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Mission to make money: a new space race is taking off

Credit: Getty

Credit: Getty

May 10, 2018   5 mins

Coal mining powered the first industrial revolution in 18th-century England. It is quite possible the success of the 21st-century’s digital one will depend on mining precious metals in space.

This isn’t sci fi. Nor a visionary effort on the fringes of the economy. Hard-nosed commercial enterprises – as well as some forward-thinking governments – are already lining up to reap the potentially vast rewards the space age goldrush promises.

In the past few weeks, US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has talked about the moon serving as a filling station for rockets to deep space. Defence contractor Northrop Grumman’s innovation blog has enthused about new space sources for platinum and palladium. And Washington’s political newspaper, The Hill, has glowingly reported two current asteroid missions.1

The costs of the Apollo moonshot were enormous – at its height, in the late 60s, it consumed almost 5% of the entire U.S. federal budget.

Most telling of all, investment banker Goldman Sachs has joined the chorus with a game-changing report. It concludes: while the “psychological barriers” to asteroid mining are high, the “actual financial and technological barriers are far lower”. Probes can be built for tens of millions. An asteroid-grabbing spaceship for $2.6 billion. That really is not a lot of money in Silicon Valley.2

Economics at work

Two fundamental economic factors are driving this interest.

First, the so-called “rare earth” minerals which are so vital to digital devices, are hard to get. They are mostly not as “rare” as their name suggests. But they are not abundant and they are costly to extract. Most are mined in China, some in Russia, and their supply has become a national security issue for the United States. They are central to the digital economy.

Second, there has been a huge shift in the cost of getting into space. In the mid-20th-century only the governments of the United States and the Soviet Union could afford it. The costs of the Apollo moonshot were enormous: at its height, in the late 60s, it consumed almost 5% of the entire U.S. federal budget.

Now, according to Business Insider:

The price of spacecraft is plummeting, thanks to reusable rockets from Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin. It used to cost $35 million (£28 million) to send one person up on a Soyuz rocket. Today, Virgin Galactic hopes to get space tourists into space for something like $250,000 (£200,000), Goldman says.

Moreover, it isn’t just the metals on asteroids that have high value. There’s also the water. This as Scientific American notes, can be converted into hydrogen and oxygen – rocket fuel. That’s rocket fuel that would not need to be blasted into space from earth.

Space Law

As things stand, there are only a couple of explicit restraints on what nations can do up amid the stars. With the Antarctic Treaty as a guide, UN Outer Space Treaty of 1967 declares space to be the common property of all nations. It cannot be “colonized,” or used for military purposes.3

Inevitably, countries are already arguing over whether mining is banned under the Outer Space Treaty. Russia and Brazil claim it is. While there’s no specific reference to mining, they claim it’s prohibited by the ban on seizing territory.

Two other countries, the US and Luxembourg (wealth European mini-state; pop: 500,000), have taken the initiative to provide a legal framework for space mining. Luxembourg, for one, has high hopes of becoming a major player.

According to Etienne Schneider, Deputy Prime Minister:

“Our goal is to put into place an overall framework for the exploration and commercial use of resources from ‘celestial bodies’ such as asteroids, or from the moon.”

Their plan to become the “Silicon Valley of asteroid mining” seems to be working.

Asteroid Missions

Interestingly, it’s the public money that has taken the lead in this particular space race. Rather than waiting for any rulings on asteroid ownership, the United States and Japan have launched experimental missions to asteroids and are expected rendezvous with their targets in a few weeks. Both are experimental missions to find out more about their asteroid’s composition and the viability of recovering material.

The NASA mission, OSIRIS-REx, will arrive at an asteroid called Bennu, currently orbiting the sun about 460 million miles away, in August. According to Asterank, a site that ranks the value of asteroids, there’s $870 billion of minerals to be found there. The probe will make a remote sensing campaign of these, grab some surface materials, and then wait til 2021 to head back to earth with its cargo.

The Japanese Hayabusa2 is expected to arrive at an asteroid called Ryugu, a rare type of asteroid that contains both volatile material and water-bearing materials, in June 2018. The probe will examine Ryugu remotely and collect a sample before departing in December 2019. Hayabusa2 will arrive back on Earth before the Americans, in December 2020.

Meanwhile, the private companies are still testing their kit. According to Space.com, Planetary Resources’ Arkyd-6 Satellite just “aced” its first big trial. Launched on an Indian rocket, it is now sitting in orbit waiting for the company’s next effort: the Arkyd-300 that will prospect asteroids. A whole group of Arkyd-300s will launch on a single rocket as early as 2020 – and fan out for separate asteroid targets. And the companies know their onions. Chris Lewecki, for example, CEO of Planetary resources, directed two Mars missions for NASA.

The Arkyd-301s will also carry piggyback miniprobes, which will deploy from their motherships and burrow into their target asteroid to get an even closer look at the space rocks.

Star Wars IX

According to Neil deGrasse Tyson, the effervescent TV astronomer: “There’s this vast universe of limitless energy and limitless resources. I look at wars fought over access to resources. That could be a thing of the past, once space becomes our backyard.”

But in gushing about all the resources up there, Tyson makes a fundamental mistake. He assumes we would all be nice to each other if we had enough resources to go around. He forgets – or didn’t realise in the first place – that wars fought for access to resources have been as much about denying them to an enemy as seeking them for ourselves.

Given that China has been tightening its near-monopoly control of rare-earth mineral mining, how would it respond to a sudden huge increase in supply? As Business Insider drily notes, “Successful asteroid mining would likely crater the global price of platinum, with a single 500-meter-wide asteroid containing nearly 175X the global output, according to MIT….”

And what if that happened with gold? Gold’s scarcity is central to the global economy.

If access to these vast new resources is to come without conflict, there will need to be an unusually high level of terrestrial agreement. Wars have been started for a lot less than access to the $700 quintillion Psyche 16.

  1.   Mark R. Whittington, “Two asteroid missions will help shape the economy of the 21st century,” The Hill, April 7, 2018.
  2.  Jim Edwards, “Goldman Sachs: space-mining for platinum is ‘more realistic than perceived’,” April 6, 2017. The full report is apparently private to Goldman Sachs clients, but portions are quoted here and elsewhere.
  3.  The Outer Space Treaty is a truly visionary document; it is hard to see such a consensus arising now for an instrument that placed huge restraints on what nations could do in space. Back then, of course, only the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were serious contenders.  This UN website helpfully also gives related bunding and non-binding space agreements: “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.

Nigel Cameron writes about technology, society, and the future. In 2007 he founded the Washington think tank The Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies. His most recent book is Will Robots Take Your Job?


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