Mining in Space – The Next Frontier?

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Given the rising global demand for rare-earth elements (REE) and the necessity to synthesize exotic materials for numerous high-tech applications, extra-terrestrial mining is likely to become the next race in space.

REE are used in state-of-the-art electronics, nuclear technologies, lasers, super-magnets and green-energy technology. China, the world’s largest producer of REE, restricted its abundant supplies globally in 2009, citing the need to protect the environment. In fact, it was the mismanagement of reserves and increasing domestic high-tech production that compelled Beijing to cut REE exports from its Bayan Obo mining district.

In response to Beijing’s move, REE consumers and electronic manufacturers like Japan, the U.S and South Korea accelerated terrestrial exploration of reserves to maintain their industrial supplies.

In 2011, Japan succeeded in discovering REE in ocean-bed deposits in its Pacific Exclusive Economic Zone. Apart from exploration, the Japanese trading firm Sumitomo Corporation created a joint venture – Summit Atom Rare Earth Company – with Kazakhstan’s state-run nuclear agency KazAtomProm, to extract REEs from the abundant uranium tailings in Kazakhstan. In 2012, the U.S-based Molycorp Inc. resumed operations in the long-closed Mountain Pass Rare Earth Mine in California to meet domestic demand in the civilian and defence sectors. South Korea has entered into an agreement on REE prospecting with Kyrgyzstan – probably one of the largest such projects in this unexploited mineral-rich nation.

Countries like India, Canada, Tanzania, Australia, Brazil and Vietnam have started prospecting and mining REE within their own jurisdictions; Australia has the largest mine outside China, at Mount Weld.

China, in spite of its large, indigenous REE reserves, is in search of foreign sources for stockpiling. Beijing’s vast experience in REE trade and mining has attracted Greenland. Negotiations are underway, but no formal agreement has been substantiated. Greenland wants to attract foreign investments for exploring its REE and other mineral resources, as part of a move toward greater autonomy from the Kingdom of Denmark. But most of the REE resources in Greenland are associated with uranium deposits, and the Kingdom of Denmark remains the authority on these nuclear resources. It will be difficult for China to penetrate the NATO security cloud and exploit Greenland’s REE resources.

Given the competition for REEs, the mining of abundant REE reserves on the Moon and on Near Earth Asteroids (NEA) is awaiting the development of infrastructure and logistics. Space stations are a central component of such an enterprise, and extra-terrestrial mining on the Moon and NEAs is likely to be realized by the year 2050.

The international Moon Treaty, first put forward by the U.S. government in 1979, intended to transfer jurisdiction of the Moon and other celestial bodies to all the nations of the world. But the major space-faring nations have not yet ratified the treaty. This leaves celestial bodies open for exploration and the growing possibility of prospecting and utilizing space-based mineral and fuel reserves.

In preparation, this year, after a gap of nearly three decades, multiple space stations are orbiting simultaneously in the Low Earth Orbit (LEO). These include the International Space Station (ISS) and Tiangong 1. Six crew members are on the ISS, launched by the Russian Soyuz TMA missions, and three are on the Chinese Shenzhou 10 mission to Tiangong 1.

The ISS – the largest artificial object in orbit – is making prodigious advancements in manned, long-duration presence in the LEO; this is being accomplished with regular replenishment and repair expeditions from Earth. The ISS conducts scientific experiments related to material science, human physiology, meteorology, and astronomy.

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6
chris
July 19, 2013 at 10:28

You say that off-earth mining is no longer science fiction, then you project a date of 2050, which puts it back into the realm of science fiction at this point.  Just like "2001: A Space Odyssey" was science fiction when it came out 30+ years ahead of events depicted.  When someone says "no longer science fiction" I expect 5 – 10 years off, tops.

220Swift
July 18, 2013 at 18:27

Fascinating article on human endeavors for feasible future fortunes, thank you.

Bart Enkelaar
July 18, 2013 at 01:26

30 years ago, you'd be right.

However, notice that the article discusses NEA's, not asteroids in general. Going to the asteroid belt to mine and return to earth is indeed not economically feasible with today's technology. However, most likely there are about a million near earth asteroids of which a significant amount can be reached with less energy cost than flying to the moon.

Also, Planetary Resources has developed asteroid prospecting spacecrafts that weigh about 10 kilograms. Even taking your numbers for launch costs that would be 150k for launch, fairly acceptible I'd say.

SpaceX meanwhile has been working on bringing the cost of launch down, because the 10-15k per kilogram launch costs are NOT a result of basic chemistry, they're more a result of bad policy than anything else. SpaceX even means to push it further and create fully reusable rockets (google SpaceX Grasshopper) which has the potential to provide a 100-fold decrease in launch costs.

I believe that within this decade, the overall costs will no longer be too big an issue, and space mining will happen.

bob sykes
July 17, 2013 at 20:48

The cost of launching to Low Earth Orbit is about $10,000 to $15,000 $/kg, depending on the launcher. Current satellite lauches cost about $50M to $500M depending on the size of the satellite. These costs are low-balls because the national governments that own the launch facilities eat the infrastructure construction and O&M costs. 

These costs are not going to come down because they are a result of basic chemistry, orbital energy differences and infrastructure requirements. Clark's space elevator would be even more expensive. By the way the transfer time from the earth's surface to the GSO would be on the order of months.

Once in orbit, the mining equipment would have to be transferred to the asteroid belt, with additional substantial costs. Then the equipment would have to explore for an asteroid with sufficient material to mine. Finally, the material would have to be transferred back to Earth, which means its orbital enerygy has to be dissapated. 

So the overalll cost are prohibitive, and space mining will not happen.

One is reminded of the old 1950s claim that nuclear power would be so cheap we wouldn't have to meter it. Of course that was the cost of the fuel, the cost of the reactor being ignored. Or that the oceans hows uncounted tons of gold. Except that the cost of concentrating it from seawater is much higher than the value of the gold. The same is true for deuterium and tritium, which is another blow against ITER.

Kanes
July 17, 2013 at 13:37

Mining in moon is more practical than NEAs. A Russian spacecraft extracted moon soil, rocks, etc. and brought them to earth in early 1970s. So the technology is there. Things have rapidly improved since. Exploration capability from a distance, extraction, storage and rocketing them back to earth should develop. I see no reason for LEO and other earth or moon orbital vehicles in the process. Expenses must be kept to a low as much as possible. Processing plants should be on moon. Only the extracted REE should be rocketed back to earth.

Errol
July 17, 2013 at 00:33

At last, something that will get governments to push for the stars. Forget idealism. Saying we can isn't enough. It's the need for resources that will get people to space.

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