Riches in space | Aeon

An artist’s illustration shows NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft descending towards asteroid Bennu to collect a sample of the surface. Courtesy of NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

Riches in space

Asteroids could pay for so much space exploration. We just need to mine those valuable resources – and duck a direct hit

An artist’s illustration shows NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft descending towards asteroid Bennu to collect a sample of the surface. Courtesy of NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

Asteroids are the remnants of our solar system’s youthful exuberance, the leftover crumbs from when the planets formed. For much of the space age, asteroids were ignored in favour of the far more glamorous planets, and the Moon. The asteroids – dark, misshapen rocks, hard to see and hard to find – have long flown beneath our notice. But that was a mistake. They have a crucial role to play in the future of our species – in fact, the survival and flourishing of humanity are tied up with asteroids. There are three reasons. They bear messages from the beginnings of the solar system, before our Earth came into being, and how we got here matters to where we’re going. They are also hoards of resources that might lead us to a future without scarcity. And last – a minor detail – a single asteroid could wipe us off the face of our planet. Let’s look at each in turn.

Asteroids are the remnants of collisions between some of the first mini-planets (called ‘planetesimals’) that formed in abundance when the solar system was no older than a few million years. As a result, many asteroids are just piles of broken rubble held together by their own weak gravity, about a million times more feeble than the gravity we feel here on Earth. Untangling the eventful history of the solar system is easier with asteroids because they’re unsullied envoys from those turbulent early times. Unlike the planets, nothing much has happened to the asteroids in the past few billion years. And there are millions of them, the vast majority orbiting the Sun between Mars and Jupiter in a band called the ‘Main Belt’.

An animation depicts a mapping of the positions of known near-Earth objects at points in time over the past 20 years, and finishes with a map of all known asteroids as of January 2018. Courtesy of JPL/NASA

Perhaps 10,000 asteroids the size of sports stadiums are on orbits that swing close to Earth. As the dinosaurs would attest, our planet occasionally gets hit. But the results aren’t always a bad thing: it’s looking likely that Earth’s oceans were filled by water brought by asteroids. Along with water, asteroids might even have brought the ingredients of life to Earth in the form of so-called ‘prebiotic’ molecules, including amino acids and, as recently found, components of proteins and sugars. Learning more about asteroids means learning more about our origins.

What can we actually do with asteroids? That brings us to my favourite thing about them: their resources. Being an idealistic astrophysicist, my interest is in the money to be made from them. That really is idealistic because, if we can make a profit mining the asteroids, then doing bigger things in space will become a lot cheaper. Capitalism has its faults, but one thing it does well is to make things cheaper. I want to use it as a tool so that we can build far bigger telescopes than we could practically realise today. What do astronomers want? More light! Bigger telescopes! Asteroid mining could make that dream a reality.

The siren call of asteroids for miners is that the Main Belt asteroids contain vast amounts of resources. The iron found in asteroids adds up to some 10 million times the iron that we have in proven reserves on Earth. That’s a lot. It’s enough to build many rings of iron girders all the way around Earth’s orbit, along the lines of the science fiction novel Ringworld (1970) by Larry Niven. Not that a ringworld is a sensible thing to make, but it is a really big ring. More plausibly, with that much iron we could build cities in space, as envisaged by the physicist Gerard K O’Neill in the 1970s. Each of these cities would be big enough for a million people to live in. They would be rotating cylinders, and as a citizen of one you would be walking around inside the cylinder’s surface, feeling a fake gravity from the centrifugal force. That’s the scale of resources we’re talking about.

These vast material supplies could make for an era that people call ‘post-scarcity’, where there’s plenty for everyone, just as there is in the 23rd century of the Star Trek science fiction franchise. The starship crew on Star Trek don’t work to keep themselves fed and housed, that’s taken for granted. They work for adventure and exploration. Asteroid wealth could help all of us take a step towards that happy state.

The problem is how to get started. Iron in space is not going to make for giant profits in the short run. On the ground, it sells for less than $200 a ton. It would be worth more in space, but unfortunately there’s no one to buy huge tonnages of iron in space. To adapt the tagline from the Alien movies – ‘In space, no one can hear you sell.’ It certainly isn’t worth bringing space iron back to Earth since the cost of doing so would far exceed the price it could command. Starting to mine space for resources will have to begin with something so valuable that the cost of obtaining it in space is small by comparison. For now, the best bets are precious metals and – surprise – water.

Precious metals are obvious. Platinum sells for about $33.5 million a ton, and we know from meteorites that some asteroids are richer in platinum than any mine on Earth. That sounds promising. Platinum sales run at about 200 tons, or billions of dollars, per year. The bad news is that ‘richer than any mine on Earth’ is still concentrations of just tens of grams per ton, and extracting those precious grams isn’t easy. We can’t just bring an asteroid near to Earth to start extracting the platinum where we can have heavy machinery to work on it. That would take way too much fuel because, to carry more mass, rockets have to carry exponentially more fuel; unlike airplanes, they don’t get the oxygen for free from their surroundings, they have to pull it along with them. Any refining of platinum will have to be done robotically out in the native orbit of the asteroid. That’s quite a challenge.

Water is a less obvious money-maker. The surprise is that water is also worth millions per ton – if it’s sold in space. Water in space is really useful. It’s good for drinking, and the oxygen in it is good for breathing. You can split the hydrogen from the oxygen in H2O and you’ve got rocket fuel, and water is good at absorbing radiation to protect people from cancer-causing cosmic rays. So, in principle, water in orbit is pretty valuable. The good news is that up to 10 per cent of a water-rich asteroid can be water. It won’t be simple ice, most likely, but will be bound into clays and other rocks. Even better, water is much easier to extract than precious metals. Simply heating up the rock will release water that can then be captured.

How much is space water worth? Until recently, it cost $20 million to get a ton of water into even a low orbit – say, to the International Space Station (ISS). To get a ton of water to a high orbit, like the 24-hour orbit of TV transmitting satellites, would cost about three times as much. SpaceX has started to cut that cost; for now, it’s charging about $3 million a ton to a low orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket. Water from asteroids might be able to compete with those prices and still return a nice profit. But the bad news is that, right now, there’s no one in space who wants to buy water. At least not yet. That might be about to change.

We won’t get to build cities in space unless we can build simpler space stations first, and do so at an affordable cost that can scale. If we have space stations, they will need supplies, especially of water and perhaps construction materials. That demand could create a business delivering these supplies from space instead of from Earth. In this case, the asteroids would have the most to offer. So space stations – particularly commercial space stations – are the key to acquiring asteroid resources.

Why build space stations? There are three primary uses: research, manufacturing and tourism. Research has always been done on the ISS, but facilities and time have been in short supply. In recent years, the equipment has improved a lot, but astronaut time is still scarce. Each astronaut has to look after multiple experiments. Multitalented and smart as the astronauts all are, they simply can’t have all the experience of the scientists whose experiments they’re operating. A lot of effort goes into automating those experiments so that the astronauts aren’t overwhelmed. It would be far more efficient if the scientists who invent the experiments also get to be the ones who carry them out in space. Then their years of experience could be put to good use operating and watching over their studies. Spotting subtle anomalies that could be a sign of a failure, or of a discovery, is much better done in person by experts.

But, until now, scientists didn’t have that opportunity, and they would have likely declined it if offered the chance. That’s because training for a mission to the ISS takes more than two years full-time and requires learning Russian. If you take two years off from doing your research, then you’re no longer at the forefront and you’ll have lost your edge. Few top scientists would risk that, however much fun it might be to float in space. We scientists live for our research.

Fortunately, the new commercial stations will be much easier to train for, taking a couple of months or so, because they’ll have a single manufacturer with consistent, uniform interfaces, and a separate professional crew to deal with maintenance and emergencies. The companies with advanced plans so far are all US-based, so English will be the language used. As English is the lingua franca of science, it poses little challenge to scientists worldwide.

The transport cost of bringing a new heart down to Earth is going to be far less than it’s worth to the recipient

Manufacturing in space has always seemed like a fool’s errand. Whatever you make out there would have to be worth outrageous amounts to cover the shipping costs back to Earth. Now, though, those costs have come down almost 10-fold, with more reductions promised. As a result, a few items do pass that test. Already, there are first tests taking place on the ISS to see if the advantages of manufacturing in almost zero gravity (‘micro-gravity’) are really as great as some have suggested.

The most popular idea is to make super-powerful optical fibres that could carry far more data traffic than current transoceanic fibres can. They could potentially do so more cheaply because they would be simpler: they wouldn’t need repeater stations. Certainly, the demand is there, since there’s no limit to the number of cat videos we must share. These ‘ZBLAN’ optical fibres showed dramatic improvements when small amounts were made during brief, half-minute long intervals of weightlessness on a parabolic flight. There are a few companies already trying to make ZBLAN fibres on the ISS. The results must be promising because they went back after their first attempt. A kilogram of fancy optical fibres already sells for about $1 million to $20 million. That will pay for the postage and still give you change!

Another idea is to 3D-print human organs in space. Why? Printing ears on Earth has been done, using a scaffolding that later dissolves away. But some organs are trickier, and scaffolds don’t always work. Without that support, the layers of cells tend to slip and slide out of position, which is not the desired effect for something meant to keep you alive. In micro-gravity, the slipping and sliding should be much smaller. The goal is eventually to be able to print a human heart. A heart weighs less than a kilogram. Even with packaging to keep it healthy, the transport cost of bringing a new heart down to Earth is going to be far less than it’s worth to the recipient. Again, first experiments toward this goal are underway on the ISS.

A finger splint produced by the ISS’s onboard 3D printer. Courtesy of NASA

Tourism in space actually goes back quite a way. The first space tourist was Dennis Tito, a US engineer and entrepreneur, who spent a week or so on board the ISS 20 years ago, in 2001. His ride on a Russian Soyuz spaceship was arranged by Space Adventures Inc, a company set up to get private individuals into space. Since then, there have been six others who flew to space with Space Adventures, though their seats weren’t cheap: each ticket cost tens of millions of US dollars. That price limits the ridership pretty strongly. The hope is that the new spaceships will drop the price to something a little more reasonable, say the price of a nice house. At that price, people – still highly affluent – will start to fill up the commercial space stations. The first few might put up with arduous ways of conserving water that the astronauts on the ISS endure, but if one enterprising space station offers showers and a good toilet, they’ll be able to charge a premium. That in turn will produce a demand for a lot more water, where asteroids might come in handy. And there could be unexpected and subtler benefits of space tourism. More people will experience the ‘overview effect’, in which seeing our planet as one borderless, delicate biosphere increases awareness of the fragility and beauty of life. As many of these space tourists will be wealthy, perhaps a shift in their perspective will have outsized influence.

Axiom Space has had the interiors of their space station curated by the luxury designer Philippe Starck

Space stations have always been extremely expensive items that only governments could afford. The ISS is the leading example. It has been called the most expensive building project ever, at about $100 billion. There are now at least four companies trying to make space stations cheaper with the idea of operating them commercially. COVID-19 shut down one of these ventures, Bigelow Aerospace, but the Sierra Nevada Corporation is a new entrant to the space station game. In addition, there’s United Launch Alliance and, the present leader of the pack, Axiom Space.

Axiom Space will start off attaching the first part of its space station to the ISS in late 2024. Over several years, it will add more pieces until it has enough to stand alone, then it will detach itself and fly as an independent, Axiom-owned space station. In recognition that some of their clientele will be used to five-star hotels, Axiom Space has had the interiors of their space station curated by the luxury designer Philippe Starck. Axiom plans to cut the cost of their station at least 10-fold compared with the ISS. There are many countries that want a human space programme but couldn’t previously afford it. Soon they can. Axiom says that they already have more than 20 countries signed up.

All three of these new for-profit uses for space – research, manufacturing and tourism – will lead to a demand for more material in space. Water is needed for all of them, as well as a lot of construction materials. Will all that material come from Earth? Or will our growing capabilities in space mean that it becomes cheaper to bring some of it from the asteroids?

Getting resources from space profitably is not a slam dunk. The physics makes sense – the energy needed is far less than to bring them up from Earth – but the economics aren’t obvious. Getting entrepreneurs and venture capitalists interested in a new enterprise always depends on increasing the reward and diminishing the risk until they reach a threshold where it’s worth taking the leap. Then again, they can’t wait too long or someone else will beat them to it. Historically, governments have done the high-risk, long-term investment needed to seed new markets. And they’re doing so today for space resources.

It seems a safe bet that a decade from now there will be a bunch of commercial space stations orbiting Earth, and that they will house a growing number of people working and vacationing in space. For many, this will constitute our first step in creating a beyond-Earth society.

If knowledge or greed isn’t motivation enough to set your sights on the asteroids, then the one thing virtually all people agree on is that having humanity wiped off the face of Earth would be bad, at least for us. Of all the multiple threats to humanity’s existence, the only one that we can definitely eliminate is that of a large asteroid slamming into our home planet and killing us off, together with most other species, following the lead of the dinosaurs who were made extinct by an asteroid slamming into the ocean. There’s a T-shirt popular among space cadets that has the slogan ‘Asteroids are nature’s way of saying “How’s that space programme coming along?”’ If we can find all the killer asteroids, then we can divert them to render them harmless. Best to play it safe.

There are several searches underway for undiscovered, potentially dangerous asteroids. Thanks to the first big survey, Spaceguard, 90 per cent of the dinosaur-killer-sized asteroids out there have already been found. None of them pose any danger for the next century at least. That still leaves an uneasily large number of about 100 extinction-event-sized rocks out there that we haven’t found yet. Smaller, city-killer asteroids are much less well-surveyed for.

To remedy this concern, two new surveys will begin in the next few years, and they will both be more or less done by 2030. They are the Vera C Rubin Observatory ‘Legacy Survey of Space and Time’, which will start scanning the whole sky every few nights from 2023 onwards. Its mission has been complicated by the mushrooming constellations of thousands of internet satellites now being launched by several companies, with SpaceX being the most visible. Hopefully a solution will be found.

The Vera C Rubin Observatory, on a mountain in Chile, will record its image using normal visible light. For asteroids, that light is reflected sunlight. But many asteroids are pitch black, reflecting only a few percent of the sunlight pouring on to their surfaces. How do you find those dark asteroids? The answer is to use the long wavelength – infrared – light they emit because they’re warm: their ‘black body radiation’. NASA is building a special mission just for this purpose. Developed by a team lead by Amy Mainzer, now of the University of Arizona, Tucson, it’s called the Near-Earth Object Surveillance Mission. Starting around 2025, it will scan the sky repeatedly for five years looking for moving objects that are bright in infrared light, and has wavelengths some 10 to 20 times longer than we can see with our eyes. The team’s tagline is ‘Finding Asteroids Before They Find Us.’ Good idea!

This will be the first time that humanity has deliberately changed the orbit of any celestial body

An advantage of using the black body radiation is that it also tells us quite accurately how big each asteroid is. That helps in assessing their threat, as well giving us a first guess at how much they might yield in resources. Combining the two surveys will indicate how much sunlight each asteroid reflects – its ‘albedo’ – and that’s a clue to what they’re made of. We want to know that because a metal asteroid of a given size is more dangerous than one made of rock, and is more difficult to push out of the way. The composition also helps us explore all two dozen types of asteroid out there, the better to decipher the history of our solar system. As a side product, the surveys will pin down their potential value.

By 2030, we’ll have better rockets than we have today. Several are set to fly within five years. They’ll let us reach many more asteroids with more massive payloads to deflect them, study them or mine them.

Also by 2030, several more asteroids will have been visited by our exploration spacecraft. JAXA, the Japanese space agency, and NASA each had recent missions to return samples from carbonaceous asteroids. The Japanese Hayabusa2 went to the spinning-top-shaped asteroid named Ryugu, and NASA’s OSIRIS-REx went to the asteroid called Bennu. Such carbonaceous asteroids are the least changed, we believe, from the time of their formation at the beginning of the solar system’s formation. They are called carbonaceous because they are chockfull of organic (carbon-containing) molecules; many of them also contain quite a lot of water. There are more missions planned to more distant asteroids such as Psyche, a metal asteroid in the Main Belt, and to the Trojan asteroids trailing Jupiter’s orbit.

OSIRIS-REx samples and leaves asteroid Bennu. Courtesy of NASA

Every time we visit an asteroid, it surprises us. Bennu was found to be throwing rocks off its surface as it spun around its axis, and when OSIRIS-REx put down its outstretched arm to grab a sample off the surface, the arm sank half a metre into the asteroid; it stopped going deeper only when the retrorockets fired to stop it. That’s really not how rubble behaves on Earth!

The more we know about asteroids, the more confident we can be that we can deflect their path away from Earth. A NASA mission called DART will make a high-speed impact on the small moon of the asteroid Didymos in late 2022 to see if we can slow down a dangerous asteroid to stop it causing devastation on Earth. (Don’t worry: the target was chosen to be a safe one for us.) This will be the first time that humanity has deliberately changed the orbit of any celestial body. It isn’t likely to be the last.

Once all the good-sized accessible asteroids have been found, their orbits mapped, their sizes known, and at least a good clue found as to what they’re made of, the barriers to mining them will be much lower. After visiting a half dozen asteroids up close, we’ll have learned a great deal about their origins, how to deflect them should one be headed our way, and how to handle them. That will put us in a good place to begin to extract their resources. I predict this will happen right around 2030, when demand for in-space materials should be picking up. The stars seem to be aligning for mining the asteroids. Mining will expand our capabilities in space, especially making it easier to deflect a dangerous asteroid. In a virtuous cycle, those new capabilities will lead us on to greater exploration of the many worlds in our solar system and, with bigger, better telescopes, to the Universe beyond. It should be fun.

Space explorationEngineeringAstronomy

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