Friday, February 01, 2013

Three to Read: Space Mining Edition

The past couple of weeks have seen two private companies (Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources) announce that they will be launching exploratory vehicles to explore mining possibilities on near earth asteroids.  While it may sound like the stuff of science fiction, these two companies are looking to launch in the next three (3) years.

True, the concept sounds far fetched, but it is not when you think about our capabilities.

NASA is testing mining robots (a fact which doesn't seem that unusual-after all it is NASA). But NASA's effort is far more focused on scientific research rather than the commercial applications (and profit derived therefrom) of asteroid mining.

Researchers at NASA recently tested out a worker robot deemed RASSOR, for Regolith Advanced Surface Systems Operations Robot (and pronounced “razor”). 
RASSOR is very different from most other robots NASA has churned out. The agency is calling it a “blue collar robot.” Unlike the lab equipment-laden Curiosity, RASSOR leaves the delicate instruments at home. 
Like WALL-E, its purpose is utilitarian, not scientific. It isn’t meant to explore, it’s meant to dig. 
While RASSOR is far from space ready, the initial tests are promising. Built like a miniature tank, the prototype certainly looks hardworking. 
"We were surprised at what we could do with it," said engineer Rachel Cox of the Kennedy Space Center. 
Of course, NASA's effort is much more focused on the scientific discovery--but that scientific discovery (and the drive for discovery) can be commercialized.  Just as all NASA programs, even from the early days of Mercury, were intended to be in part science based, the resulting technology and knowledge is open to use for commercial purposes.

But these two companies have definitive plans to make the leap from fiction to fact and to make money off their leaps..  The concept is surprisingly simple (although the details clearly not):

DSI’s approach is similar to Planetary Resources, making use of small satellites to prospect NEOs. An initial class of spacecraft, 25-kilogram vehicles called Fireflies, would launch starting as soon as 2015 to fly past asteroids, collecting data on the structure and composition of these bodies. Following these short-duration (two to six months) missions, DSI would fly Dragonfly spacecraft to targeted asteroids. These slightly larger spacecraft, weighing a little over 30 kilograms, would rendezvous with asteroids and collect samples for return to Earth on round-trip missions lasting two to four years. Later Harvester missions would bring back a few hundred tons of asteroid material for commercial utilization.

Both companies appear to be planning to have a cluster launch of their craft.  Each launch vehicle would carry 5-7 of the smaller craft into space, the number being calculated to account for potential failure among the craft.

Of course, there are skeptics, there always are, in an well titled post, Professor Chris Rhodes makes the case for why space mining will not work.

This is very much a case of playing the longer game, and it might be decades before investors get their money back, if they ever do, e.g. platinum now costs around $1,600 an ounce, and in comparison, a planned mission by NASA to bring back 60 g of material from an asteroid to Earth is expected to cost about $1bn Since this represents the price of 18 tonnes of pure platinum, the Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) is very far into the red, given the likely quantity of asteroid material to be recovered. Hence, the case for a viable industry on this basis is not compelling. 

Energy Returned on Energy Invested--sounds pretty scientific or at least financial. Based on the example Rhodes provides, the effort does sound cost prohibitive.  But one thing Rhodes fails to understand is that both DSI and Planetary Resources are in this for the long haul.  Unlike Earth based investments, which might pay off in a couple of years of R&D, asteroid mining has to be a minimum of a seven or either year investment just to get early mining returns.  To start collecting large hauls, the companies are no doubt looking to a 15-20 year event horizon.

The length of time to realization of space mining requires two things--patience and faith.  But we are not a very patient people and that is what has made efforts like space mining or broader manned exploration of space so difficult--we as a society have limited capacity to understand the long term.  On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced an audacious goal of sending a man to the moon and returning him safely to earth--to be done within eight and one half years (by 1970).  The United States did it in just over 8 years.  True, the full effort of more than 300,000 people were invovled and now Planetary Resources and DSI have far fewer people working toward the goal, but technology and capability have increased 1000 fold since 1961.  There is no reason to believe that technological advances in the next few years won't drastically alter the EROEI that seems so unfavorable now.

We must have patience to see the endeavor through and we have to have faith that the genius of humanity will find a solution to current day obstacles.  After all, in 1940, no one really thought a man would stand on the Moon.  Heck, in 1968 people wondered if a man would stand on the Moon.  By August 1969, we no longer had that question.  All it took was Patience, Faith and a whole lot of work.

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