The space industry is globally estimated to be a US$300 Billion market and is expected to triple that in the next 10 years. Space resources are expected to create major socio-economic benefits in many areas, including GDP impacts, employment creation as well as market and technology spillovers in several technical domains such as data analytics, materials science, additive manufacturing and robotics.
The current rupture within the space industry in reusable space technology especially rockets coupled by the growth of the global population, predicted to be nearly 10 Billion by 2050 has created streams of interest in the possibility of us mining from above the earth in the near future. With current deposits getting deeper, poorer in grades, narrower and more challenging to extract, the possibility of going up for minerals resources is becoming more real especially where universe exploration is concerned.
The fragility of our planet and our dwindling resources have led to governments and companies looking for alternative resources. A wave of space focused mining exploration investments has been created and like never before, the race is on, not to peg claims of vast resource rich tracks of lands but for huge clusters of rich rocks scattered across the universe. Top 5 space players spent over US$74 Billion only in 2016 exploring the universe with USA leading at US$48 Billion, China US$11 Billion, Europe US$ 7 Billion, Russia US$ 4 Billion. USA recently announced its intention to develop a Space Force, a move that is set to cement and accelerate space investment.
No nation has claim to a space celestial body and as such, these bodies remains open to all. Success in asteroid mining may see some of the earth mining projects being rendered obsolete due to their cost efficiency, high concentration on quality metals and voluminous nature of deposits.
It takes more propellent to escape the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) which is only about 300km from the earths surface than is required to travel the next 300 million kilometers by the same spaceship. It takes about 50kg of propellent to just deliver 1 kg into the LEO but only 4kg to move the next 35,000km after that only 2kg the last 300 Million kilometers to get to Mars.
There are over 16,000 asteroids sharing the same orbit with Earth containing an estimate of 2 trillion tonnes of water and the number keeps on growing due to discovery of new ones. One of the key resources being explored and will be the first to be mined once their programs are successful is water which is an integral life support and rocket propellent component. Since asteroids have infinity quantities of this water, bases have to be set up to extract this and refine it into the much-needed propellants for deep space exploration at more than 1000 times cheaper than if provided from the earth’s surface. So, asteroid exploration is a must to ensure viability of solar system exploration.
We could then see water becoming the new revolutionary currency of future space exploration, a resource abundantly available on earth but with potential to make untold riches for people in the sky in potential fuel supply stations, the new oil field in space terms. Since these asteroids contain, ultrahigh grade minerals, mining just like it has benefited from the current digital transformation of technological revolution, will also benefit immensely through using existing infrastructure on asteroids for mining ventures which are even closer than venturing to the moon.
Near Earth Objects take different forms. These include comets, which are formed in the cold zones of the outer planetary system which are made up of frozen water embedded with dust particles. The residue of the material that constituted Mars, Mercury, Venus and Earth formed the rocky asteroids and these are closer home found in the warmer inner solar system between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Asteroids show a large variety of material composition, such as carbon-rich (C-type), metallic (M-type) or mineral-rich silicate (S-type). A typical asteroid over a kilometre in diameter can be valued in the trillions of pounds due to their relative abundance of Platinum group metals.
As national budgets tighten, governments are increasingly seeking to involve the private sector in all aspects of space transportation and exploration to which they are keen to do as the commercial imperative transforms the economics of space. Both established players and start-ups are using lower cost technologies – including nano- and microsats – to build innovative systems and services in Earth observation or satellite communications. A Luxembourg space agency study predicts a market revenue of up to 170 billion Euros generated by the space resources utilization industry over the 2018-2045 period with projected space savings of 135 Billion Euros for end users and customers.
Challenges in Space Mining
Just the feasibility of getting the projects off the ground is staggering enough to make a lot of investors sweat. Asteroid mining, requires the patience to develop technologies to explore, time to extract, and then find in-space applications for the resources that would have been extracted. The sheer size of equipment and time required for the whole value chain with minimal returns to beneficiation of minerals is discouraging to many. Though trillions of litres of water may exist, space missions, unlike vehicles that swam the earth surface like ants, will not be high traffic activities hence the economics of quantities will not just be allowing some commercially viable opportunities.
It seems with the enormous challenges faced in the prospect of space mining, a lot of new start ups have gone into hibernation mode, either with deep investments towards technology development for use or just waiting to capitalize on other potential players who are making strides towards the cause.
Some of the major players working in space mining include SpaceX, Deep Space industries, Planetary Resources, Space Resources Australia, Asteroid Mining Corporation, Space Resources.LU.