Monday, February 16, 2015

Mining Space in 2030

Technologies like nano-bots which can enter your body to repair internal organs or fight disease have captured the imagination of the masses for since the 80s. Remember Inner Space? Mining, is less attractive… it’s downright dirty work. Most of us think of blood diamonds or tragic accidents in West Virginia, and fail to realize just how amazing the future of mining will be. And just how much it will impact our world.

Mining Space in 2030

While the idea of space tourism has been around for years, leisure rides on fancy spacecraft are not what’s driving innovation in space travel: resources are. There are at least two types of resources we know of that are abundant in space. First, the kind that makes deep space exploration possible (i.e. rocket fuel); and second, rare-earth materials.

Making rocket fuel in space is a critical part of deep space exploration, or even mining. The amount of energy it takes to leave Earth is more than the amount it takes to get to moon from Earth orbit. Being able to refuel from space (building in space, say on the moon, would be a next step) would significantly reduce the cost of space travel. 

Once we can produce rocket fuel in space then we won’t need to carry the fuel it takes to reach the Moon or Mars (or some mineral rich asteroids) with us on launch. Carrying less fuel, which is really heavy, would dramatically reduce the amount of fuel required to escape Earth’s gravity significantly reducing the cost of every launch. Planetary Resources, arguably the coolest space company out there (sorry SpaceX), has a great video explaining all of this:

Critics would argue that science and exploration are not the primary motivations for companies like Planetary Resources (nor their benefactors, among them Google). Rather, they claim they are motivated by profits alone. Perhaps, that's true (though I don't agree). Another abundant resource in space is platinum. Platinum and other rare metals found on Earth come from meteors, and we now have the ability to speculate asteroids to identify which ones are likely to contain them. It’s estimated that just one asteroid of moderate size could contain as much or more platinum than has ever been mined on Earth. Control of these resources could potentially mean a shift power from those who control terrestrial resources to those who control extraterrestrial resources.

That said, while it may be profitable to mine for platinum and other rare metals in space, the motivation for doing is not purely capitalistic. It’s an essential step forward in human civilization, and the technology required to mine space will lead to incredible innovations that benefit everyone.

Lunar Base Stations

The moon could become a critical base for long-term space operations, as well as a source of valuable resources. Turns out that while asteroids are full of platinum and water for rocket fuel, the moon is full of a unique form of helium called HE-3. In fact, this stuff is so valuable it makes sustainable lunar mining operations fueled by robotic space miners hauling in nearby asteroids sound reasonable. That’s because HE-3 is considered a key component of nuclear fusion, and while it is extremely rare on Earth --and extremely expensive at $75,000 per ounce-- it is abundant on the moon.

40 tonnes of HE-3 would power all of the United States for an entire year, without accounting for innovations between now and when it becomes available. The United States, China, and Russia all have plans to build mining operations on the moon. In fact, Russia has announced plans to have a permanent settlement on the moon by 2030 stating “we are going to the moon, forever.”

Current estimates say there is about 1,000,000 tonnes of HE-3 on the moon. There are 35,274 ounces in 1 tonne, and each ounce is worth $75,000… so that is $2,645,550,000 per tonne. So multiply that by a million. The price of HE-3 will come down once we can mine it safely and efficiently, but even even a steep reduction in price-per-ounce would leave lucrative margins.

And that's without considering the iron, gold, and other valuable stuff to be had on the moon. Taking into consideration HE-3, additional resources, and the potential value of more than 600,000 asteroids (and counting) many of which could contain more platinum than has ever been mined on Earth in history, and continuous operations on the moon to mine and refine space resources quickly becomes a priority.

Lunar base made by 3-D printers:
Moving Forward

Technology is advancing so rapidly it’s difficult to imagine what the world will be like even 15 years from now. That said, what is currently being developed is pretty amazing. Semi-autonomous robots that swarm and work together to complete complex tasks like navigating to an asteroid, confirming it has the desired resources (i.e. water, platinum), bagging and tagging said asteroid, then hauling it back to the Moon where the minerals will be extracted, all the while harvesting the water along the way. That's amazing. 

To accomplish this the robots will be at least semi-intelligent, able to improvise and avoid obstacles, and probably learn. Laser communications, Artificial Intelligence, new propulsion systems, advanced solar energy collection and storage, more advanced avionics, data science and predictive algorithms, assembly and materials, not to mention the next duct tape or tang!

Naturally, robotic space miners will be limited to the abilities we provide them. The prospect of swarms of space-bots can be troubling though. By 2030 at least four nations could be launching fleets of robotic space miners: Japan, China, Russia, and the United States. While space is abundant, Earth is not. It is within reason to assume that conflicts might arise, but with any luck the abundance of resources in space will be enough to avoid them. Laws are already being written to address the issues around mining and ownership of lunar plots and asteroids.