Science fiction has had a remarkable ability, in the past, to predict the future. In 1950, ‘Destination Moon’ envisioned privately funded space travel, which came to fruition in 2004 when Michael Melvill became mankind’s first commercial astronaut on his journey aboard SpaceShipOne. ‘Total Recall’, released in 1990, depicted driverless cars, akin to Google’s [GOOG] autonomous vehicles, and 2002’s ‘Minority Report’ predicted a world of consumer technology controllable through gesture-based interfaces. Not all predictions were accurate, however: battles are not yet fought with laser rifles, our cars do not fly, and artificial intelligence has ways to go. But what of asteroid mining? The financial gains possible from such ventures are vast, with interest having soared over the past few years. Nevertheless, there exist considerable costs that cannot be ignored, and ownership rights in space remain a debated issue. So what does the future hold for deep space mining?
Like a soaring rocket
Asteroids contain minerals such as platinum, cobalt, indium, and gold, resources that play a vital importance in food production, as well as manufacturing and commerce industries, and are said to deplete within the next 50-60 years. It is believed that these minerals can be extracted from asteroids, possibly leading to the development of solar power satellites, with the water within these rocks fostering the development of a space habitat through the creation of rocket fuel and the possibility of consumable water for space. In the past decade, investment in asteroid mining has increased considerably. Planetary Resources Inc., the world’s first asteroid-mining firm, was founded in 2010, and is committed to the development of technologies necessary to mine for minerals in space, principally through the decrease of manufacturing costs of interplanetary spacecraft’s. Its investors and advisers include Google [GOOG] CEO Larry Page and Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson, and film director James Cameron. Presently, the company is focused on the development of its Arkyd series of satellites in an effort to uncover more asteroids. Even though there remain criticisms of such a space mining industry, including debate as to whether it is even possible, investment and interest in asteroid mining has never been higher.
The financial gains that can be made from mining for minerals in space are, in a sense, colossal. Amun 3554, for instance, one of the smallest M-type (metal containing) asteroids discovered so far, is estimated to contain $8 trillion worth of platinum, $8 trillion worth of iron and nickel, and a further $6 trillion worth of cobalt. Amun 3554 is one of roughly 9,000 near-Earth asteroids uncovered as of today, of which, according to Planetary Resources, 1,500 are as easy to reach as the Moon. Due to the less substantial gravity of the asteroids, in fact, targeting them would cost even less than a trip to the moon, according to founder Eric Anderson. Moreover, the company believes that the asteroid mining industry will provide human benefits equal to tens of billions of U.S. dollars annually. There exist also lucrative opportunities to do with space tourism, as water might possibly be extracted from asteroids and then transported to low-Earth orbit, to be used in generating rocket fuel. The sheer abundance of minerals also cannot be ignored, with the massive M-type asteroid 16 Psyche, for instance, containing enough nickel-iron to supply Earth for millions of years, potentially fuelling the continued growth of industrial and manufacturing sectors; as the scarcity of these materials on Earth is set to increase in the near future, the value obtained from their extraction, it can be argued, will increase accordingly.
Houston, we have two problems
Much like the asteroids being targeted, the costs of deep space mining are massive, with them serving as the largest blockade towards establishing an expansive mineral extraction industry in space. Costs include research and development costs, construction and engineering costs, and environmental and time costs, all of which need to be outweighed by the benefits gained from mining. According to a study by NASA, though feasible, the cost of extracting minerals from a 500 tonne asteroid would equal $2.6 billion. In similar vein, a NASA voyage planning to extract 2 kilograms worth of minerals in 2021 is set to total $1 billion. With platinum selling at a price of $1,221.13 per ounce at the time of this writing, 2 kilograms would be worth only $86,148, a massive loss.
Costs aside, ownership rights in space remain a present issue. If a company were to extract minerals from an asteroid in low-Earth orbit, should they be granted rightful ownership? In recent developments, a congressional bill known as the ‘ASTEROIDS Act’, concerned with the expansion of a commercial asteroid resources industry, was proposed in July 2014. In regards to property rights, the bill makes it clear that “Any resources obtained in outer space from an asteroid are the property of the entity that obtained such resources, which shall be entitled to all property rights thereto”. For companies like Planetary Resources, such a bill could help them generate billions of dollars, and in the long term, it could spur the development of a space industry. There are, however, limitations to the bill. Congress passing a law that does not include other countries is very short sighted, failing to encourage international agreements. Furthermore, the bill focuses only on asteroids, and does not consider planetary moons, Mars, or other celestial objects that provide extraction opportunities.
So how on the mark was Ridley Scott really?
Deep space mining is now a possibility more than ever, but there continue to exist serious obstacles that must be overcome before the full potential of a space industry led by such endeavours is feasible. Even though the financial benefits seem almost endless, the costs associated with these journeys need to be reduced considerably over the coming decade before profits can be generated on a consistent and substantial basis. Asteroid mining, envisioned as a common reality in Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’, is therefore neither a hit nor miss when it comes to predicting the future. Though such an industry seems to be within reach in forthcoming decades, nothing is quite definite yet, with progress in a number of areas, from cost cutting to legalities, needing to be made first. But is it wishful thinking, like so many other science fiction tropes? Most definitely not.