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article imageThe race for asteroid-mining worth trillions is on

By Karen Graham     Jun 11, 2018 in Technology
Space, the final frontier, is now being eyed by a new breed of space companies who want to boldly go where the big money reportedly can be found — in asteroids.
San Jose, California-based Deep Space Industries (DSI), is but one of hundreds of startups that have evolved in recent years with businesses that range from asteroid mining to off-Earth manufacturing.
DSI was formally announced on January 22, 2013. Currently, it has three spacecraft and patent-pending microgravity manufacturing technologies under development.
Space will no longer be the domain of governments and large aerospace contractors such as Elon Musk's SpaceX, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin LLC, or Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic LLC.
It's really all about rocket science
DSI's Chief Technology Officer (CTO), Grant Bonin is an aerospace management and engineering professional specializing in spacecraft systems engineering, and project management. Bonin talked with The Guardian recently about his company’s “flying steam kettle”: a propulsion system for small spacecraft that uses super-hot water vapor to provide thrust.
Bonin explained how the piece of equipment worked while holding what looks like the end of a metal water bottle in his hands. He said the water vapor is heated to 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,832 degrees Fahrenheit), producing the thrust needed.
The company has raised just over $3.5 million from private investors in a series A funding round. The funding will be used to develop Meteor, the company’s new launch-safe bipropellant rocket engine, and continue the ongoing development of the Xplorer spacecraft, the company’s deep space exploration platform scheduled for launch in 2020.
So what is DSI's goal? Basically, it's mining asteroids. It may sound audacious, and even though a private space company has never gotten close to an asteroid, there is the belief that asteroids have water locked in their clay deposits — and one of the main uses for that water could be a rocket propellant.
Artist s concept from the 1970s of asteroid mining.
Artist's concept from the 1970s of asteroid mining.
Denise Watt/NASA
Imagine, if you will, a refueling station in space. Different kinds of spacecraft, from probes to satellites and more could either use the water as is or create hydrogen and oxygen from the water for fuel, allowing the spacecraft to continue on their merry way with no end to their useful life,
This is where the real rocket science enters the picture. Before we can realize space filled with gas stations, or perhaps the better phrase would be H2O stations, we have to develop spacecraft that can run on water, and that's where DSI's innovative technology comes in.
Taking advantage of what's out there
Bonin talked with ViaSatellite in April last year. he said DSI recognized early on its technology could be applied to existing smallsat missions in orbit.
Image of asteroid 101955 Bennu taken by Indian Space Research Organization on June 29  2014.
Image of asteroid 101955 Bennu taken by Indian Space Research Organization on June 29, 2014.
ISRO
DSI, along with many other companies, including Aten Engineering and the TransAstra Corporation, both also based in the U.S., as well as the U.K.'s Asteroid Mining Corporation (AMC), all believe space is the natural next step for civilization. These companies believe the Earth is getting too populous and our resources will not last forever.
And even though DSI and others believe we should be a space-faring people, human settlement won't take place unless we learn to use what's out there, simply because we can't be bringing everything with us. Bonin says asteroids– with their negligible gravity – are the “low-hanging fruit” of space resources.
Illustration of a water-rich asteroid - a new US law legalizes the extraction of minerals and other ...
Illustration of a water-rich asteroid - a new US law legalizes the extraction of minerals and other materials, including water, from asteroids and the moon
Mark A. Garlick, Warwick & Cambridge Universities/AFP/File
Unlike the Earth or moon, asteroids have negligible gravity, making it easy to lift material off them. And the picking are enormous, so they say. So far, there are about 18,000 asteroids close to the Earth, and the number is growing. Of course, there are some asteroids much closer to Earth than the ones in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
The small number of asteroids outside the asteroid belt and closer to our planet are a hazard. “The joke is that we’re threatened by giant piles of money,” says Bonin. The revolution in small low-cost satellites is opening up opportunities for these startups to prospect and survey them.
But even though DSI is part of a nascent industry, governments are already taking notice of the interest in mining asteroids. NASA estimates that the total value of asteroids out there could be up to $700 quintillion – equivalent to £75 billion each for us here on Earth.
Artist’s conception of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft during its Touch-and-Go sampling maneuver at Benn...
Artist’s conception of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft during its Touch-and-Go sampling maneuver at Bennu.
NASA/Goddard
Other things to think about
With such an audaciously handsome payoff in mining asteroids, some countries are already offering regulatory and financial incentives. Luxembourg, in 2017, introduced legislation to allow companies with a physical presence in the country to keep any resources they mine from celestial bodies.
The U.S. introduced similar legislation in 2015. And beginning this fall, the Colorado School of Mines will begin offering master’s and doctoral degrees in space resources as well as the world’s first graduate program in the subject.
You need not think the next step in mining asteroids will be easy, or for that matter, cheap. And there are other concerns to think about. It may be decades before we have the technology in place to actually mine an asteroid, and then we will have to think about who owns the lifeless piece of rock.
Depiction of the asteroid that contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs.
Depiction of the asteroid that contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs.
By Don Davis/NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Tony Milligan and Robert Sparrow, who study space ethics at King’s College London and Monash University, Australia, respectively, question the justice behind asteroid mining. Sparrow says that asteroids don't belong to just anyone, they belong to everyone.
This raises the question — Should private companies be permitted to profit from resources that are part of our extraterrestrial commons? Milligan says that while the companies could be taxed, how would the tax be spread equitably across all the countries of the world?
And then there's the question of safety and liability. What if by mining an asteroid, an inadvertent slip-up caused it to change its trajectory and head for a collision with Earth? So, there are several things that need to be worked out before we build gas stations in the sky.
More about Space, asteroid mining, water as a fuel, OSIRISREx, technical challenges