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February, 14 2017
Brother Guy Consolmagno is 58 years old, with a thick beard, round glasses and a scholarly manner. In public, he favors the black robes of his Jesuit order, though his garb may be somewhat misleading. While Consolmagno is certainly a man of the cloth, most of his life has been focused on the details of God’s creation rather than the deity itself. With a Ph.D. in planetary science, Consolmagno’s held teaching positions at both Harvard and MIT and is considered one of the world’s leading experts on the evolution of the solar system.
This expertise has served him well within the Society of Jesus. These days, Brother Guy, as he prefers, is a Vatican Astronomer. To many, especially those who remember Galileo was severely punished for his heliocentric heresy, the fact that the Vatican now employs professional star watchers seems peculiar—an issue well-summarized by Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert: “I don’t understand why the Church is suddenly all ground control to Cardinal Tom.” Brother Guy told Colbert that the Vatican supported astronomy because: “It’s a good way to know there’s more important things in the universe than what’s for lunch.”
And this very well may be the case, but lately the list of things the Vatican considers more important than lunch has taken a turn for the unusual. Not too long ago, for example, the Church brought together top scientists and major religious leaders to explore the possibility of alien life in the universe and what that possibility means for Jesus. CNN dubbed the event “E.T. phone Rome,” but, truthfully, this topic was nowhere near as future forward as the one Brother Guy turned his attention to in 2008.
That year, in “the Ethics of Exploration,” a speech given at the Manreza Symposium in Hungary, Brother Guy got serious about asteroid mining, which, as it sounds, is the act of using rocketships to chase down giant, floating space rocks, land on their surface, then mine them for minerals and ores. The fact that a Vatican astronomer was speaking about this topic was odd enough, but Brother Guy’s concerns that day were less about the possibility of asteroid mining ever occurring and more about the ethical consequences that would result. “On the one hand,” he said, “it’s great. You’ve 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?”
And Brother Guy is correct—it would be a major shift. Asteroids are rocky, celestial bodies that orbit the sun. Their sizes range from large pebbles to small planets, with plenty in between. The main belt has over 40,000 asteroids larger than a kilometer in diameter and this is the critical part: most are thick with ore. Jeffrey Kargel, a planetary geologist from the University of Arizona, recently calculated that FE90, a typical Apollo-class asteroid, contains some $50 billion worth of metal, including some 41,000 kilograms of gold—or double what Fort Knox held at its operational height. So forget about merely putting China out of work, dumping this much lucre on the market could, well, end the market.
And here’s the strangest part—all of this could happen much sooner than you might expect.
In the fifty years since Volstock 1, the first ever manned space flight, asteroid mining has gone from a perennial pipedream of the Star Trek Forever crowd to a serious enough proposition that a Vatican astronomer felt the need to address ethical concerns in public. In fact, in April of 2012—and with backing from the likes of Google co-founder Larry Page, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, and Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson—Peter Diamandis, creator of the X Prize, alongside Eric Anderson, CEO of Space X (the private space tourism company that flew Stephen Hawkins into zero-G and sent billionaire Dennis Tito to the International Space Station), announced Planetary Resources Inc. (PRI), a newly formed asteroid mining company. This time, it was Comedy Central host Jon Stewart who summed things up nicely: “Space pioneers going to mine mother-fucking asteroids for precious materials! BOOM! BOOM! YES! Stu-Beef is all in. Do you know how rarely the news in 2012 looks and sounds like you thought news would look and sound in 2012?”
No one’s entirely sure where the concept of mining asteroids originated, though the great Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky—who pioneered steering thrusters, multi-stage chemical rockets, space suits, space stations, artificial gravity, airlocks, and, really, most of the technologies in use off-world today—wrote about the idea in the early Twentieth century. From there, it orbited the space community for a decade, making a mainstream debut in 1932 publication of Paul Simak’s short story “Asteroids 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. Concurrently, a Libertarian ethos began to infuse these tales. Miners, usually known as “rock rats,” were seen as frontiersmen, asteroids as the new Wild West. This theme progressed until the 1970s and 80s, wherein asteroid mining came to be seen as an anti-environmental, hard right fairy tale—don’t worry about using up all the resources here on Earth because we can always go into space and get more. Outside of the space community, mostly, this is where things still stand, but inside the community, in the past few decades, a tectonic shift has occurred: Asteroid mining has gone from science fiction to science fact.
What really bridged that gap was a trilogy of recent space missions. The first of those was the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous Shoemaker, launched by NASA in February of 1996. NEAR Shoemaker became the first unmanned spacecraft to prove that we could actually catch up to an asteroid—which is no simple trick.
In our solar system, the vast majority of asteroids are found around fifty-six million miles away, hurdling through the gap between Jupiter and Mars. Despite the degree of difficulty involved in catching something that moves at 15.5 miles-per-second, in 2000, NEAR Shoemaker combined a well-crafted hibernation period (to conserve energy), with an Earth swing-by gravity assist and two carefully controlled thruster burns to catch the second-largest near-Earth asteroid, Eros 433, in mid-stride.
Shoemaker spent a year orbiting and studying Eros, which is less interesting to would-be space miners than the fact that NASA ended NEAR’s mission in 2001, by landing the probe on the asteroid’s surface. In 1999, the agency went a step further, launching Stardust—a ship that traveled three billion miles to rendezvous with the comet Wild 2—a meeting that took place at dizzy speeds of 33 miles-per-second. Even better, once Stardust caught up to Wild 2, it used a specially designed air filter to take samples of comet dust, then turned around, traveled another billion miles, and brought those samples back to Earth in 2006.
Since any successful asteroid mining mission is going to require not only getting to an asteroid, but landing on it, digging in, and then coming back home, by far, the most impressive mission to date was Japan’s Hayabusa probe. In September 2005, Hayabusa chased down asteroid Itokawa and spent a month analyzing its shape, spin, topography, color, composition, density and history before landing on the surface in November 2005. There it used a robotic arm to scrape the surface and gather a few samples.
On June 13, 2010, Hayabusa returned to Earth, making a parachute landing in the South Australian outback. The spaceship burned up in the atmosphere, but a heat-shielded return capsule brought the samples back intact. The first half of those have now been analyzed (confirming, in fact, that they did come from Itokawa) and show roughly the same chemical make-up contained in meteors already found here on Earth—which makes Itokawa rich in exactly the kinds of minerals we want to mine.
“That scrape of the surface confirmed we’re capable of asteroid mining,” says Brother Guy. “That’s one of the main differences between drilling for minerals here on Earth and on asteroids. The Earth has been chemically processed, so our mineral wealth is only found in certain regions and many of those regions are very deep underground. Asteroids, though, are homogenous. What’s on the surface is what’s below the surface. You don’t have to dig, you can scrape—and that’s exactly what Hayabusa did.”
University of California professor of planetary science, Eric Asphaug, believes the final piece in the puzzle came with the mapping all of the near-Earth asteroids—an on-going international effort to avert planetary disaster. This effort began in the 1970s, when scientists figured out an asteroid with a diameter of ten kilometers killed off the dinosaurs. By the early 1990s, they’d realized a one kilometer diameter rock could jeopardize the survival of the human race and, even more alarmingly, rocks of that size impacted the Earth once every 500,000 years. Which is when most everyone in the space field decided it might be good to figure out where all those rocks were lurking and what exactly were their intentions.
Thus began the great asteroid hunt of the Oughts. In the past decade, using a wide variety of telescopes, researchers have located ninety percent of the large near-Earth asteroids—those over one kilometer in diameter—and ten percent of the smaller ones. In terms of planetary safety, we’ve discovered no species-ending impacts in our near future, but there have been other gains as well. “All of this mapping can be used for asteroid mining,” says Asphaug. “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.”
During this same time, there’s also been a philosophical shift surrounding the idea. Brother Guy believes its roots are generational: “So many of us now in the science field got started by reading science fiction. Our view of how the universe could work really was shaped by writers like Robert Heinlein. Once we got old enough and educated enough to be in a position to check the reality of the numbers behind science fictional ideas, we were able to see which ones were really possible and to ask ourselves how to make those dreams into reality.”
X Prize founder Peter Diamandis agrees, but also feels the discovery of deep-sea oil deposits were equally critical. “Asteroid mining is about working robotically in a very far away, very harsh and extreme environment. Well, the first deep oil deposit was found by Shell in the 1970s—beneath five thousand feet of water and another ten thousand feet of 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 A.I. systems to drive those robotics. But oil was precious enough that Shell placed (and won) a multibillion-dollar bet. This means that today, right now, we have companies willing and able to place multi-billion dollars bets (a typical deep sea platform runs between five and fifty billion) on high-risk, robotically-run, resource extraction missions—which is asteroid mining to a tee.”
“You need to examine the facts,” says Eric 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 a lot harder.”
And, suddenly, Houston, we have proof of concept.
So what will this concept look like in our lifetime? Already, Planetary Resources has raised over $1.5 million to help launch the ARKYD 100 space telescope, which is specifically designed to hunt for near-Earth asteroid mining prospects. There’s also President Obama’s announcement that he wants to land astronauts on an asteroid by 2025. Teams at Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena are hard at work on his goal, so a government-sponsored first step is not out of the question. Others believe that big energy companies—the same ones who built North Sea oil platforms—will have, by then, staked claims on near-Earth asteroids. Jeffrey Kargel compares the short-term future of asteroid exploitation to the early exploration of North America, starting with the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1803. “That expedition was followed by decades of military expeditions, geologic surveys, and infrastructure development. Major exploitation of the West’s mineral riches began in 1848 and helped power American industrialization over the succeeding century. With asteroid mining we also may face a period of several decades where the world’s space agencies will support asteroid, lunar, and Martian resource exploration while key infrastructure is improved. Profitable commercial development of extraterrestrial resources may begin mid-century and fundamentally shape Earth’s economy before this century is out.”
The reason asteroid mining will reshape the global economy comes down to the numbers. In his Manreza lecture, Brother Guy examined the value of a typical S-class (S for stony, thus only ten percent metal). By his calculations, an S-class asteroid contains about one 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, high trillions. And that’s only one type of asteroid. There are also M-class asteroids, with M standing for mostly metallic.
While iron is the most abundant metal found in asteroids, they also contain nickel, gold, cobalt, and perhaps the biggest find: all of the platinum-group metals. “In human history,” says Eric Anderson, “all the platinum that’s been mined on Earth would fit in a tractor trailer. But platinum has excellent technological properties. It’s a great conductor. But at two thousand dollars an ounce we really can’t build new industries around it.”
Getting the necessary platinum for the creation of new industries is a tantalizing possibility, but more practical concerns will likely drive early mining missions. Fuel cells are a necessity if we’re going to fight global warming, but we need platinum to run them. If all five hundred million vehicles on the road today suddenly had fuel cells then our entire supply of platinum would be exhausted in fifteen years. Meanwhile, iridium, used for LCDs and flat-screen TVs and tantalum, used in cell phones, are both abundant in space, but in short supply on Earth. The same holds for phosphorous—needed for fertilizer—and gallium, hafnium, zinc—all needed for electronics. “The Earth,” says Diamandis, “is a tiny crumb in a supermarket of resources. 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.”
But gold in ‘dem hills isn’t the only thing fueling our space rock fire. In the past few years, for reasons ranging from “because it’s what’s next” to “because it’s the only way to guarantee the survival of the species,” NASA has firmly committed itself to the establishment of off-world colonies. While colonizing either the Moon or Mars seems the next logical step, most feel that we should learn to crawl before we walk. “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.”
Human behavior is key. A trip to Mars will take three years. Space flight is extremely punishing, both physically and mentally, so no one has any idea how humans would fare over that duration. But an asteroid, one that’s passing close to the Earth, is a few month’s voyage, which makes them a very good place to learn to crawl.
Even more important to our off-world plans is water. “Most aerospace engineers feel,” continues Sears, “that water is the real key to off-world colonies. Carrying water out of a gravity well is extremely expensive. But there are a whole class of asteroids that are 25 percent water. We call them mud-balls. So a rocketship 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.”
Nor is this where possibilities end. As far out as asteroid mining or Mar’s colonies might still seem, there’s much more in the works. University of Arizona emeritus professor 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 Jupiter for their massive quantities of helium-3. “What would you do with our ten tons of helium-3 when we get back to Earth?” writes Lewis. “The market value for helium-3 is set by the amount of energy that it can produce in a helium-3/deuterium fusion reactor. That has a cash value of $160,000,000,000…. That means helium-3 is worth 1000 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!”
So how far are we from launch? Eric Anderson thinks we’re five-to-ten years away from our first asteroid mining mission, and a great many people in the private space sector agree. NASA believes things will go the other way round: first we’ll have manned missions to asteroids, next we’ll have robotic ones, but, as Anderson also says, “NASA doesn’t like to fail in public, so their scientists tend to be fairly conservative. A year before Burt Ratan won the X-Prize, if you asked them if a private company could send a ship to space, they would have said it was impossible.”
And once we’re actually mining asteroids, well, look out. “This is a truly disruptive technology,” says Brother Guy. “Certainly, in the long run—whether you’re talking about wealth creation or the taking of mining, one of the most environmentally-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.”