We’re Never Going to Mine the Asteroid Belt

(Bloomberg Opinion) - Where would science fiction be without space mining?
From Ellen Ripley in Alien and Dave Lister in Red Dwarf to Sam Bell in Moon and Naomi Nagata in The Expanse, the grosser end of the interstellar drama would be lost without the engineers and their mineral processing operations.
It is such a tempting vision that real money has been put into making it a reality. Larry Page and Eric Schmidt of Alphabet Inc., and Hollywood filmmaker James Cameron (director of the alien sequel Aliens) all invested in Planetary Resources Inc., which raised risk funding into metal foams with its mission to mine and refine high quality minerals from asteroids that could be shot back to earth. Deep Space Industries Inc., a competing startup, also had bold plans to extract resources from space. Although both companies have since been bought out and their projects turned into mothballs, the idea of ​​a space mining industry has refused to die.
It's wonderful that people are shooting for the stars - but those who refused to fund the burgeoning space-mining industry's expansive plans were right about the basics. Space mining isn't going to get underway anytime soon - and you just have to look at civilization's history to find out why.
One factor rules out most of the space mining in the beginning: gravity. On the one hand, it guarantees that most of the solar system's best mineral resources are under our feet. The earth is the largest rocky planet orbiting the sun. As a result, the cornucopia of minerals that the globe attracted as it grew together is as rich as it is on this side of Alpha Centauri.
Gravity is also a more technical problem. Escape from the earth's gravitational field makes transporting the quantities of material required for a mining operation extremely expensive. On Falcon Heavy, the large rocket, developed by Elon Musk's SpaceX, that transports a payload into orbit around Mars, costs just $ 5,357 per kilogram - a drastic reduction in normal launch costs. At these prices, however, a small mining company's annual exploration budget would be consumed if only a single half-ton of drilling rig were hurled onto the asteroid belt.
Power is another problem. The international space station with 35,000 square feet of solar panels generates up to 120 kilowatts of electricity. That drill would require a power plant of similar size - and most mining companies operate multiple rigs at the same time. Electricity needs increase dramatically as you move from exploration drilling to mining and processing. Bringing material back to earth would add to the cost even more. The Japanese Hayabusa2 satellite spent six years and 16.4 billion yen ($ 157 million) extracting a single gram of material from the asteroid Ryugu and bringing it back to Earth earlier this month.
What might you want to mine from space? Water is an integral part of most earthbound mining operations and a potential raw material for hydrogen-oxygen fuels that could be used in space. The discovery of ice molecules in craters on the moon in October was considered a major breakthrough. Nevertheless, the concentrations of 100 to 412 ppm are extremely low for terrestrial conditions. Copper, which typically costs about $ 4,500 per ton to refine, has an average ore grade of about 6,000 ppm.
The more promising commodities are platinum, palladium, gold and a handful of rarer related metals. Due to their affinity for iron, these so-called siderophilic elements usually sank towards the metallic core of our planet at the beginning of their formation and are relatively rare in the earth's crust. Estimates of their abundance in some asteroids, such as the enigmatic Psyche 16 beyond Mars' orbit, suggest that the concentrations are many times higher than in terrestrial mines.
However, human ingenuity is about cutting our coat according to our fabric. If such platinum group metals are to justify the literally astronomical cost of space mining, they must face the sustained high prices required to keep such a facility up and running for the decade or so - and so on. The situation is like this in the materials industry as well as unknown.
When the prices of an important commodity get excessively high, chemists are extremely good at finding ways to avoid them, scrap dealers improve their recycling rates, and miners discover new deposits that would not have been profitable at lower prices. Even criminals come into play. Ultimately, this leads to an increase in supply and demand so that prices level out again - a dynamic we have seen in the rare earths, lithium and cobalt markets in recent years. The world produces about three times more platinum than it did in the early 1970s, but prices have changed little after adjusting for inflation.
This may seem a disappointing prospect for those looking for excuses for humanity to colonize space - but really it should be seen as an homage to our ingenuity. Humankind's failure to exploit extraterrestrial ore reserves is not a sign that we lack the imagination. If anything, this is a sign of the adaptive genius that put us into orbit in the first place.
This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist who covers commodities, industrial and consumer businesses. He was a reporter for Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, and the Guardian.
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