We’re never gonna mine the asteroid belt

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What would science fiction be without space exploration?

From Ellen Ripley in “Alien” and Dave Lister in “Red Dwarf”, to Sam Bell in “Moon” and “The Expanse’s” Naomi Nagata, the harshest ending of interstellar drama would be private if it weren’t for had the engineers and their mineral processing operations.

It is such an alluring vision that real money has been invested in making it happen. Alphabet Inc.’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, and Hollywood filmmaker James Cameron (director of the “Alien” sequel “Aliens”) have all invested in Planetary Resources Inc., which has raised venture capital funds with his mission to extract asteroid minerals and refine them into metallic foams that could be sent back to Earth. Rival startup Deep Space Industries Inc. also had bold plans to extract resources from space. Although the two companies have now been bought out and their plans on the back burner, the idea of ​​a space mining industry has refused to die.

It’s wonderful that people are aiming for the stars – but those who refused to fund expansion plans for the nascent space mining industry were right about the fundamentals. Space mining won’t take off for the foreseeable future – and one need only look at the history of civilization to see why.

One factor that rules out most space mines from the start: gravity. On the one hand, it ensures that most of the solar system’s best mineral resources lie beneath our feet. Earth is the largest rocky planet orbiting the sun. As a result, the cornucopia of minerals that the globe attracted when it merged is as rich as can be found on this side of Alpha Centauri.

Gravity is also a more technical problem. Escaping the Earth’s gravitational field makes transporting the volumes of material necessary for a mining operation extremely expensive. On Falcon Heavy, Elon Musk’s large SpaceX-developed rocket carrying a payload to Mars orbit comes in at as little as $ 5,357 per kilogram – a drastic reduction in normal launch costs. Yet at these prices, simply putting a single half-ton drilling rig up to the asteroid belt would drain a small mining company’s annual exploration budget.

Power is another issue. The International Space Station, with 35,000 square feet of solar panels, generates up to 120 kilowatts of electricity. This drill would need a powerhouse of a similar size – and most mining companies operate multiple rigs at once. Energy requirements increase dramatically once you move from exploration drilling to mining and processing. Bringing equipment back to Earth would increase the costs further. The Japanese satellite Hayabusa2 spent six years and 16.4 billion yen ($ 157 million) recovering a single gram of matter from the asteroid Ryugu and bringing it back to Earth earlier this month.

What would you like to extract from space? Water is an essential component of most land-based mining operations and a potential feedstock for hydrogen-oxygen fuel that could be used in space. The discovery in October of ice molecules in the craters of the Moon was considered a major breakthrough. Yet, concentrations of 100 to 412 parts per million are extraordinarily low by terrestrial standards. Copper, which typically costs about $ 4,500 per metric tonne to refine, has an average ore grade of about 6,000 ppm.

The most promising commodities are platinum, palladium, gold and a handful of related rare metals. Due to their affinity for iron, these so-called siderophilic elements mainly flowed to the metal core of our planet early in its formation and are relatively rare in the earth’s crust. Estimates of their abundance on some asteroids, such as the enigmatic Psyche 16 beyond the orbit of Mars, suggest concentrations several times greater than those found in landmines.

Yet human ingenuity is to cut our coat to match our fabric. If such platinum group metals justify the literally astronomical costs of space mining, they will have to rely on high and sustained prices for a decade or so, which would be necessary to launch such an operation – and that kind of thing. situation is almost unheard of in the materials industry.

When the prices of an essential commodity become excessively high, chemists become extraordinarily good at finding ways to avoid using it, scrap metal dealers improve their recycling rates, and miners discover new deposits that may not have been viable. at lower prices. Even criminals step in. This ultimately pushes supply up and demand down, causing prices to rebalance – a dynamic we’ve seen unfold in rare earth markets, gold markets. lithium and cobalt in recent years. The world mined about three times as much platinum as it did in the early 1970s, but prices barely changed once adjusted for inflation.

This may seem like a disappointing prospect for those looking for excuses for humanity to colonize space – but in reality, it should be seen as a tribute to our ingenuity. Humanity’s failure to mine extraterrestrial mineral reserves is not a sign that we are lacking in imagination. If anything, it’s a sign of adaptive genius that got us into orbit in the first place.

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities, as well as industrial and consumer businesses.

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