Can asteroid min­ing help fur­ther hu­mankind’s space am­bi­tions? Zoë Cor­byn re­ports

A race is on to mine bil­lions of dol­lars in pre­cious re­sources from the so­lar sys­tem’s as­ter­oids, fu­elling our fu­ture among the stars, writes Zoë Cor­byn

The Observer - The New Review - - Agenda -

In an in­dus­trial park in San Jose, Cal­i­for­nia, Grant Bonin is hold­ing what looks like the end of a metal wa­ter bot­tle. It is the cas­ing, he jokes, of his com­pany’s “fly­ing steam ket­tle”: a propul­sion sys­tem for small space­craft that uses su­per-hot wa­ter vapour, heated to 1,000C (1,832F), to pro­duce thrust. The com­pany has sold about 40 to date. “It comes right out of the hole,” ex­plains Bonin, who is the chief tech­nol­ogy of­fi­cer of Deep Space In­dus­tries (DSI).

It is lit­er­ally rocket science, but the ul­ti­mate aim of Bonin’s startup is even more au­da­cious: min­ing as­ter­oids. No pri­vate com­pany has even got close to one. One of the main rea­sons as­ter­oids will be mined in the fu­ture, so the think­ing goes, is for the wa­ter locked in their clay de­posits – and one of the chief uses of that wa­ter is likely to be as pro­pel­lant for space­craft. Probes and other space­craft will be able to re­fuel in space ei­ther di­rectly with wa­ter, or the hy­dro­gen and oxy­gen that can be cre­ated from it, en­abling them to zip around mer­rily any­where they want with no end to their use­ful life.

But be­fore the idea of a so­lar sys­tem dot­ted with gas sta­tions is re­alised, what is needed are more space­craft that can ac­tu­ally run on wa­ter, which is where sell­ing fly­ing steam ket­tles comes in.

The idea of min­ing as­ter­oids is more pop­u­lar than you might think. The old­est and big­gest of the com­pa­nies on the scene is Seat­tle-based Planetary Re­sources, es­tab­lished in 2009 by in­vestors in­clud­ing Google co­founder Larry Page and Richard Bran­son. DSI was formed in 2013. Other smaller com­pa­nies in­clude Aten En­gi­neer­ing and the Tran­sAs­tra Cor­po­ra­tion, both also based in the US. In Bri­tain, pur­su­ing the idea is the Asteroid Min­ing Cor­po­ra­tion (AMC). Es­tab­lished in 2016, it’s run by 23-year-old Mitch Hun­terScul­lion, who set up the com­pany after his Liver­pool Hope Univer­sity dis­ser­ta­tion on the topic.

As these com­pa­nies see things, the in­evitable next step for our civil­i­sa­tion is to ex­pand into space. The Earth is too small for our in­creas­ing pop­u­la­tion, strug­gling over fi­nite re­sources. To sur­vive long term, they ar­gue, we need to be­come a space-far­ing species. Hu­man set­tle­ment won’t hap­pen with­out the use of what is al­ready out there, as trans­port­ing ev­ery­thing from Earth would be too ex­pen­sive. As­ter­oids, says Bonin – with their neg­li­gi­ble grav­ity mak­ing it easy to lift things off – are the “low-hang­ing fruit” of space re­sources.

Pickings are po­ten­tially get­ting richer as more as­ter­oids are dis­cov­ered close to Earth: about 18,000 and count­ing. Some of them, much closer than the ones in the asteroid belt be­tween Mars and Jupiter, also pose a po­ten­tial hazard to our planet. “The joke is that we’re threat­ened by gi­ant piles of money,” says Bonin. The rev­o­lu­tion in small low-cost satel­lites is open­ing up op­por­tu­ni­ties for these star­tups to prospect and sur­vey them.

Some coun­tries are of­fer­ing reg­u­la­tory and fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives to en­cour­age the nascent in­dus­try. In July 2017, Lux­em­bourg in­tro­duced leg­is­la­tion to al­low com­pa­nies with a phys­i­cal pres­ence in the coun­try to keep any re­sources they mine from ce­les­tial bod­ies. Sim­i­lar leg­is­la­tion was in­tro­duced in the US in 2015. Lux­em­bourg also of­fers re­search and de­vel­op­ment as­sis­tance to space re­source com­pa­nies and in­vests di­rectly in them through a fund of around €200m es­tab­lished for the pur­pose. DSI and Planetary Re­sources have both ben­e­fited. De­vel­op­ment also takes peo­ple: mas­ter’s and doc­toral de­grees in space re­sources will be­gin this au­tumn at the Colorado School of Mines, which is start­ing the world’s first grad­u­ate pro­gramme in the sub­ject. And while none of the com­pa­nies have got near to an asteroid yet, Nasa and other space agen­cies have mis­sions on the way that will demon­strate ca­pa­bil­i­ties es­sen­tial for asteroid min­ing.

Nasa’s Osiris-Rex space­craft is sched­uled to ren­dezvous with the Bennu asteroid – one of Earth’s most “po­ten­tially haz­ardous as­ter­oids”, but also thought to be rich in wa­ter-bear­ing clay min­er­als – in De­cem­ber 2018. The space­craft will flit around the half-kilo­me­tre di­am­e­ter ob­ject mak­ing maps, be­fore re­triev­ing a 150g sam­ple that will be re­turned to Earth, com­plet­ing the $1bn project.

Be­fore that, in mid-2018, Ja­pan’s Aero­space Ex­plo­ration Agency’s Hayabusa2 space­craft is due to ren­dezvous with near-Earth asteroid Ryugu, also a sam­plere­turn mis­sion. It fol­lows from the Hayabusa mis­sion, which re­turned 1,500 grains of dust (about one mil­ligram) from an­other near-Earth asteroid, Itokawa, in 2010 – the only sam­ple of ma­te­rial to be brought back from an asteroid so far.

“Osiris-Rex is a proof of con­cept for any asteroid-min­ing ac­tiv­ity,” says mis­sion leader Dante Lau­retta, a planetary scientist based at the Univer­sity of Ari­zona. Chris Lewicki, CEO of Planetary Re­sources, draws a par­al­lel with the way the US Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey mapped the ge­ol­ogy of Amer­ica, helping early min­ing com­pa­nies. “It is both public and pri­vate ac­tiv­i­ties that move this for­ward,” he says.

To mine as­ter­oids, DSI’s longterm vi­sion is a swarm of small low-cost space­craft that would go out to many near-Earth as­ter­oids at once, har­vest small amounts of raw ma­te­rial and ag­gre­gate them at a cen­tral de­pot that would be con­structed at a grav­i­ta­tion­ally use­ful spot some­where be­tween the Earth and the moon.

“It is like honey bees go­ing out to a lot of dif­fer­ent flow­ers and fly­ing that back to the hive,” says Bonin. The model cir­cum­vents the prob­lem that the as­ter­oids, with their he­lio­cen­tric or­bits, only fly past the Earth pe­ri­od­i­cally and are there­fore only ac­ces­si­ble to mine for rel­a­tively short pe­ri­ods of time.

From the de­pot, the com­pany would then sell what­ever raw ma­te­rial made the most sense eco­nom­i­cally. That might be wa­ter­derived pro­pel­lant (which would also fuel DSI’s “swarm”), but it also might be met­als such as iron and nickel – for shap­ing into prod­ucts by 3D printers – for con­struc­tion in space. “To some ex­tent we are ag­nos­tic about what the first mar­ket will be,” says Bonin. “We think it will be pro­pel­lant for gas sta­tions in space, but we wouldn’t want to bet.”

Planetary Re­sources is bet­ting wa­ter will be the first mar­ket. One ar­gu­ment goes that there are al­ready gas sta­tion cus­tomers in the so­lar sys­tem: rocket com­po­nents that use liq­uid hy­dro­gen and oxy­gen float­ing as space junk. If you could re­fuel them, you could do any­thing from ser­vic­ing satel­lites to go­ing to the sur­face of the moon, and that would be worth a lot of money, notes Lau­retta, who is also on Planetary Re­source’s science ad­vi­sory board.

The UK’s AMC, mean­while, imag­ines first min­ing plat­inum and sim­i­lar met­als – rel­a­tively abun­dant in as­ter­oids – and send­ing them back to Earth. Go­ing by the cur­rent value of plat­inum, tril­lions of dol­lars’ worth is out there. But, notes Lau­retta, with a large sup­ply prices would fall. “You would prob­a­bly just crash the mar­ket and we would all have tons of plat­inum jew­ellery,” he says. Hunter-Scul­lion ac­knowl­edges the price would de­pre­ci­ate, but thinks it is pos­si­ble to make a tidy profit first. Wa­ter, he says, would come next.

Of course, sig­nif­i­cant tech­ni­cal chal­lenges abound, and they will prob­a­bly cost bil­lions to solve.

To go from re­cov­er­ing grams to kilo­grams, or tonnes, is a big tech­no­log­i­cal jump and large in­fra­struc­ture for refining and pro­cess­ing the asteroid ore will need to be de­vel­oped. Even things like an­chor­ing and hold­ing on to an asteroid can be tricky. Their sur­faces are lumpy and non-spher­i­cal and each has its own size, to­pog­ra­phy and ro­ta­tion speed. Hayabusa only bought back any ma­te­rial be­cause the space­craft ba­si­cally tum­bled across the asteroid and some dust got into the equip­ment. “It is go­ing to be a learn­ing curve and at the mo­ment we are at the bot­tom of it,” says Ian Craw­ford, a planetary science pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Birk­beck.

Whether space min­ers will be legally en­ti­tled to pos­sess what they dig up also re­mains in ques­tion. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) – which gov­erns in­ter­na­tional space ac­tiv­ity – is silent on a pri­vate com­pany har­vest­ing space re­sources. It says na­tions can use but can’t ap­pro­pri­ate ei­ther the moon or other ce­les­tial bod­ies. It puts the treaty and the na­tional leg­is­la­tion in po­ten­tial con­flict, says Christo­pher New­man, a space law ex­pert at the Univer­sity of Northum­bria. He pre­dicts a dis­pute in the courts: “It is just a ques­tion of when.”

Hunter-Scul­lion, mean­while, would like to see the British gov­ern­ment in­tro­duce its own space-min­ing law, like the US and Lux­em­bourg have done, giv­ing pri­vate com­pa­nies greater rights over as­ter­oids.

The po­ten­tial gets richer as more as­ter­oids are dis­cov­ered close to Earth – 18,000 and count­ing

An artist’s im­pres­sion of the Nasa OSIRIS-REx space­craft or­bit­ing the asteroid Bennu. Nasa

A Ja­pa­nese rocket launches in De­cem­ber 2014, car­ry­ing the Hayabusa2 probe on its way to the Ryugu asteroid. It is due to ar­rive later this sum­mer.

The Asahi Shim­bun/Getty

The Itokawa asteroid, left, is the only one from which ma­te­rial has been ob­tained so far – about one mil­ligram of dust when the Hayabusa space­craft bumped into it. Jaxa

Nasa’s OsirisRex, on dis­play at the Kennedy Space Cen­ter, Florida, in 2016. It is cur­rently on its way to the Bennu nearEarth asteroid. Reuters

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