Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Featured I What's the feasibility of space mining companies?

  1. Sep 7, 2016 #1
    Recently, I've been reading about those space mining companies (like Deep Space Mining and Planetary Resources), and from an amateur point of view, I thought that the overall idea was pretty interesting. I mean, the concept is that they would be mining resources that could be useful in space (and so we wouldn't have to launch those from Earth at the cost of millions of dollars).

    But what's the feasibility of such a project? Are there any chances that we could develop this technology within the next decade or so? Do these companies have any chances of becoming profitable?
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 7, 2016 #2

    Bandersnatch

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

  4. Sep 7, 2016 #3

    Chronos

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Obviously, traditional mining and refining processes would cost a fortune in space. Margins on even rare commodities would be quickly strained by supply and demand pressures.
     
  5. Sep 7, 2016 #4
    I didn't quite get how the mining and refining process will be done (or even if those companies have a established plan to address that). Looks like Deep Space will be launching a so-called Prospector 1 mission to rendezvous with an asteroid and determine it's value as a resource, but I didn't find anything concrete on how the mining will be done.

    OSIRIS-REx, NASA's mission to study and return a sample from an asteroid, is due to launch tomorrow (September 8). We will probably learn a ton of stuff after this mission is completed (and if I'm not wrong, the spectrometer they will be using to evaluate the composition of the asteroid is something those mining companies will probably need to master).

    It would be really cool if those companies manage to succeed, but I'm very skeptical. Do we ever have the technology necessary to do such a thing? Or the costs are the only constraint?
     
  6. Sep 7, 2016 #5
    Personally I am skeptical of the chances that this sort of effort could succeed.
    While it might not be absolutely unfeasible in terms of engineering it would require a massive infrastructure in space to just to build, and supply fuel for the mining machines before the first kg of anything useful for building another project was produced.
    Most of that infrastructure would itself have to be provided by machinery made here on Earth then sent into space.
    If the operation required humans, the costs of providing habitats and minimizing risks for them makes the economics of doing this somewhat fanciful, imo.
     
  7. Sep 7, 2016 #6
    That's what I think, too. I would like to see a estimation of the costs involved in a project like this one, just to compare with the actual costs of launching resources directly from Earth as we do today. The idea of asteroid mining, by itself, is great, mainly if we could mine those asteroids for resources like water (which, in turn, could be used as fuel).
    I think that the idea is to not have humans in there, anyway. The mining process, as I imagine it, would be automatic (or at least remotely controlled by humans here on Earth).

    Personally, I think that it's inevitable that we start to gather resources in places other than Earth in a not so distant future. I just don't think that there's enough demand right now for those companies to succeed. More than that, I can't see those relatively small companies
    beginning a whole new industry from scratch without some serious government funding and interest.

    On the other hand, and being optimistic, maybe the 10-20 years will be very interesting for space exploration. NASA intends to send humans to mars by 2030, SpaceX is doing some groundbreaking stuff... Maybe all of this can contribute for initiatives like Deep Space and Planetary Resources, and we could go on and discuss about the possibility of a mars colony, and how asteroid mining would be useful for that.

    By the way, do any of you believe that we will see something like a mars colony in our lifetimes?
     
  8. Sep 7, 2016 #7
    If we take 'our lifetime' to be on average around 30-50 years, (for readers of this site that is, infants won't be thinking about it).
    then no I don't think we will see a permanent base on Mars soon as that.
    Quite likely though I think we will see at least one manned exploration mission (probably multinational).
    Possibly the establishment of a entirely robotic base camp could happen,
    (which as you suggested could be operated by human operators here on Earth)
     
  9. Sep 7, 2016 #8

    russ_watters

    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    Remotely!
    Nope!
    Remotely!

    Yes, I know my one-word answers are somewhat glib and I did a poor job of hiding my contempt in the thread that Bandersnatch linked (though that is probably because I made no attempt to), but my perception is that these are publicity-stunt, money-making boondoggles. 10 years ago, Solar Power Towers were the rage, with companies that didn't actually do anything except accept investors collecting money and paying board members hoping to some day commercialize the concept ( :wink: ). Similarities? High reward, wildly expensive, no actual effort to do what they claimed they wanted to do*.

    Short version of the problems:
    1. The technology for remote robotic mining does not exist.
    2. The shipping costs will be wildly expensive.
    3. If a large quantity of precious metals are mined and returned to Earth, the market for said precious metals will collapse, resulting in very little income from selling them.

    *One of the companies is preparing to launch a research satellite as a proof of concept for navigation, sensor and communications technologies. That sounds impressive until you realize that I just described your iPhone and the satellite is a cubesat, which is too small to even fit an iPhone....so, maybe an early-2000s flip-phone?
     
  10. Sep 8, 2016 #9
    If, hypothetically, something like this space mining is accomplished, don't you think those metals would be far more valuable in space? I see no big deal in returning those to Earth. On the other hand, refining and using those metals for actual projects in space is something that looks very sci-fi and distant to me.

    I could see the usefulness in that if we look forwards to a colony in mars. Something like a outpost for refueling (and for water), since we probably would be launching a lot of missions for resupply and colonization. Just for the sake of speculation, let's say that a mission to colonize mars would be launched right now. Our colonizers would need water, fuel, supply. Launching those from Earth would take 6-8 months and be very expensive, and we would have to launch those once every two years. Building something like a mining outpost that could constantly resupply them with those resources would be valuable, right? Could we develop the necessary technologies if we needed to?
     
  11. Sep 8, 2016 #10

    Ryan_m_b

    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    The technology for automatically mining materials reliably is a lot harder than most people seem to realise. The machines have to distinguish ore from not-ore, dig it out and capture it, deal with the complex shape of the structure and hole (machines are not good at dealing with uneven terrain), transport the ore to some sort of mass driver, launch it and be able to fix any one of a thousand malfunctions/breaks that occur when working with machinery.

    I think once we start getting to the technology level where we can drop a small team of robots off and leave them to mine, refine and transport metals as well as maintain themselves for multi-year periods industry and the economy will be incredibly different. In other words making predictions based on demand now isn't reliable.
     
  12. Sep 8, 2016 #11

    russ_watters

    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    Well perhaps, but then that also means launching entire [automated?] heavy manufacturing industries into space. If well integrated, it would be a kilometer-long factory that you feed crushed asteroid in one end and get structural titanium beams (or whatever) come out the other. This is the stuff of far future science fantasy; Star Trek/Star Wars type stuff.
    Maybe? I really don't know and don't like speculating beyond a 50 year time horizon. I've been waiting 30 years for fusion's time horizon to drop below 50 years!
     
  13. Sep 9, 2016 #12

    1oldman2

    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Near term prospects ? "Not happening" maybe for the grandkids but all we are likely to see is a lot of R&D. (and there is likely going to be a lot of it)
    In the long term though, it's a natural, when the tech catches up with the dreams of today...
    Here is a list of sites worth looking at. :wink: (Note that they cover both ends of the subject pro, con, but they all agree this is going to be happening as soon as its feasible)
    mit.edu/12.000/www/m2016/finalwebsite/solutions/asteroids.html
    http://www.nature.com/news/osiris-rex-spacecraft-blazes-trail-for-asteroid-miners-1.20486
    http://lup.lub.lu.se/luur/download?func=downloadFile&recordOId=8882371&fileOId=8884121
    https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/11/151120182938.htm
    http://www.mining.com/tag/asteroid-mining/
    http://www.astronomy.com/news/2016/06/were-getting-serious-about-mining-asteroids
    http://space.frieger.com/asteroids/
     
  14. Sep 9, 2016 #13

    Bystander

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper
    Gold Member
    2016 Award

    From whence comes the energy? Where's the energy coming from?
     
  15. Sep 9, 2016 #14
    If anything like this does happen in future, giving it some scope for as yet untested power technology, such as efficient fusion ...
    wouldn't it make more sense to mine the Moon instead of asteroids?
    A lot of it is the same stuff as asteroids, and there is a solid platform already in place.
    So no need to build one, and no need tackle the logistical nightmare of getting asteroids to be in the right place on time.
     
    Last edited: Sep 9, 2016
  16. Sep 9, 2016 #15
    I dont't know. Maybe? At least, the moon is so much closer, and we wouldn't need to have hugely automated mining factories, since we could remotely control most of the stuff here from Earth.
     
  17. Sep 9, 2016 #16

    Bystander

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper
    Gold Member
    2016 Award

     
  18. Sep 9, 2016 #17
    So we just have to wait some more decades for fusion to become avaiable, and then a little bit more for automatic mining factories!

    Really though, I can't see how nuclear fusion could help space mining technology. From what I understand, energy is not the biggest problem here. Right?
     
  19. Sep 9, 2016 #18

    Bystander

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper
    Gold Member
    2016 Award

    Wrong.
     
  20. Sep 9, 2016 #19
    Could you explain better? I mean, couldn't we use solar energy or something like that to power the required machinery? I don't think we need to wait for fusion...
     
  21. Sep 9, 2016 #20

    berkeman

    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    Think about how much more power is needed for mining, compared to powering electronics... Orders of magnitude higher power are needed for mining, I believe.
     
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook




Similar Discussions: What's the feasibility of space mining companies?
  1. What is space (Replies: 1)

Loading...