Mining asteroids – Hollywood hits on another great idea

‘Armageddon’ saw a mining crew drill into an asteroid. It’s not so far-fetched

‘The technology to extract water and other precious minerals from asteroids is there – we just need to deploy it,’ says Chris Lewicki of Planetary Resources.  Photograph:  REUTERS

‘The technology to extract water and other precious minerals from asteroids is there – we just need to deploy it,’ says Chris Lewicki of Planetary Resources. Photograph: REUTERS

 

While everyone keeps banging on about Back To The Future, other, more interesting examples of Hollywood imitating life are actually taking place.

Almost 20 years ago, two sci-fi blockbusters came out at the same time dealing with the theme of asteroids hitting Earth and wiping out civilization. Armageddon and Deep Impact were both released in the hazy summer of 1998, and while the latter is widely considered to be a more accurate depiction of how things might be (perhaps because Morgan Freeman played the US president), Armageddon portrayed a situation which may in fact become a reality. Ironically, it’s a part of the plot that was ripped apart even by non-scientists at the time: the decision to send a team of inexperienced oil-drillers into space to destroy an asteroid the size of Texas hurtling towards the earth.

According to Chris Lewicki, president of asteroid mining company Planetary Resources, asteroid mining should no longer be considered any more complicated than earth-based exploration. His company, based in Washington State, says the technology, expertise and budget to mine asteroids for finite resources including water, iron, nickel and cobalt, is within humanity’s reach. Or, as he put it, a new “paradigm for resource utilisation” is upon us. “Commercial interests can now bring the solar system within humanity’s economic sphere of influence,” said Lewicki at the recent SXSW Eco Conference in Austin, Texas.

The ex-NASA engineer was formerly a flight director and surface mission manager for both missions to Mars.

Now working in the private sector, he is the chief engineer at Planetary Resources, a company pushing to exploit natural resources in space without limit, particularly water from asteroids.

“Space exploration used to be the domain of governments and the largest companies in the world, costing billions and trillions of dollars,” he says. “Now we can do it at the scale of a start-up, with fewer people and greater tech. And we’re no longer talking about billions of dollars either. We can do this for a few million, bringing it to the scale of exploration we’re already accustomed to on this planet.”

Planetary Resources aims to mine the nearest and largest asteroids, principally for water, but also for other valuable resources such as iron, nickel and cobalt. Water will be key, however, as this will not only solve the shortage problems faced on earth but also fuel the in-space economy.

Every year six tonnes of water are delivered to the International Space Station (ISS), costing $50 million per tonne. Add that to the $3 billion spent annually on sending 250 metric tonnes of fuel required to fund non-commercial space exploration. That’s just for the ISS. Between its research and all the other different commercial groups such as SpaceX now operating, this is already a multibillion-dollar market. In other words, the demand is there. But here’s where things get really interesting.

Space gas stations

“Water contains the two most fundamental elements of rocket fuel: hydrogen and oxygen,” says Lewicki. “If we can obtain H2O in space, we can create space gas stations and thereby avoid single-use stations and spacecraft. We’ll be able to refuel spacecraft already in orbit and send them off to even farther destinations. Water is the key to unlocking our solar system.”

As far-fetched as this sounds, Lewicki gives our now-ubiquitous use of aluminium as an example of how mining practices can change dramatically in a short space of time. The element was discovered just 160 years ago and has only been in viable production for a century. Now more aluminium is produced annually than all other non-ferrous metals combined. Convinced?

‘Bus schedule’

“Aluminium used to be considered one of the rarest materials on the planet,” he says. “Now it’s in the chairs we’re sitting on, the phones we’re using and the cars and trains that transport us. The technology to extract water and other precious minerals from asteroids already exists. We just need to deploy it and this can now be done on economically viable timescales.” This can be done, he says, by targeting those closest with the “correct bus schedule”, or appropriate orbit.

Critics have questioned the wisdom of perpetuating exploitative industrial practices in space that have already proven so problematic on earth. Lewicki isn’t concerned about this. “Asteroid mining means we can take this type of harmful industrial behaviour away from the earth, so that we can be more environmentally sensitive.”

Asteroid mining may even have another indirect benefit to the planet. “There are 60 million objects in our solar system and these things run into the planet all the time,” he says. By mining asteroids, we actually provide a great opportunity to prevent them from hitting the earth.”

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