As reported in Part 1 of this 2-part series, Japan set a new record in space development on September 21, 2018, by landing a rocket equipped with autonomous roving probes on a fast-moving space rock.
Quoting from Part 1:
“The second-generation rocket Hayabusa2 was launched on December 3, 2014, and reached the near-Earth asteroid 162173 Ryugu on June 27, 2018. Its mission is to survey the space rock for a year and a half. In October 2018, a larger rover (a probe that can move) named MASCOT will deploy from Hayabusa2, followed by a third tiny hopping probe next year. In December 2019, Hayabusa2 will lift off and return home in December 2020 with a cargo of mineral samples [for laboratory analysis].”
The notable achievements from Japan are two-fold:
1) Successfully landing an expensive spacecraft on a moving object without destroying the delivery system and its onboard equipment. (An average asteroid speeds along at a rapid 15 miles per second.)
2) Hayabusa2 will be the bring the first asteroid mineral samples back to Earth.
The fact is that many asteroids orbiting near Earth are tempting to budding mining ventures worldwide – so much so that the question posed at the end of Part 1 was:
Who will win the race to combine rocketry and mining technologies in order to bring new mineral riches to Earth?
The Japanese robotics and spacecraft engineers are being challenged by private technology companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, founded in 2002, and British startup The Asteroid Mining Corporation (AMC), founded in March 2016.
All asteroids orbit the sun. When asteroids collide, fragments produced may be pulled into the Earth’s atmosphere, producing a fiery meteor. If the meteor doesn’t burn up entering the atmosphere and lands on the ground, it becomes a meteorite.
AMC says it will mine near-Earth asteroids (NEAs). They can be “like blobs of metal, some a rubble pile.” There are about 20,000 NEAs.
Any asteroid mining operation could be profitable if the value after raw ore extraction is more than the cost of mining in space. AMC plans to “make use of any and all materials found to be present from Platinum group and Ferrous metals, Rare Earth minerals to Carbon and volatile compounds such as water.”
Asteroids are categorized by their composition: carbon, silicon or metal. Space rocks can yield gold, silver, platinum, titanium, iridium, palladium, rhodium, tungsten, iron, cobalt, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, and aluminum.
To give you an idea of how much these metals are worth, as of October 3, 2018, gold is currently trading for $1,199/ounce, iridium is priced at $1,460, and Rhodium has a value of $2,580.
Colorado mines molybdenum which is valued at $11.79/lb while cobalt is worth $26.31/lb, and nickel costs around $5.63/lb.
Multiply these numbers by large industrial-use quantities and then factor in the rapid advance of space-going vehicles to figure out why some private investors are looking up into space instead of down in the ground for profits.
Harvard University professor Martin Elvis has analyzed how to assess the number of asteroids that contain ore and “not merely a high concentration of a resource.” According to his calculations, a 100-meter diameter asteroid must have a value of $1 billion.
The actual number of NEAs worth mining may be as low as 10. One underlying assumption here is that the composition of fallen meteorites is representative of all asteroids. If true, we can assume that 4 percent of NEAs are metallic since that proportion exists among meteorites analyzed to date.
Despite these challenges to creating new wealth here on Earth, companies around the globe are organizing to do just that.
The 2013 Japanese startup ispace is “a private lunar exploration startup centered on micro-robotics.” This company believes that the moon will be mined before asteroids and plans to extract water (which can be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen to produce fuel). They expect that “by 2040 the Moon will support a population of 1,000 with 10,000 people visiting every year.”
American company Planetary Resources came into being on January 1, 2009, in Redmond, Washington. They are “embarking on the world’s first commercial deep space exploration program. The purpose is to identify and unlock the critical water resources necessary for human expansion in space.”
Planetary Resources will be looking for asteroids with high contents of water, “the first step to creating a civilization in space.” The company is asking: “where will we establish the first mine in space?”
But is an often-overlooked country nestled in the heart of Europe quietly vying for space mining supremacy?
A company with a U.S. office in Pasadena, California called OffWorld has their European location in Luxembourg. This small country shares borders with Germany, Belgium, and France. Since the 1980s, Luxembourg has focused on developing their successful commercial satellite industry.
In 1985, Luxembourg formed the SES – Société Européenne des Satellites or European Satellite Society – which, today, is the second-largest commercial satellite operator in the world.
Now, Luxembourg intends to dominate mining in space. In fact, the small nation has partnered with Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources to make this science fiction story a science fact. Luxembourg is providing the funding for the two private companies to develop supporting technologies.
Significantly, in 2017, Luxembourg passed the first law in Europe that gives ownership of any resources extracted from space to the companies who mine them. The United States has a similar law, passed in 2015, called the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act – but it “applies solely to people and companies that count as citizens, Luxembourg’s law applies to any company with a Luxembourg address.”
We can expect to hear much more about asteroid mining as this new industry grows up before our eyes. Will there be another Gold Rush – in Space?