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Asteroid mining will happen … but Australia will miss the boom

There will be a future mining boom, as heralded in recent media stories. But this mining will take place in a location even more hostile than the Australian Outback – space. More specifically, the ore…

When we start building structures outside Earth, the raw materials will likely come from asteroids. Planetary Resources

There will be a future mining boom, as heralded in recent media stories. But this mining will take place in a location even more hostile than the Australian Outback – space.

More specifically, the ore bodies that comprise the myriad asteroids we now know are whizzing by our planet with alarming frequency.

The publicity blitz was provoked by the formation of a new US-based company, named Planetary Resources.

The company is backed by film director James Cameron and a host of well-known billionaires who made their fortunes in the aerospace and internet industries.

Planetary Resources has a seemingly unlikely aim, yet one that has been obvious to space scientists for at least 20 years: to mine near-Earth asteroids, which are composed of a wide variety of useful minerals.

One thing perhaps not made clear in the media furore, is the point of this mining. It’s not to divert the asteroids and bring them down to the surface of our planet, but rather to make use of their valuable constituents for utilisation in space.

When humankind starts its move off the earth we’ll need to start manufacturing various products in space, including high-quality alloys and electronics. On the larger scale we’ll also need to construct large, permanently inhabited off-planet islands and it will be near-Earth asteroids from which we derive the needed raw materials.

The reason for this is not a shortage of minerals and other necessary supplies down here on Earth, but rather the expense of getting them into space.

To get a rocket off Earth’s surface and into orbit we need to accelerate it to a speed of over 7.5km per second (or 27,000km/h). That is expensive, although launch costs have dropped in recent years to about US$10,000 per kilogram.

A cubic metre of water may cost you a few dollars from your bathroom tap, but the same volume would cost US$10 million to put into orbit. In fact, the cost would be even higher than that, due to the weight of the container needed to hold the water.

To send payloads further away, escaping Earth’s gravity and going into independent orbit around the sun, requires more energy still (and therefore more money).

A manned mission to an asteroid is on the cards. Tony Dowler

Space researchers quantify the needed energy, and therefore the rocket sizes required, in terms of the Delta-V (∆V): the overall change in velocity (or speed) needed to rendezvous with some celestial target.

Imagine you’ve sent a rocket on its way to the moon. To execute a soft landing on the lunar surface and then blast-off again, as in the Apollo Program, requires a Delta-V of at least 6km/s.

That’s a lot. Remember, it was not much more (7.5km/s) to get off Earth and into orbit in the first place. To get to (say) Mars, land on its surface and then launch again and return to Earth, would necessitate a far higher Delta-V.

On the other hand, we now know of asteroids that pass close by Earth with relative speeds (and therefore required Delta-V for rendezvous) of only 2km/s. This means they are the most accessible objects in space.

Don’t be fooled by the fact that they spend most of their time far away from us: in space it’s not distance that counts, but the necessary Delta-V.

Click for larger view. Planetary Resources

The next cosmic objects on to which we will place astronaut footprints will undoubtedly be the asteroids. This has been foreshadowed in the rhetoric of NASA and indeed by President Obama himself (see video below).

Forget the Moon and forget Mars: the asteroids are our next stop.

It’s in this context that Planetary Resources' mining plans should be considered. The backers know these are to be the major targets of future manned missions. They also know the same asteroids are made of the metals, rock and other materials we will need to develop a permanent presence off our planetary home.

For instance, we know that water is present out there in abundance, and astronauts will need water for drinking, for growing food and for splitting into its constituent atoms to get oxygen to breathe.

Once upon a time Australia was well-placed to be involved in this future boom. In 1989 I began the first southern-hemisphere search for near-Earth asteroids. Indeed it was the first search outside the USA.

In 1996 the federal government cut all funding, despite protests from all around the globe, including from some prominent people such as the late Edward Teller, a Hungarian-American particle physicist.

NASA was so aghast at these funding cuts (because related NASA projects were dependent on our observing capabilities) that funding was delivered from NASA to the University of Arizona to the Australian National University to pay the two main observers on my project – Rob McNaught and Gordon Garradd – to keep searching.

Identifying resource-rich near-Earth asteroids is the first step for Plantery Resources. Planetary Resources

But as the great New Zealand physicist Lord Ernest Rutherford once said, science is either physics or stamp collecting and merely spotting new objects is definitely the latter.

Because of this Australia lost its pre-eminent position in near-Earth asteroid research.

The view of the Australian government was clear. In response to another wave of letters from around the world in 2002, urging a resumption of scientific research on these objects, the then Science Minister, Peter McGauran, went on Channel 9’s 60 Minutes to describe searching for near-Earth asteroids as being “a fruitless, unnecessary, self-indulgent exercise”.

And now NASA’s funding to Australia for near-Earth asteroid research has stopped forever, while other nations forge ahead.

If science really is Australia’s future (as CSIRO says it is), the country doesn’t have a hope, at least in this field.

Instead, we’ll watch on as the rest of the world, including Planetary Resources, take the next step in space exploration.

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18 Comments sorted by

  1. Marc Hendrickx

    Geologist: The Con is a bad Monty Python sketch, for climate sense see: http://www.thegwpf.org/

    Good piece Duncan, perhaps our mining magnates can chip in some exploration dollars.

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  2. Ron Chinchen
    Ron Chinchen is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Retired (ex Probation and Parole Officer)

    Inevidable occurrence but I would suggest decades away. Most asteroids are tens of millions of kilometres away and we have serious problems now in just getting a craft that distance let alone recovering even a few fragments of material to return to earth orbit. Moving huge asteroids or part of, to Earth or even Mars orbit though theoretically possible...and probably probable by 2050-2100, is I suspect only a dream at this stage. But if we are to establish sizable space stations and colonies on Mars it is probable that such engineering feats will be a necessary component, because lifting large quantities of material into space from Earth and even Mars would be far too expensive.

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    1. Arthur James Egleton Robey

      Industrial Electrician

      In reply to Ron Chinchen

      Ron,
      Please re-read the part about delta V.
      Why this obsession about going down gravity wells?

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  3. Ron Chinchen
    Ron Chinchen is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Retired (ex Probation and Parole Officer)

    One concept rarely spoken of but essential to future space station and colony development with asteroid resourses would be the need for huge manufacturing plants in Earth orbit to process the minerasl and create the necessary components for space based enterprises. It is here that private enterprise, after its dalliance with tourist flights, is likely to move into big time, because in future all space based stations will have to be fitted out by components built in space from minerals harvested in space.

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  4. Alice Gorman

    Lecturer at Flinders University

    An insightful article, and another lost opportunity for Australia in space. Not to mention that we have an incredible amount of mining expertise in harsh environments that could be utilised in developing space mining capabilities.

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  5. Steven Warren

    Ordinary Citizen

    I'm not a scientist or engineer so feel free to correct me on any point I don't understand or am poorly educated in but this entire Planetary Resources product drive seems to be more akin to someone trying to sell the Sydney Harbour Bridge than a business plan.

    Essentially they are claiming their plan is:

    1: Put a satellite in space with a telescope and use it to identify all asteroids that come in close proximity to the Earth.
    2: Build space station as repository for ore and fuel.
    2: Locate…

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    1. Steven Warren

      Ordinary Citizen

      In reply to Steven Warren

      I just checked the cost of a shuttle launch and landing and saw they are quoted as being $1.4b per trip (on the ISS wiki page).

      14 tons of platinum at $55,000,000 a ton merely makes $770,000,000 meaning each launch would lose US$630 million if those figures are correct and they refined the platinum in space.

      So without a landing craft capable of carrying much more cargo than a space shuttle, or being drastically cheaper to operate than one, the only way this project is viable is if they build…

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  6. Blair Donaldson

    logged in via Facebook

    Hardly surprising that Peter McGauran would describe searching for near Earth asteroids as being “a fruitless, unnecessary, self-indulgent exercise". Never mind the real concerns about any impact from asteroids and other space debris. McGauran has never been blessed with foresight in his entire life, the glint from the silver spoon in his mouth blinded him to future developments here on Earth and in space. The fact that he was science Minister shows the paucity of any real talent in the Howard government. Given the attitudes of the opposition today to most scientific matters, nothing much has changed.

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  7. Arthur James Egleton Robey

    Industrial Electrician

    I am afraid that many comments on this page miss the point entirely.
    The object of the exercise is not to drop materials down the gravity well. The object of the exercise is to use them in the High Ground.
    The surface of a planet is no place for industry.
    <a>href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerard_K._O%27Neill target=blank"Dr Gerard K O'Neill (et al)</a> laid out the business plan back in the seventies. Congress chose to spend the money beating up some rice farmers in Vietnam. Bad decision…

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    1. Arthur James Egleton Robey

      Industrial Electrician

      In reply to Arthur James Egleton Robey

      My apologies. Naughty computer.

      I am afraid that many comments on this page miss the point entirely.
      The object of the exercise is not to drop materials down the gravity well. The object of the exercise is to use them in the High Ground.
      The surface of a planet is no place for industry.

      "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerard_K._O%27Neill "Dr Gerard K O'Neill (et al)</a> laid out the business plan back in the seventies. Congress chose to spend the money beating up some rice farmers in Vietnam…

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    2. Steven Warren

      Ordinary Citizen

      In reply to Arthur James Egleton Robey

      I totally agree with you that mining in space to get the materials to build space craft and space stations so we can explore space is the best method of doing so as any space craft we send to other planets or even other stars would need to be quite large.

      But your claims we need to move manufacturing into space runs into the same problem as Planetary Resources plans of mining platinum for money do.

      Most of the people buying the manufactured goods still live on this planet. As such this is…

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    3. Arthur James Egleton Robey

      Industrial Electrician

      In reply to Steven Warren

      If you find that hard to take seriously then you are going to have serious cognitive dissonance once you visit this site.
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zBIQCm54dfY&feature=player_detailpage
      One thing we all should take seriously are the consequences of exponential growth on the planet. Either we leave or we die. In our Billions.
      This view is supported by Professor James Lovelock, Professor Meadows (Limits to Growth) and Professor Stephen Hawking.
      We have to lift every person off the planet.
      The business plan has been laid out for us by Dr Gerard O'Neill.
      It requires execution.
      This will have to be a World Government project.
      Time to go.

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    4. Ron Chinchen
      Ron Chinchen is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Retired (ex Probation and Parole Officer)

      In reply to Arthur James Egleton Robey

      I'm afraid realistically in the short temr, and I'm referring to probably the next one to two hundred years, the idea of seriously reducing the human population of this planet by way of leaving it for other non terrestrial destinations is almost fantasy. It is hard enough and very expensive just to get a few astronauts/cosmonauts into space let alone billions of people.

      And where would they go. Colonisation of Mars, though possible within fifty odd years, would be a slow trickle until effective…

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  8. Ron Chinchen
    Ron Chinchen is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Retired (ex Probation and Parole Officer)

    Only last a few nights ago on SBS they screened a program seriously discussing the old SciFi idea of the Space Elevator. Apparently the only major hitch is the need for materials (probably carbon based) a few times stronger than we presently can make. If such a structure was built, and it is apparently quite feasible, then rockets could very well become redundant and the gravity well concern would be overcome because the system when be raised and dropped magnetically.

    Just a suggestion.

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    1. Arthur James Egleton Robey

      Industrial Electrician

      In reply to Ron Chinchen

      I understand your skepticism and cognitive disonance about moving everybody off the planet, however as Dr Euan McGilchrist has argued, the left hemisphere of your brains makes models for the consideration of your right.
      If the left hemisphere subverts the thought process then it has an inability to change the model to reflect the new reality.
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oXiHStLfjP0
      I urge you to revist the works of Dr Gerard K O'Neill. However until you experience space for yourself and the Right Hemisphere has the gestaldt I am afraid that I have no hope of changing your Left hemisphere's model of reality.
      Consider my task as one of persuading Captain Cook of the possibility of Jumbo Jet flight to Australia.It is only when Captain Cook actually get aboard a real aircraft that his model of reality is destroyed.

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    2. Ron Chinchen
      Ron Chinchen is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Retired (ex Probation and Parole Officer)

      In reply to Arthur James Egleton Robey

      Sorry Arthur but that doesnt get past what pragmatically is possible at this time. I dont doubt that there is potential there for having people move off the planet, but no matter what Capt Cook could or couldnt do, there was no way he was ever going to fly a jumbo jet to Oz in his time period. The technology just wasnt there and technology is cumulative...it doesnt come out of a magic bottle. We can imagine and aspire for something but until the hard work of development catches up to our aspirations we are still stuck here on good old planet earth dreaming of what could be. Even gestalt relies on the development of its parts firstly before it can achieve its great whole, and certainly once those parts are developped there will no doubt be wonders we have not yet conceived. But we have to learn to stand and walk before we join the marathon.

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