Monday, November 07, 2016

There's Gold in Them Thar Roids!

          By Brian Orlotti

Two NewSpace firms have recently revealed specific target asteroids for visits by prospecting spacecraft. Locked within these objects is colossal, game-changing wealth.

As outlined in the November 2nd, 2016 Visual Capitalist post, "There’s Big Money to Be Made in Asteroid Mining," the value of "many asteroids are measured in the quintillions of dollars, which makes the market for Earth’s annual production of raw metals – about $660 billion per year – look paltry in comparison." Graphic c/o Wired.

Two recently-formed space mining companies, Redmond, Washington based Planetary Resources and Mountain View, California based Deep Space Industries are focusing on near-Earth asteroids (those that orbit in close proximity to Earth), as the easiest to access in the near-term. Both companies view the tapping of asteroid resources as the key to building space-based infrastructure (fuel depots, space stations, power plants) and enabling off-world manufacturing, expanding Earth’s economy into the solar system.

As outlined in the November 2nd, 2016 Visual Capitalist post, "There's big money to be made in asteroid mining," about 15,000 such objects have been discovered. Planetary Resources has publicly identified eight of these as potential targets. Deep Space Industries claims to be targetting six.

NASA has estimated that the roughly 2 million asteroids in the belt between Mars and Jupiter contains some $700 quintillion (7 followed by 20 zeroes) USD worth of resources, including platinum, gold, iron, nickel, water and other elements. Such colossal wealth ($100Bln USD for every human on Earth) utterly dwarfs Earth’s $600Bln USD annual mining output. Also, as the need to dig deeper into the Earth drives up the cost of terrestrial mining ventures, investors have become increasingly open to the idea of off-world mining.

A listing of high value asteroid materials and their relative abundance relative to the Earth's crust created by the marketing department at Planetary Resources. As outlined in the   November 10th, 2016 Your Mining News post, "Planetary Resources and the government of Luxembourg announce €25 million investment and cooperation agreement," the company recently entered into an agreement with Luxembourg and the Société Nationale de Crédit et d’Investissement (SNCI) in order to "accelerate the company’s technical advancements with the aim of launching the first commercial asteroid prospecting mission by 2020." The asteroid mining startup also backed by Google co-founder Larry Page. Graphic c/o Sagan*Sense.

Newspace mining firms’ focus on easily accessible near-Earth asteroids, rather than those in the Mars-Jupiter belt makes sense as a first step toward proving the viability of asteroid mining.

However, such a path may not provide an immediate economic payoff. Most near-Earth target asteroids identified thus far are less than 300 m in diameter. Moreover, even if these first steps are successful, large-scale mining will require specialized robotics and spacecraft not yet in existence.

However, the space mining and terrestrial mining industries have similarities that bode well for the future. Both types of mining require large capital expenditures and years (or decades) of lead time before profitability. Fundamentally, mining, be it on Earth or the asteroid belt, is a long game. With this in mind, its is reasonable to forsee space mining eventually attracting the same level of investment now found in terrestrial mining.

Space mining may one day allow humans to tap gargantuan wealth that could profoundly change human life. Firms like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries are now blazing a trail toward that change, though this trail may take some time to traverse.

As the Chinese sage Lao Tzu said, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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