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Why Asteroid Mining Is Closer Than You Think

Space is already a $330 billion industry, but that pales in comparison to the size of a possible asteroid mining industry. Does asteroid mining sound far-fetched? It’s not. We recently watched an interview with Bryan Johnson, founder of brain augmentation startup Kernel. During the interview, Mr. Johnson talked about all the amazing technologies we have at our disposal now like gene editing and artificial intelligence. At one point, the interviewer asked if these technologies would come to commercial fruition during our lifetimes. “Even asteroid mining?” he said with a chuckle. Mr. Johnson responded to say that we have the technology to do asteroid mining already. It’s just not economically viable yet. The first thing that we thought of were the legalities of asteroid mining. Who actually owns asteroids?

The legalities of “who owns space rocks” were actually addressed late last year when the small country of Luxembourg made a huge step in, not just legalizing ownership of what companies might extract from near earth objects such as asteroids but also, pledging an investment of at least 200 million euros for R&D and future equity purchases in companies planning to exploit neighboring floating stones. The country also promises reimbursing companies looking to invest in space R&D of up to 45%. With the rise of cheaper space travel such as Elon Musk’s reusable rockets, it’s probably a good time for investors to take a closer look at asteroid mining.

Why Asteroid Mining?

While Earth’s scarce minerals and metals are wildly fought over, the solar system holds more than 150 million asteroids which are at least 100 meters in diameter each, and they’re not simply floating chunks of rocks. A certain type, called X-type asteroids, are made purely of metal and one such asteroid near Earth is believed to hold more platinum than ever mined in human history. Not only that, the solar system makes the California Gold Rush look silly as there’s an unlimited supply of gold out there.

Since asteroids have weak gravitational fields, exorbitant launch costs will be cut down significantly since there’s no gravitational well to launch off of, largely why mining in asteroids is much cheaper than, say, Mars or the Moon. Formed from the same proto-planetary disk material, asteroids and our planet share a very similar composition that may be worth our efforts to go out there and start mining. What about fuel to power the mining equipment? As it turns out, there is an abundant supply of energy just laying around in asteroid ice which could be used by hydrogen fuel cells. On top of all that, it’s also worth remembering that asteroid mining saves the surface of our planet from being transformed into some sort of Mad Max wasteland.

One of many open cut pits at Tom Price iron ore mine in the Pilbara region of Western Australia

While this industry is not entirely new, the recent hype is a result of continued technological advancements in the area of space exploration coupled with the backing of an extremely wealthy European country. Here are two startups leading the charge towards mining asteroids.

Planetary Resources

Founded as Arkyd Astronautics in 2009 by Eric Anderson and Dr. Peter Diamandis, Seattle-based Planetary Resources, Inc. has raised just over $50 million in funding so far. The Company began working with NASA back in 2011 “to determine feasibility of developing a multi-functional optical subsytem used for attitude determination, stability control, scientific observation and high-precision optical communications on small satellites”. Planetary Resources has stayed low key about their asteroid mining plans with backers that are far from indistinguishable. Among the names are Larry Page, chief executive of Google Inc., Eric Schmidt and Charles Simonyi, former Microsoft executives and Ross Perot, Jr., chairman of the Perot Group holding company. OS Fund (Bryan Johnson of Kernel) was the lead on their Series A funding round of $21 million. Remember we talked about Luxembourg? They gave a $28 million grant to Planetary Resources which accounted for just over half of total funding so far which they’ll use to mine asteroids like these:

Currently, Planetary Resources is deploying an Earth observation system made up of just 10 micro-satellites that can be used to detect the composition of any spot on our planet using infrared imaging techniques. Such images can be used by industries like agriculture or oil and gas. This same sort of imaging technology being tested on earth will be used to help us prospect asteroids. The money used from this Earth observation platform can provide the funding to develop asteroid prospecting technology featuring miniaturized sensors capable of communicating over long distances that are fully autonomic, mobile and sturdy, and will be available for commercial use as well. One problem the Company faces is that space radiation wreaks havoc on electronics components. To solve this problem, they are breaking away from using expensive avionics hardware and designing an entirely different architecture using rapid prototyping tools like 3D printing. The Company plans to launch their asteroid prospecting system in 2020.

Deep Space Industries
Founded in 2013, Houston-based startup Deep Space Industries (DSI) has taken in an undisclosed amount of funding to develop space technology for asteroid mining. The company is currently developing three spacecrafts and a microgravity manufacturing technology. In addition to mining precious metals, DSI also plans to gather the water found in asteroids and other hydrocarbons to extend humanity’s stay in space. In fact, the Company plans to have a refueling station within the Earth’s orbit to cut costs on inter-planetary travel.

DSI’s strategy for the hunt includes four phases starting off with prospecting for the best resources, then harvesting and processing these materials into usable supplies and manufacturing them into finished products using their own end-to-end technologies. One of the coolest things we saw on offer from DSI is their Comet-1 line of thrusters that use water as a propellant. As of Q3 2016, they had six units on order which they expect to deliver by Q3 of this year. Here’s a spec sheet in case you’re in the market for one of these:

In what’s looking like a two-horse race as of the moment, Luxembourg signed a partnership with DSI in May of last year to co-fund the development and launch of Prospector-X, the “inaugural mission” of the partnership between Deep Space Industries and the Luxembourg Government. Prospector-X is an experimental small nano-spacecraft that will be used to test several key enabling technologies. Once DSI can integrate their patented water-based propulsion system (Comet-1), their radiation-tolerant avionics, and optical navigation system into one single platform, they’ll conduct a series of missions that looks something like this:

DSI also floated the idea of doing satellite maintenance as a side hustle which would bring them an additional $5 to $8 million a month in revenues. They seem to be getting into bed with the Luxemburg government in an attempt to thwart their competition as they are in the process of opening a second location in Luxembourg.

Conclusion

Perhaps a few years back, with all the legal and cost constraints, the idea of space mining would only be something we would chuckle about as a futuristic notion funded by eccentric billionaires with nothing else better to do with their money. Moving forward to today, we see technology advancing at an unprecedented pace, costs of materials dropping, and investors stepping in with meaningful funding rounds that show they are serious about making asteroid mining a reality at a much sooner time frame than most people think.

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  • duglarri

    All very well that it’s up there. But how do you get it down? Even a few tons would be quite a projectile. And the larger the object, the larger the ablative shielding you’d need to get it down without burning up.

    Keep in mind if you miss your reentry point you are likely to trigger a Hiroshima-size explosion, possibly over a large city. Or simply create a large hole

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