In a recent development, space agencies from Japan and the United States have embarked on missions to explore, manipulate, or retrieve samples from asteroids. After some initial challenges, the space mining industry is once again gaining momentum. Notably, companies such as AstroForge, Trans Astronautica Corporation, and Karman+ are gearing up to test their technologies in space as they prepare to venture towards asteroid mining.
The significance of these endeavors has prompted economists to delve into the possibilities of economic activities in space. On October 16, a series of research papers were published, contemplating the potential growth of economic endeavors beyond our planet. Among these studies, one conducted by Ian Lange from the Colorado School of Mines evaluates the potential and hurdles faced by this emerging industry, which could reach a substantial scale in the coming decades. This growth is largely driven by the increasing demand for critical metals, essential for electronics, solar and wind power systems, and the components of electric vehicles, notably batteries.
While some companies are exploring the controversial idea of harvesting metals like cobalt, nickel, and platinum from the ocean floor, asteroids have surfaced as promising alternatives. These celestial bodies potentially hold abundant reserves of these valuable minerals, and what’s more, their extraction wouldn’t pose any harm to terrestrial ecosystems.
Lange’s study, co-authored with a researcher from the International Monetary Fund, presents a comprehensive model for the growth of space mining in comparison to traditional Earth-based mining. Their model takes into account factors such as trends in the clean energy transition, mineral prices, space launch costs, capital investments, and research and development efforts. Their findings suggest that within the next 30 to 40 years, space mining could outpace terrestrial mining in the production of certain metals. For instance, metallic asteroids contain over a thousand times more nickel per metric ton than what’s found in Earth’s crust, along with significant concentrations of cobalt, iron, platinum, and other valuable metals. The reduction in launch costs, thanks to reusable rockets developed by companies like SpaceX and Rocket Lab, has further accelerated the prospects of space mining, with launch costs decreasing by a factor of approximately 20 per kilogram since 2005, and the potential for further reductions.
Envisioning a future where robots mine minerals to be used in space, such as in the construction of spacecraft or habitats for astronauts, Lange acknowledges that current refining techniques, reliant on fundamental factors like gravity, may not be the most efficient. He suggests that it might be more practical to transport these resources back to Earth, where there’s a substantial demand for them.
While no one has yet assigned a specific value to an asteroid, the prices of critical metals are reevaluated daily in the market. Cobalt, for instance, currently commands a price of around $33,000 per ton, and nickel is valued at approximately $20,000 per ton. The burgeoning electric vehicle industry, with its substantial battery requirements, drives up the demand for both nickel and cobalt, especially considering that electric vehicles necessitate six times the minerals required for conventional cars. Nickel is also essential for solar panels, while cobalt plays a crucial role in wind turbines. The International Energy Agency predicts a potential sixfold increase in demand for cobalt and a fourfold increase for nickel by 2050, contingent on the extent to which governments and industries commit to a clean energy transition. Moreover, the demand for platinum-group metals is anticipated to surge, both for catalytic converters and fuel cells, further underlining the importance of these resources in a sustainable and greener future.
Lange’s study also sheds light on the social and environmental consequences of terrestrial mining. For instance, the Democratic Republic of Congo accounts for a substantial 70 percent of global cobalt production, while nickel is primarily sourced from Indonesia and the Philippines, and Russia and South Africa dominate the global supply of platinum-group metals. Alarmingly, many mining operations in these nations have been implicated in systematic reliance on child labor, forced labor, and human rights violations, particularly within the cobalt supply chain, as reported by the International Energy Agency. The environmental impact is equally concerning, with Indonesian nickel mining operations being blamed for deforestation and water pollution.
While deep-sea mining is proposed as a potential solution to secure these metals on Earth, it poses its own set of environmental risks, including the disruption of aquatic ecosystems, noise and light pollution, and damage to delicate marine habitats. Even the most barren stretches of the ocean floor harbor more life compared to asteroids, which are, to the best of our knowledge, devoid of any living organisms. Lange contends that the public may find mining asteroids a more acceptable trade-off: “This [space] rock won’t look like it has looked for the last X million or billion years,” he says, but few will object if no wildlife is at risk.
Nevertheless, space mining is not without its environmental concerns, and there currently exists no legal framework to regulate it. Ethical considerations call for safeguards against asteroid pulverization during mining and equitable resource allocation for all, including future generations. The closest initiative to address this is the US-led Artemis Accords, which is in the process of formulating rules for lunar exploration. While the moon is not rich in minerals, it is anticipated that space agencies and private entities will compete to mine water ice at its poles. While the Outer Space Treaty explicitly forbids the appropriation of territory in space, these accords may enable the establishment of “safety zones” around lunar activities.
Nevertheless, several technological and economic obstacles must be overcome before mining ventures take off. Lange emphasizes that there is currently no significant manufacturing or refining activity taking place in space. Transitioning from this point to a thriving space economy is a gradual process, requiring initial steps and gradual progress.
These studies endeavor to address questions regarding the role of space exploration, along with related technologies such as GPS and satellite imagery, in the evolution of modern economies and the potential for government-industry collaborations. These questions have, as Luisa Corrado, an economist at Tor Vergata University of Rome who organized the research project, puts it, been “under-scrutinized.” In her own study, she argues that the economic and technological spill-over effects, where space activities stimulate advancements on Earth, were more pronounced during the peak of the Apollo program and the Cold War’s space race than they are currently. However, this trend might soon change, as Corrado envisions a gradual shift from a “space-for-Earth” to a “space-for-space” economy, offering opportunities for the production of goods and services in space, including precious metal mining.
While the potential is evident, space mining remains fraught with economic risks, and its future hinges on the growing demand for specific minerals. In the 2010s, companies like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries made bold claims about visiting and mining asteroids by the 2020s. Planetary Resources had the backing of Google co-founder Larry Page and included renowned filmmaker James Cameron on its board, along with Dante Lauretta, the head of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission. Both companies generated considerable hype, but quietly faded away in late 2018 and early 2019, having been acquired by other companies and discontinuing their mining operations.
Before the prospect of space drilling can become a reality, the space mining industry requires an extensive understanding of potential asteroid targets. This understanding encompasses details about the mineral compositions of these celestial bodies, the challenges involved in extracting these minerals from asteroids, and the complexities of bringing the extracted ore back to Earth. Gaining such information is no small feat; sending a prospecting team to asteroids to take high-resolution images or gather core samples is currently impractical. Companies must rely on data collected by Earth-based telescopes, with the next logical step being the deployment of spacecraft for in-depth asteroid examination.
In this renewed quest for space mining, AstroForge and its competitors aim to accomplish what their predecessors could not. AstroForge, headquartered in Los Angeles, focuses its efforts on metallic, M-type asteroids, known for their rich deposits of platinum-group metals, according to CEO Matt Gialich. These asteroids share similarities with the meteorites that frequently fall to Earth, offering insights into the composition of space-based asteroids. Recent research co-authored by Gialich and a colleague from the Colorado School of Mines reveals that iron meteorites can contain concentrations of platinum-group metals ranging from 6 to 230 parts per million, surpassing terrestrial ore sources. The company’s vision involves retrieving refined materials from such asteroids and bringing them back to Earth by the end of the decade.
AstroForge adopts a business model that aligns with current technologies and existing market demand for these valuable metals. Gialich emphasizes, “We don’t need the market to grow at all. The space economy is already here.” The company initiated its endeavors by launching a 6U CubeSat into Earth orbit, employed for assessing the functionality of their extraction and refining technologies in a microgravity environment. To simulate the conditions found on an asteroid, they are conducting tests on a metallic rock. AstroForge’s next major milestone is scheduled for early 2024 when they intend to dispatch a spacecraft to closely observe a target asteroid. While the specific asteroid remains undisclosed, Gialich mentions that it’s a metallic near-Earth object. Successful measurements of the asteroid’s composition during this mission will lay the foundation for a future venture to obtain material from it. On October 18, the company proudly announced the successful hot fire test of the mission’s flight propulsion system.
In contrast to chasing after limited precious metals, Karman+, a Denver-based company established just last year, is planning to collect regolith, a common substance found on most asteroids. For instance, the Japanese space agency’s study of the asteroid Ryugu revealed the presence of hydrated phyllosilicates, a type of clay believed to be prevalent. Daynan Crull, a co-founder of Karman+, envisions that large quantities of such raw materials from similar asteroids could serve the purpose of manufacturing in space. These materials could be employed in constructing infrastructure for satellite servicing and space-based solar power, potentially heralding a new era characterized by the use of regolith. While water and clay may not capture headlines like platinum does, Crull firmly believes this represents an innovative frontier.
A third player in this space mining endeavor is TransAstra, based in Los Angeles, which is actively developing asteroid mining technologies with the support of NASA grants dedicated to forward-looking projects. The company is also engaged in the development of spacecraft designed for positioning satellites in Earth’s orbit or the removal of space debris. TransAstra representatives were unavailable for comment when WIRED sought an interview.
Matthew Weinzierl, an economist at Harvard Business School and author of one of the newly published studies, holds an optimistic view of the space economy. He perceives industries reliant on Earth-observing satellites, along with satellite internet companies like SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s Kuiper, as the least risky investments in the near term. The potential scale of space mining, manufacturing, and other emerging industries remains uncertain. However, Weinzierl suggests that substantial government investment on a scale akin to the Apollo era could stimulate increased private sector investments, thereby significantly influencing the macroeconomy. As Weinzierl aptly notes, there is a considerable degree of optimism in certain circles about the future of space-based endeavors.
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