Asteroid Mining?

Rand Simberg over at Pajamas has taken note that a second company has jumped into the asteroid-mining fray (which I confess I did not know existed until this morning). Planetary Resources (PR), which plans to remotely detect asteroids via telescopes in low earth orbit, got off the ground (so to speak) last year. Last week, Deep Space Industries (DSI) announced even more ambitious plans.

DSI intends to “send out actual small probes (called “Fireflies”) to survey and assay [asteroid targets] with flybys”. The Fireflies are to be followed by “Dragonflies”, which will bring back samples up to one hundred pounds. When suitable asteroids are confirmed, “Harvesters” will be sent out in larger spacecraft to mine the product.

DSI’s plans don’t stop there, though. Simberg writes, “They intend to be a space manufacturing company, and they have plans for what they call a ‘Microgravity Foundry’ — a 3-D printer that can process materials in weightlessness. The goal is ‘asteroid bits in, useful products out.’ The Foundry is in a conceptual phase, but they have patents, and are getting small business contracts to develop and prove it out.” Apparently it is possible to make propellant from water-based asteroids that is useful to both commercial satellite owners and to NASA.

DSI is thinking big. Its target is to become “the space equivalent of Pittsburgh or Detroit — a location for heavy manufacturing close to their source of raw materials, just as those industrial cities once relied on the Iron Range of Minnesota to feed the foundries and factories of the upper Midwest. But instead of raw steel and cars, one of their ultimate goals is to generate clean energy for use in both space and on earth.”

Well, it’s better than wind farms. What say you?

  1. Vice-Potentate

    Anything is better than wind farms. It brings to mind the expansion of railways across the west. To what degree should government help fund these ventures as infrastructure investments? It seems the permanent question betwixt Libertarians and Republicans. At least they’re off to a private start. I would venture to guess it won’t stay that way.

  2. John Hanson

    I suspect all of the players are rent-seeking from the Federal Government.  Nothing will become economically viable unless there is a space based market, (not yet) or some mineral in such short supply that it can be mined in space more cheaply than recovered on earth.   This MIGHT be the case with some rare earths, but one has to discover such things first. 

    I am for a private space industry to the extent it is feasible, and certainly it is now for satellite fabrication, test, launch, and operation and I expect will be feasible for low earth orbit, and space tourism soon, (which might provide a market for consumables if it proves cheaper to mine from space sources than launch into orbit from earth (not yet convincingly shown to me by models I think are viable, but show me!)  We know what earth launch costs are, so just need to show realistically, what space mining costs are.

  3. Fred Cole
    Judith Levy, Ed.: What say you?

    The future is amazing.

  4. Fred Cole
    Vice-Potentate:

     To what degree should government help fund these ventures as infrastructure investments?

    To no degree.

  5. Fred Cole
    John Hanson: 

    I am for a private space industry to the extent it is feasible, and certainly it is now for satellite fabrication, test, launch, and operation and I expect will be feasible for low earth orbit, and space tourism soon, (which might provide a market for consumables if it proves cheaper to mine from space sources than launch into orbit from earth (not yet convincingly shown to me by models I think are viable, but show me!)  We know what earth launch costs are, so just need to show realistically, what space mining costs are. · 1 hour ago

    Edited 1 hour ago

    Yeah, the economics isn’t there yet.  That’s why we need a space elevator.  That would substantially drop costs.

    Boosting straight up with chemical rockets isn’t ever going to make space economical.

  6. dash

    Very cool. And googling around I found the first crew selected for deep space duty:

    firefly.jpg

  7. Foxman

     3-D printer

    Is this stereo lithography or something different.  Stereo lithography takes a very long time and produces a fragile product.  It’s great for prototype, but not much good for production.  Am I missing something?

  8. Pseudodionysius

    I suggest sending Al Sharpton and the head of a Wisconsin teachers’ union so they can ruin the place ahead of time, before we get all excited about doing something productive. 

  9. Britanicus
    Pseudodionysius: I suggest sending Al Sharpton and the head of a Wisconsin teachers’ union so they can ruin the place ahead of time, before we get all excited about doing something productive.  · 32 minutes ago

    Best send a UN envoy and peace keeping force in case we run into any rogue space political body that needs placating and funding.

  10. Tim H.
    Foxman:  3-D printer

    Is this stereo lithography or something different.  Stereo lithography takes a very long time and produces a fragile product.  It’s great for prototype, but not much good for production.  Am I missing something? · 57 minutes ago

    There was a proof-of-concept demonstration done recently for using lunar soil in a version of these 3-D printers.  I don’t think it’s actually stereolithography, but a version of the sintering that many 3-D printers use for metal fabrication.  I agree that the technology isn’t ready to go, yet, but there’s a lot of work being done to perfect it, especially given the possibility of a lucrative market.

    I agree with John Hanson that they’ve still got to get the launch costs down, but I’m not cynical about them being nothing but rent-seekers.  The private space industry has been booming, ever since the launch insurance industry got established in the ’90s, and they’re not just taking on government launch contracts—most satellite launches are private, I believe.  

    Still, I’ve long been skeptical that asteroid mining would be cheaper than on Earth.  But maybe it is for rarities.

  11. Fred Cole
    Foxman:  3-D printer

    Is this stereo lithography or something different.  Stereo lithography takes a very long time and produces a fragile product.  It’s great for prototype, but not much good for production.  Am I missing something? · 1 hour ago

    Depends on what you’re producing.  The technology is still new.  It’s amazing and will only get better.

  12. Foxman
    Britanicus

    Pseudodionysius: I suggest sending Al Sharpton and the head of a Wisconsin teachers’ union so they can ruin the place ahead of time, before we get all excited about doing something productive.  · 32 minutes ago

    Best send a UN envoy and peace keeping force in case we run into any rogue space political body that needs placating and funding. · 9 minutes ago

    The Envoy

  13. ctlaw

    Exactly.

    Imagine a big stack of gold bars on an asteroid. Would it be economical to retrieve them? Of course not. You probably would drop several billion dollars to retrieve 100k ounces or 200 million dollars.

    Now imagine having to send up equipment do even moderate mining, refining, etc.

    John Hanson: I suspect all of the players are rent-seeking from the Federal Government.  

  14. Foxman
    Fred Cole

    Foxman:  3-D printer

    Is this stereo lithography or something different.  Stereo lithography takes a very long time and produces a fragile product.  It’s great for prototype, but not much good for production.  Am I missing something? · 1 hour ago

    Depends on what you’re producing.  The technology is still new.  It’s amazing and will only get better. · 0 minutes ago

    I first worked with it in 1990.  It is much improved, but will rquire orders of magnitude improvement for production.

  15. Tim H.

    [cont'd]  For example, I think you’d never go to an asteroid to mine iron.  It’s plentiful in asteroids, but it’s still pretty cheap here, and you probably wouldn’t cover your launch costs.  But there are other metals that are common in asteroids but rare on Earth.  If those have commercial value, then…

    Asteroids have different abundances of elements and minerals than Earth does, because they formed in different places in the solar system, and because the Earth is so much more massive that it has a geology that processes its materials and transforms them.  I looked for a figure or table giving the relative abundances between the two, but I didn’t quite find what I had in mind from the astrobiology text I taught from.  Here’s a (very) detailed paper on it, though.

  16. Barkha Herman
    Foxman:  3-D printer

    Is this stereo lithography or something different.  Stereo lithography takes a very long time and produces a fragile product.  It’s great for prototype, but not much good for production.  Am I missing something? · 1 hour ago

    Guns!

    You can make guns that shoot.  Assault weapons  and all.

  17. Barkha Herman

    Queen Isabella supporting Columbus’s voyage had no effect on the United States becoming a great nation.

    Government is a fact of life.  Involvement is irrelevant, but I have high hopes for the future.

    The world’s first trillionairs will be made in the next decades due to space exploration.

  18. Vice-Potentate

    I think the point is that they don’t think they’ll have to launch most of the mining equipment. Instead, they’ll start by mining a bit then using the product for the fabrication of the next actual generation of equipment to do the mining. The 3-d printer would make the launching of a massive amount of equipment unnecessary driving down costs. The technology is still a long way off though.

  19. Fred Cole
    Barkha Herman

    Foxman:  3-D printer

    Is this stereo lithography or something different.  Stereo lithography takes a very long time and produces a fragile product.  It’s great for prototype, but not much good for production.  Am I missing something? · 1 hour ago

    Guns!

    You can make guns that shoot.  Assault weapons  and all. · 6 minutes ago

    You can make anything banned.  Which means that there’ll be severe restrictions on 3D printers and on information.

  20. Barkha Herman

    They really can’t ban them – they will try to regulate them. (re: 3-D Printers).

    There are things that have not been able to be built due to various reasons that a 3-d Printer can do.  Case in point this.

    3D Printed Robotic Exoskeleton Gives This Little Girl the Ability to Hug

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