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Mining Asteroids

  1. Aug 12, 2010 #1
    First off, I would just like to say that I am still in the early stages (3rd year) of obtaining my B.Eng in Aerospace Engineering and that I realize many things can and will change in the next couple of years. However, early preperation is neccesary for this type of thing. That being said...

    A little background: I am in my 3rd year of Aerospace Engineering. I consider myself a very ambitious/motivated person and I am highly interested in science and engineering.

    My plan: I hope to eventually obtain a masters in the same discipline, probably focusing on propulsion. After succesuly obtaining these prerequisites I will undoubtedly pursue a career with an established company as an EIT and than eventually obtain my PE. I consider myself a very friendly and social person, and I plan on making many contacts in my field that may be of assistance in any future plans.

    My (very ambitious) goal: The market I'm interested in is plutonium based metals used in catalytic converters in many hybrid vehicles. I know that the demand for such metals has increased three fold since the beginning of this millenia. I also understand that global supplies are diminishing (although, not at an alarming rate, but still diminishing). Prices for these metals will undoubtedly increase, and manufacturers will look for cheaper solutions. This is where I come in. I would like to start a company with the sole intention of mining these materials from near earth asteroids, as I understand that some contain an abundance of plutonium based metals.

    Now, for the questions/concerns: I understand the start up costs of an operation at this scale are immense, to say the least. I also know that the technological challenges involved are overwhelming (such as large advancements in robotics). Now, my questions to you are as follows:

    - What type of investors would I need to support such an endeavour?
    - What kinds of pressure (regulations), from government or corporate, would I be facing?
    - Should I slowly start creating a business model now as a student (in my free time)?
    - Is this type of operation even possible?

    I'm probably forgeting many many questions and possibly set backs, but I can't think of any at the moment. Any insight/ridicule/concerns/constructive critisism is very welcome.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 12, 2010 #2

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    A PE certification is not all that useful in aerospace engineering, and even more so with aerospace (focus on space) engineering. A PE certification is a concern of states. Aerospace engineering is, by its nature, a national/international level concern. Individual states have little or no authority over the endeavor. Take you pet concern, mining asteroids. A PE certification for that: Why bother? I have worked with hundreds of professional aerospace engineers, some in the upper echelons of the field. None that I know of have a PE certification.

    If this truly is your goal, you might want to rethink your specialization in propulsion and maybe need to rethink whether you want to continue on in aerospace. The most important skill to make this happen is business savvy. You can obtain that business savvy either through the school of hard knocks, which takes a lot of time, or you by taking a more direct route, business school. If you go for the school of hard knocks approach you should target your career path into management rather than a narrow technical skill such as propulsion.

    If you do choose to go to business school, you can either do that right after getting your bachelors degree or get a masters in aerospace and then go to B school. Whether you will accomplish your dream, maybe not, but this sure will put you in demand. There are very few managers who have both technical savvy and business savvy.

    If you do choose to go on for a masters in aerospace, you might want to rethink your specialization. With this long term goal it would probably be better for you to specialize in a field that requires breadth of knowledge as opposed to depth of knowledge. A good aerospace systems engineer is a jack of all trades, master of some. (Take care not to overgeneralize and become a jack of all trades, master of none.) Guidance, navigation, and control is another branch of aerospace that requires broad knowledge of many topics rather than narrow but deep knowledge of one. Avionics is yet another area where breadth of skill is important.
  4. Aug 12, 2010 #3
    Thank you very much for your reply.

    I have absolutely no intentions on focusing primarily on business due to the fact that aerospace engineering is a far greater interest of mine. However, I have thought about the business approach and I have considered applying at the International Space University located in Strasbourg, Alsace in Northern France. I would most likely take the Space Studies Program and focus on space management. I've taken a look at the curriculum for the masters programs, and executive masters programs and they seem to focus on many key components needed for my goal.

    At the moment, I am already specializing in propulsion, and I absolutely would consider a broader topic for my M. Eng Degree. However, before I begin drastically changing my academic choices, I have a simple yet complex question for you, since you seem to be very experienced:

    Is this type of endeavour even possible, given the state of technology, resources and politics? Or am I simply wasting my time even considering it as an option?
  5. Aug 12, 2010 #4
    It's so much cheaper to mine earthly minerals that they'd have to become drastically low before asteroid mining would become profitable.

    In our life time? I don't know, I doubt it. But I don't really know enough about what minerals can be mined from asteroids, and what mineral needs we might have in the future. There's always the possibility.

    Just always have alternatives.
  6. Aug 12, 2010 #5

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    ISU's two month long Space Studies Program is held at different sites every year. Even though it does not lead to a formal degree, it gives a lot of clout, possibly more than even the very best internship program. Something else to think about.

    You're still an undergrad, and a 3rd year undergrad at that. Specialization at the undergrad level versus that in a masters or PhD program are very beasts.

    Right now? Not possible, not practical. In the future (and you have a good 30-40 years of future to go), who knows?

    If you pitch this concept right it could make for a good master's thesis project. Whether something truly comes of it is secondary. I've seen many recent grads whose master's thesis had something to do with asteroids, mostly collision mitigation with NEOs, Apophis being of course the perpetual favorite candidate.
  7. Aug 12, 2010 #6
    Wow, thanks for the great replies.

    One more short, perhaps unrelated question. I assume you work closely with AE's. If this goal of mine doesn't follow through (which I'm completely ok with, considering the high risk associated with it), would pursuing a masters degree still be beneficial in the long run? Should I consider pursuing a PhD? Note that I have absolutely no intention of staying in academia. Thanks for your time.
  8. Aug 12, 2010 #7

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    Each step up the educational ladder closes some career doors but opens others.
    • A bachelor's degree closes doors to careers that require you to ask "Would you like fries with that order, sir?" You don't want to follow that career path, so who cares that that door is closed? A bachelor's degree opens the door to technical McJobs. Better paying and more challenging technical jobs are a bit harder to get with only a bachelor's degree. It can be done, however.

    • Getting one of those technical McJobs is a lot harder but getting one of those more rewarding jobs is a lot easier with a master's degree under your belt. Advancement in some places is still going to be difficult with just a master's degree. Some organizations are very enamored with people with a PhD.

    • A PhD pretty much closes to door to those technical McJobs but it makes the door to those more challenging jobs wide open. The biggest payoff from a PhD is in those organizations that are PhD happy regarding opportunities for promotions and for leading challenging tasks. If you want to work for such an outfit and you want to advance you will need a PhD. You can find people with a master's or even just a bachelor's degree doing more or less the same task in other organizations that some organizations wouldn't dream of assigning to someone without a PhD. Looking at the proportion of PhDs in general and the proportion of PhDs in upper management will give you a clue of the nature of an organization.

    A master's degree is a good middle ground in most outfits. The time cost, money cost, and opportunity costs in obtaining a master's are a lot less than are for obtaining a PhD, and the career paths between someone with a master's versus someone with a PhD are oftentimes quite similar. That said, a master's won't cut it in some organizations, and those do tend to be the better organizations.
    Last edited: Aug 12, 2010
  9. Aug 13, 2010 #8
    In my view, a PhD is a complete waste of time for most people. It is an apprenticeship into academia, but if you're not going into academia, you're better off getting stuck into whatever you want to do with your life. I know many people who have PhDs then have gone into the Civil Service, management consultancy etc, never to use that specialist knowledge again. Sure, it's nice to be able to put "Dr" in front of your name, and some people think will you're clever because of it. But getting a PhD doesn't actually make you any cleverer, and the cleverer people (who are generally the people who count in whatever organisation it is you join) know this. Indeed, depending on what you want to do, it may be a barrier, because people will thing you're some sort of aloof boffin, and you'll be overqualified for the low status beginners' jobs that are the doorway to many careers.

    Regarding the plan to mine asteroids - I admire your passion and ambition. However, you'll find that being successful in such things is largely down to serendipity, luck, and happening to be in the right place at the right time. Such a company will only take off if and when the economic situation beyond your control demands it. Even then, it is not the type of thing that can be started by an individual in a garage. It will be a project run by an existing large corporation. If you want a chance of being involved should this ever kick off in your lifetime, your best bet would be to progress as far as you can in a terrestrial mining company. Good luck.
  10. Aug 13, 2010 #9
    I think you mean platinum-based.

    The problem that you have is that you have things backward. The purpose of any company you want to start would be to produce platinum for a profit, at that point the question is what is the cheapest way to get platinum, and right now it's just not nearly profitable to mine platinum from asteroids.

    Now you can try to work on technologies to reduce those costs, but what you might find out in the end, that it's just not economically feasible to do it.

    I think the problems are less technological than business related. One problem that you will run into is that suppose you manage to decrease the cost of space-based platinum production by technology (use robots for example), it may be that those technologies will also vastly reduce the cost of technology from earth based sources.

    If you can show that it is indeed profitable and you need to raise several billion dollars, it's not too hard to do that. Oil and mining companies routing raise billions of dollars on capital markets.

    Unknown, and that's the problem. What happens is that an oil or mining company gets leases, and then they can go to Wall Street and use those leases to raise money to do mining. The trouble that you have is there is no legal framework for claiming metals from an asteroid. If you put money into company A, there is no current way of preventing company B from getting those metals.

    Take some business classes. Even if you don't get this to work, you can figure out how to get something else to work.

    The big question is is this profitable? My guess is that when you work through the numbers, the answer is not only no, but very much no.
  11. Aug 13, 2010 #10


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    One might begin with reading various papers and studies of proposals to mine the Moon, Mars, or Asteroids. The idea has been kicked around for several decades.

    One would need patient investors with deep pockets and distant horizons. The regulations would be those that apply to any space venture. Now would be a good time to develop a business model, but as twofish-quant indicated it would be a good idea to take some business/entrepreneurial courses. The idea is possible, but perhaps not practical.

    One should do some homework on what has been published already. Also, realize that it is platinum not plutonium.
  12. Aug 13, 2010 #11

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    There are plenty of technical organizations in which the only people who truly advance have a PhD under their belts. Whether those people don't ever use the specific knowledge gained while they pursued their PhD is irrelevant. What getting a PhD shows, amongst others, is that the person in question
    • Almost certainly is quite intelligent,
    • Is committed, probably to the point of being obsessive (OCD can be a good thing),
    • You know how to do research / tackle hard problems,
    • Knows how to find monetary support,
    • Knows how to adroitly deal with bureaucracies, and
    • In many cases knows how to lead.
    These are all very desirable traits in business, government, and academia. Except for a very few specific PhD projects, those organizations are not hiring PhDs because of what they learned while obtaining that degree. They are hiring them for what they can do for the organization in the future. People with PhDs are near-known quantity.

    Look at it this way: There is a reason academia produces a whole lot more PhDs in technical fields than are needed to sustain academia itself.
  13. Aug 13, 2010 #12
    Haha, yeah I do. I'm not sure why I said plutonium lol. I'm not making bombs here, haha.

    Well, I've noticed a trend of platinum prices over the last decade. Prices rose from 400$/ounce, to 1400$/ounce. I also understand that its one of the rarest metals on earth and that demands are increasing steadily. I guess my thought process goes a little something like this: Higher demands for a decrease in GHG will increase the amount of catalytic converters used in cars. Simultaneously, hybrids use platinum based metals in fuel cells.

    I find presently you may be right. In fact, it may not be economically feasible for at least another 50 years. So I see your point.

    Unless competition from companies increases due to the decrease in readily available platinum. But again, I see your point.

    Easier said than done, but I think raising the money for this type of operation is the least of my problems.

    I guess I'll have to become a politician too. Alright, so far, I'm gonna have to become an engineer, a businessman and a politician. I'll probably have to become an environmentalist as well. Who knows how much GHG my spaceships will produce, haha.

    While presently, I agree with you. However, I find you'll notice that markets do change, and technology changes with it. I guess my best bet would be to start up an aerospace company in an unrelated field (i.e. manufacturing parts, or systems for space related applications) and than play it by ear. If the economy warrants cheaper platinum metals, and neccesitates asteroid mining, I'll be in a greater position of power to take that oppertunity and capitilize.

    This is more about the devellopment of private space enterprise than it is about mining. Will I do have a slight passion for mining, I'd rather see humans in space capaitlizing on the vast amount of resources available to us. If need be, we'll also have the technology and infrastructure available to prevent our own extinction. Just my two cents.
    Well, thanks quant for your insightful information. I certainly will take everything you said in consideration.
  14. Aug 13, 2010 #13
    Au contraire, it's your biggest problem. Insofar as with enough money and the will to do so, we could probably be mining asteroids within 10 years. But the cost is prohibitive, and no-one's going to throw billions of dollars at something which produces a resource at thousands of times the cost of mining it on earth.

    You're planning on running this company all on your own?

    Of course the universe is huge and there's a LOT of plantinum in the Andromeda galaxy, and quite a bit of hydrogen on Jupiter that we could use to run cars. But it's not "available" to us, just as the platinum on asteroids is not "available". Availability is really a statement of the economics. We live on a huge rock and until someone develops a teleporter, I doubt it will ever be cheaper to mine in space.

    This particular cliche about "our own extinction" or "the survival of our race" really annoys me every time I read it. It sounds grandiose and noble but is just sloppy thinking. Humans are in no danger whatsoever of going extinct. We flourish from the Sahara to the Arctic Circle, and stone age man survived an ice age, and the subsequent warming, with only primitive technology. The problem is quite the opposite - there are too many humans, and it is other species that are going extinct as a result.
  15. Aug 13, 2010 #14
    There are still some indigenous peoples and ethnic groups / cultures and languages that are in danger of being wiped out through contact with the rest of the world and impingement on their territories, but the solution has nothing to do with sending them off into space. Indeed, if humans were about to go extinct, the very last thing you would want to do would be to jet off into space. It is a ridiculous fantasy perpetuated by science fiction writers.
  16. Aug 13, 2010 #15
    Which is precisly why it would be the least of my worries. If I raise, say, 30 billion tomorrow and invested in a fleet of spaceships, robotic equipment, launch vehicles, launch platforms ect. and started mining, I believe my returns would be in the negatives. This is obviously due to the fact that the start up costs are immense, the payload costs per kg are also immense, and its just not practical today. The biggest problem with this type of endeavour is out of my control, which is the economic situation. The ecnonomy does not warrant asteroid mining, thus it is not practical to do so, even with billions of dollars.

    Well I think the answer to this question is kind of self-evident. Obviously a company of this size would be owned by individuals invested in the company (i.e. shareholders) and "run" by a CEO and a board of directors.

    Well, it won't be "available" to us with this attitute. If resources become scarce and expensive, companies WILL pursue alternate methods. If the economics warrant asteroid mining, than we will have it. However, I agree with you. Mining in space for common metals most likely won't be economically viable, at least not in our lifetime. Platinum is a different beast, and in a category of its own.

    I agree with you that the whole "survival of the human race" by means of becoming a space faring civilization is very cliche. I'm actually not sure why I even said that. I guess its the science fiction geek in me. But what I truly do believe is that this technology WILL be necessary, eventually. It's just a matter of time. If humans want to technologically expand, a wider range of materials is necessary for production/manufacturing and energy.

    Don't get me wrong here, this is by no means my primary plan. In fact, it's not even my back up plan. It's more of a "if the timing's right and I'm in a profitable situation" type of deal. It doesn't hurt to ask questions, right? What better internet site than this one? It's probably one of the most rational internet sites, and thats what I was looking for. Rational answers. And so far, the consensus is, in my opinion, that asteroid mining is not presently economically viable. It also seems that it probably won't be, even in the next 50 years. But theres nothing wrong with having a head start I guess.
  17. Aug 13, 2010 #16
    I should probably add that neither I nor, I expect, anyone else in this thread has much of a real idea of the actual economics of asteroid mining, further than a general hunch. Maybe I was a bit hasty to denounce it. People will have done the studies already, and you should familiarise yourself with them. A bit of googling found one here: http://www.nss.org/settlement/asteroids/sonter.html. Beware that some may be written by space enthusiasts who perhaps have an interest in proving its viability.
  18. Aug 13, 2010 #17
    & here's another quote from http://www.astroengine.com/?p=5795

  19. Aug 13, 2010 #18
    Those are some good links. But, the more I think about this type of venture, the more I realise the similarities it has with visions of moon bases, and mars colonies by the year 2000 back in the 60's. The need for moon bases and mars colonies just wasn't there, and it still ins't there today. The moon landings weren't even economical. In fact, the only reason we even landed there had nothing to do with economic viability. It was more of a series of events, beginning with WW2. But, this still doesn't rule out the possibility of this industry gaining ground.
  20. Aug 14, 2010 #19


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    It would be best to invest in technology to discover/identify and cataloguing platinum-bearing asteroids before launching spacecraft to recover the material.

    As I understand it, one of the largest Ni deposits is believed to have originated from a Ni-bearing meteorite that crashed into Canada millions of years ago. One would need to find more like that. And one has to search the region of the solar system between Mars and Jupiter.
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