Space mining: Sustainability and profitability combined

Clay Killingsworth, author of a new report for Guidehouse, explains the incredible opportunities and challenges associated with space mining

From Jeff Bezos to Captain Kirk, hypersonic missiles to concerns about climate change – space is out there in a way not seen since the Moon landings.

According to recent analysis in The Planetary Science Journal, two near-earth asteroids could contain precious metals worth US$11.65 trillion – more iron, nikel and cobalt than exists on earth. If that doesn’t get you excited, how about 16 Psyche, an asteroid that NASA intends to visit in 2022, worth an estimated US$10,000 quadrillion. According to Forbes, the entire net wealth on planet Earth in 2021 stands at less than half a quadrillion dollars.

Little wonder then that mining organisations the world over may be interested in the opportunities, and realities, of space mining – outlined in a new report from Guidehouse.

The report titled ‘Space Mining Can Enable Sustainable Travel Both On And Off Earth’ was written by research analyst Clay Killingsworth, and he spoke exclusively with Mining Global about how space mining can provide this sustainable future while also looking at the complexities, challenges and super-rich opportunities.

Q. The title of the report is making travel sustainable on and off earth – explain what that means?

A. The title refers to the applications of two of the prime targets for space mining operations: water and rare earth elements (REEs). Rare earths are metals that are critical to manufacturing, among other things, high-efficiency batteries and computer chips. Demand for electric vehicles, utility-scale electricity production and storage, and the Internet of Things can only be met with increased REE production.

While REEs are found throughout Earth’s crust, these elements are characterised by ready dispersion into surrounding materials such as soil and water, unlike other metals such as copper or gold that aggregate into veins. Because REEs are present only in low concentrations on Earth, mining them is often prohibitively costly.

However, these elements may be present in much higher concentrations on asteroids or other celestial bodies where chemical and mechanical forces cannot dilute them. Substantial amounts of REEs also exist in Earth’s orbit in discarded rockets, scrapped space stations, and end-of-life satellites. These elements are already in near-usable forms, unlike the ore-bound deposits in asteroids and other bodies.

Extraterrestrial mining thus presents the possibility of greatly increasing the supply of REEs and other precious and semiprecious metals on Earth. Increasing supplies of these resources would facilitate the adoption of sustainable means of travel by driving down the often-prohibitive costs associated with distributed electricity storage and generation.

Water plays a key role in making space travel sustainable and economical. Electrolysis of water produces elemental hydrogen and oxygen, which together can be used as rocket propellant. The value of producing propellant in space lies in not needing to launch it from Earth’s surface, as increasing a rocket’s mass necessitates exponentially more fuel to reach the same destination; every kilogram of fuel put into low earth orbit, for example, requires at least 5 kilograms of additional fuel burned to get it there. Thus, a mining operation on the moon that could produce liquid rocket fuel, even at a sizable multiple of the cost to do so on Earth, would dramatically reduce the cost of expeditions to Mars, the asteroid belt, and beyond.

Q. Space mining sounds like science fiction, how realistic is it, and how far in the future?

A. The Apollo missions first sampled the lunar regolith in 1969, and the Hayabusa spacecraft collected asteroid samples that were returned to Earth in 2010. Scientific missions collecting samples provide a technical proof of concept, but commercial operations still face significant technical and economic hurdles. Mining other large celestial bodies, such as the moon or Mars, are nearer technical viability, as ongoing rover missions illustrate. The challenges here are more economic; spaceflight remains a costly and hazardous venture. But, with space launch costs falling due to the increasing reusability of launch vehicles and with growing interest in long-duration missions (e.g., Artemis) in space, mining operations beyond Earth could become viable in the next 20 years.

Q. What would we mine for, and do we know it exists? How much is there?

A. The prime targets are water, REEs, and metals like nickel, iron, and platinum. Water ice has been detected on the moon, primarily in the permanently shadowed polar craters, as well as on comets and asteroids. Estimates of just how much water ice is present in either asteroids or the moon, however, are imprecise, with estimates of lunar water prevalence ranging from as little as 11 million tons to more than a billion tons.

REE and metal deposits in asteroids are marginally more certain, with NASA estimating there to be at least 80,000 iron- and nickel-rich objects in the asteroid belt that are more than 1 km in diameter. Assuming all of these objects were mined, the value of the extracted metal could be more than $100 quadrillion. Alternatively, capturing and recycling space junk found in low-earth orbit, such as discarded rocket motors and end-of-life satellites, could provide smaller but far more certain returns. 

Q. How can a mining operation on, say, the moon, be commercially viable, and how would it be operated?

A. The approach that is presently nearest commercial viability is one that targets lunar water, especially as a means of creating propellant for return trips to Earth or to refuel spacecraft bound for points distant. Such an operation would likely be based near the rim of one of the Moon’s polar craters where ice is relatively abundant but sunlight for solar power is still accessible.  

Q. What are the main challenges facing any mining operation on the moon, or in space? And how can they be addressed?

A. The main technical challenges lie in dealing with the inhospitable environment for long durations. Equipment and workers must operate in a low-gravity, high-radiation vacuum subject to temperature swings of more than 500° F. On the moon, the low gravity and fine, dusty soil complicate locomotion, and the microgravity environment of most asteroids presents even greater challenges. For operations beyond the moon, distance becomes a rapidly growing challenge, as control and communications signals can take several minutes to travel from Earth-based command centres to spacecraft in the main asteroid belt. Addressing the technical challenges is a matter of producing ruggedised equipment, robust contingency planning, and multiple operational and safety redundancies. 

Economic challenges include the need for substantial upfront capex, payoff uncertainty, and time. Organisations aiming to mine in space must develop and produce equipment, train crew for the mission(s), and fund the launch, delivery, support, and possibly even return of assets before any return on investment is realised. While missions to the moon require comparatively little travel time, reaching even near-Earth asteroids takes years. Addressing these challenges is, as most economic barriers to space are, accomplished by partnering with government space agencies whose deep pockets and long time horizons can sustain operations that might not achieve positive ROI for many years.

Q. Are we in danger of experiencing a war for space?

A. The value of space resources is potentially quite great, but for now uncertainty about their value remains high. Coupled with the substantial technical difficulty and exorbitant price of spaceflight, the uncertain payoff means that only the most highly capable and well-funded space programs can attempt to exploit space resources at present. Once resource values become more certain, however, the competition among both commercial and public space agencies will be fierce. 

Q. Who owns space and these valuable resources?

A. The short answer is that it’s not clear. The UN’s 1967 Outer Space Treaty, signed by the US, UK, and Soviet Union, declared outer space as “the province of all mankind…not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation”. The 1979 Moon Agreement supplements the Outer Space Treaty and calls for establishing “an international regime” to govern the exploitation of resources on the Moon and elsewhere beyond Earth. The Moon Agreement, however, was not signed by any major spacefaring (at the time) country. Together with the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, which unilaterally grants US companies greater freedom to collect and keep non-living materials from space, international consensus on the ownership of space resources appears unlikely. The most likely answer, given the value at stake, is simply whoever gets there first.

• Down the report by Guidehouse Insights HERE.

https://guidehouseinsights.com/reports/space-mining-can-enable-sustainable-travel-both-on-and-off-earth
 

About Guidehouse

Guidehouse is the only scaled consultancy in the world to fully integrate commercial and public or government businesses – from Wall Street to Washington, from the European Union to India. The firm has more than 12,000 employees and subject matter experts in 55 global markets.

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