The Great Galactic Gold Rush

04 Apr 2011, Posted by Steven Kotler in

Brother Guy Consolmagno is 58 years old, with a thick beard, round glasses and an easy manner. The religious garb he wears in public may be misleading. While Consolmagno is a man of the cloth, most of his life has been focused less on God than on the details of God’s creation—specifically those that involve the greater cosmos. Brother Guy, as he prefers, is a staff astronomer at the Vatican Observatory and curator of its meteorite collection. A Vatican astronomer, in common parlance.

Given that Galileo was condemned to life imprisonment for his heliocentric heresy, the idea that the church now employs star watchers says a lot about how far we’ve come. Brother Guy is one of the world’s leading experts on the evolution of small bodies in the solar system, a Ph.D. who has held teaching positions at both Harvard and MIT. In recent years he has become the conscience for a new industrial frontier that is astronomical in more ways than one—the mining of asteroids for metals and ores.

He first broached the topic in 2008 in a speech given at the Manreza Symposium in Hungary. “On the one hand,” he said, “it’s great. You’ve now taken all of this dirty industry off the surface of the Earth. On the other hand, you’ve put a whole lot of people out of work. If you’ve got a robot doing the mining, why not another robot doing the manufacturing? And now you’ve just put all of China out of work. What are the ethical implications of this kind of major shift?”

What’s shocking is not just that a Vatican astronomer is taking asteroid mining seriously (and yes, asteroid mining requires spaceships to catch rocky orbs moving tens of thousands of miles an hour, mine them for massive amounts of resources and bring them back to earth). Brother Guy is certain enough of this eventuality in the near future to begin considering the gritty moral dilemma that will result.

While all this may seem far-fetched, in the three years since Brother Guy’s address, science fiction has turned into science fact. In 2005 the Japanese succeeded in landing a probe on an asteroid called Itokawa, and last year that probe sent home samples.

“Those samples confirmed we’re capable of asteroid mining,” says Brother Guy.

What does this mean? According to renowned astronomer John L. Lewis, the amount of money floating up there might exceed $100 billion for each person currently living on Earth, and experts believe the time will soon arrive for the harvest to begin. As Eric Ander- son, co-founder of Space Adventures (the private space tourism company that sent millionaire Dennis Tito to the International Space Station), explains, “All the pieces are in place. We have the technology, we have the market impetus, and we have the will.”

Fifty years ago this month the Soviets rocketed the first manned flight into the cosmos. Since that day some of humanity’s most ambitious dreams have been realized. We’ve launched space stations, photographed the deepest crevices of the solar system, even swung a golf club on the moon. The notion of what is possible and what is not changes with every passing year.

Asteroid mining is a dream that has been percolating for some time. It first appeared in the 1890s amid the writings of the great Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky—who pioneered steering thrusters, multistage chemical rockets, space suits, space stations, spinning vehicles to produce artificial gravity and, really, many of the ideas in use off-world today. The idea made its mainstream debut in 1932 with the publication of Clifford Simak’s short story “The Asteroid of Gold,” wherein the brothers Vernon and Vince Drake earn their keep as space miners.

By the early 1940s asteroid mining had become a sci-fi mainstay. A libertarian ethos infused these tales. Miners, usually known as “rock rats,” were seen as frontiersmen and asteroids as the new Wild West. This theme progressed until the 1970s and 1980s, when asteroid mining became an anti-environmental hard-right fairy tale—don’t worry about using up all the resources on Earth because we can go into space and get more. Outside the space community, this is where things still stand. But inside the community, a tectonic shift has occurred in the past few years.

What bridged the gap was a trilogy of recent space missions. The first probe was launched by NASA in February 1996. Known as the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous Shoemaker, it became the first unmanned spacecraft to keep up with an asteroid. Asteroids are rocks that orbit the sun. Size can range from pebbles to small planets. In our solar system the vast majority are found 100 to 400 million miles away, hurtling through the gap between Jupiter and Mars. Most of the 40,000 asteroids catalogued belong to this asteroid belt.

On that same mission, in 2000 NEAR Shoemaker combined a well-crafted hibernation period (to conserve energy) with an Earth-swing-by gravity assist and two care- fully controlled thruster burns to catch the second-largest near-Earth asteroid in mid- stride—433 Eros, a celestial body named for the Greek god of love, measuring 34 kilo- meters long and moving about 2,200 mph. Shoemaker spent a year orbiting Eros. NASA ended its mission in 2001 after landing the probe on the asteroid’s surface.

The agency went a step further when it launched Stardust. In 2004 the ship rendezvoused with the 2.5-mile-wide comet Wild 2 at about 13,600 mph. Once Stardust caught up to Wild 2, it used a specially designed particle collector to take samples of comet dust. Then its return capsule brought those samples back to Earth in 2006. The seven- year, 3 billion-mile round-trip “went like clockwork,” according to one of the Stardust project managers.

The most impressive mission to date is the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Hayabusa probe. In September 2005 Hayabusa chased down asteroid Itokawa and spent two months analyzing its shape, topography, color, composition and density before landing on it in November 2005. There it used a robotic arm to scrape the surface and gather samples. On June 13, 2010 Hayabusa returned to Earth, making a parachute landing in southern Australia. The spaceship burned up breaking into the atmosphere, but a heat-shielded capsule brought the samples back intact.

Unlike Earth, asteroids need only be scraped for resources, meaning ships could land, establish anchor, then robotically dig in and collect before returning home (most likely by ion power). “The earth has been chemically processed, so our mineral wealth is found only in certain regions, and many of those regions are deep underground,” explains Brother Guy. “Asteroids, though, are homogenous. What’s on the surface is below the surface. You don’t have to dig, you can scrape—and that’s exactly what Hayabusa did.”

All that is needed now is an angel investor willing to gamble billions on a mining mission in space, which experts believe is only a matter of time.

“Asteroid mining is about working robotically in a very far away, very harsh and extreme environment,” says X Prize Foundation CEO and co-founder of Space Adventures Peter Diamandis. “Well, Shell found the first deep oil deposit in the 1980s—beneath thousands of feet of water and rock. That’s a very far away, harsh and extreme environment. At the time Shell found the oil, no one alive knew how to drill at those depths. We didn’t have the necessary robotics, and we didn’t have the artificial-intelligence systems to drive those robotics. But oil was precious enough that Shell placed a multibillion-dollar bet. This means that today, right now, we have companies willing and able to place multibillion-dollar bets on high-risk robotically run resource-extraction missions, which is asteroid mining to a tee.”

“You need to examine the facts,” says Anderson. “No laws of physics need to be reconfigured to mine an asteroid. There are no technology gaps. Truthfully, building a North Sea oil platform is comparable.”

And the payoff?

“The Earth is a tiny crumb in a super- market of resources,” Diamandis says. “I’ve said for a long time the very first trillionaire on Earth will be the person who figures out how to mine an asteroid and open up that supermarket.”

It all comes down to the numbers. Scientists are able to predict what is in an asteroid by using spectral analysis (examining the light that an asteroid absorbs) and by com- paring it to meteorites, pieces of asteroids and other heavenly bodies that have fallen to earth. Brother Guy has examined the value of a typical S-class (S unofficially means “stony,” thus about 10 percent metal). By his calculations an average-size S-class asteroid contains about 1 billion metric tons of iron, or as much as is currently mined on Earth each year. The total value of this haul sits in the high trillions. And that’s only one type of asteroid. There are also M-class asteroids, with M unofficially signifying metallic. Iron is the most abundant metal found in asteroids, but they also contain nickel, gold, cobalt and—perhaps the biggest find—all the platinum group metals.

“In human history,” says Anderson, “all the platinum that’s been mined on Earth would fit in a tractor trailer. Platinum has excellent technological properties. It’s a great conductor. But at $2,000 a troy ounce we really can’t build new industries around it.”
The amount of platinum in 433 Eros—an asteroid that’s a good candidate to be mined, since NASA has already landed a probe on it—is worth roughly $657 trillion by today’s market value. Asteroids contain iridium (used in LCDs and flat-screen TVs),
tantalum (cell phones), phosphorous (fertilizer), gallium, hafnium, zinc—all plentiful in space and sparse on Earth.

University of Arizona professor emeritus John Lewis, in his now classic Mining the Sky, points out that as we get better at the technology, we could also learn to mine gas giants like Uranus for their massive quantities of helium-3. “What do we do with our 10 tons of helium-3 when we get back to Earth?” writes Lewis. “The market value of that amount of helium-3 is set by the amount of energy it can produce when used in a helium-3/deuterium fusion reactor. That cash value is $160 billion. That means helium-3 is worth 1,000 times its weight in gold or platinum. Here is surely the most valuable raw material in the solar system, well worth the cost of transportation back to Earth.”

The final piece of this puzzle comes with mapping all the near-Earth asteroids—an ongoing international effort to avert disaster. This effort began after a crater was discovered in the 1970s. Scientists learned it was caused by an asteroid with a 10-kilometer diameter that hit the Earth 65 million years ago and may have killed off the dinosaurs. By the early 1990s scientists realized a one- kilometer-diameter rock could jeopardize a significant portion of the human race and, even more alarmingly, rocks that size crash into the Earth once every 500,000 years or so. Which is when almost everyone in the space field decided it would be good to figure out where all those rocks are lurking and what their trajectories are.

Thus began the great asteroid hunt of the Aughts. In the past decade researchers, using a variety of telescope technologies, are attempting to locate at least 90 percent of the large near-Earth asteroids—those more than one kilometer in diameter. We’ve discovered no species- ending impacts in our near future, and there have been other gains as well.

“All this mapping can be used for mining,” says Erik Asphaug, University of California Santa Cruz professor of planetary science. “Sure, we’re trying to save the world from a catastrophic event, but along the way we’ve drawn up a pretty good prospector’s map of our solar system.”

What will this concept look like in our lifetime? President Obama wants to land astronauts on an asteroid by 2025. Teams at Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena are at work, so a government-sponsored first step is not out of the question. Diamandis believes big energy companies—the ones that built North Sea oil platforms—will have, in 15 to 25 years, staked claims on near-Earth asteroids, with pilot programs under way. Eric Anderson thinks we’re five to 10 years away from our first asteroid-mining mission, while Jeffrey Kargel, a University of Arizona planetary geologist, predicts a longer wait.

“Profitable commercial development of extraterrestrial resources may begin mid-century and fundamentally shape Earth’s economy before this century is out,” Kargel says.

The gold isn’t the only thing fueling our space-rock fire. In the past few years NASA has firmly committed itself to the establishment of off-world colonies. “Visiting an asteroid is a fantastic stepping-stone to Mars,” says Derek Sears, professor of space and planetary science at the University of Arkansas. “You can test out the hardware and the human behavior.” A trip to Mars will take three years; an asteroid, one passing close to the Earth, is a few months’ voyage.

Even more important to our off-world plans is water. “Most aerospace engineers feel water is the real key to off-world colonies,” says Sears. “Carrying water out of a gravity well is extremely expensive. But there is a whole class of asteroids that are 25 percent water. We call them mud balls. So a ship could stop off at an asteroid on the way to a space colony and tank up on water. There’s no cost. Just warm up a chunk and off you go.”

Once we’re actually mining asteroids, look out. Huge global economic shifts tend to cause problems, and massive generation of new wealth can bring out the worst in humanity. Which is why a Vatican astronomer is already mulling over the topic.
“This is truly a disruptive technology,” says Brother Guy. “Certainly in the long run, whether you’re talking about wealth creation or taking mining—one of the most environ- mentally damaging industries—off-world, everyone is better off. Frankly, in the long run the upside is so big it’s almost utopian. But in the short run there will most definitely be some consequences.”

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