the worlds two largest Solar Power Companies just went bankrupt.

        Let’s walk before we run, right now we are just crawling :)

        • http://lukeparrish.rationalsites.com Luke Parrish

          Asteroid resources are foundational! The roof first analogy makes me think of people who want to go to Mars ASAP. It’s so silly to fixate on planets; asteroids are logically the key that unlocks space and makes it affordable for all. I wish more people got that.

          Also, the role of 3D printing there is hard to overstate. You can almost self replicate a 3D printer. We live in exciting times.

          • OWilson

            Ah, “the key that unlocks space and makes it affordable for all”.

            Who could argue with that? :)

            That’s almost on a par with another Trekkie poster here who opined that the sun “if harvested wisely, could provide all the energy that civilization would ever need”.

            The world’s 2 largest solar power companies just went bankrupt anf took billions of U.S. borrowed money with them.

            And 3D printing, hard to overstate?

            How many 3D appliance do you presently enjoy in your home?

            Try to run before you have learned to walk and, well…… :)

          • http://lukeparrish.rationalsites.com Luke Parrish

            Why does the failure of a few companies in the market economy mean anything about the value of solar power? That’s still growing by leaps and bounds. In any case, wouldn’t the wisest place to collect it be out in space where it is most abundant — rather than on a planet that shades it half the time? Walk too slowly and you get bogged down, is my way of looking at it.

          • OWilson

            It’s not the “failure of a few companies in the market economy”.

            It is now the three largest solar energy companies in the world, taking some 20 billion in U.S. taxpayer loans with them.

            Sun Edison
            Solyndra
            Abengoa

            The Chinese are happily manufacturing and exporting this technology because it can be sold at high prices to the the West’s highly subdidizing AGW “green” politicians and their crony capitalist friends. (You don’t have to dig too deep to find the Clintons involved)

            It is NOT growing by leaps and bounds. That’s just Al Gore, Obama, Michael Moore, Leonardo di Caprio and Lady Ga Ga pop talk.

            It is propped up by only by huge taxpayer subsidy and again by artificially high energy prices on consumers, depressing real economic growth.

            The only thing “growing by leaps and bounds” is your national debt and the record numbers of folks who can’t find jobs and are living on government handouts.

  • http://lukeparrish.rationalsites.com Luke Parrish

    This is a great idea!

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