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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?
     
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  3. Sep 7, 2016 #2

    Bandersnatch

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  4. Sep 7, 2016 #3

    Chronos

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    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

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    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

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    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

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    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
    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

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    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

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  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

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    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

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    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.
     
  22. Sep 9, 2016 #21
    Hm, okay.

    So, apart from the logistics and costs required to build such a mining facility (at the moon or some asteroid), the development of the technology for automatic mining robots, we would need something like a huge array of solar panels to power all of this.

    Looks like we are really light-years away from space mining.
     
  23. Sep 9, 2016 #22
    Not unless we are planning to mine asteroids on another solar system. Mere light-minutes... Years away maybe...
     
  24. Sep 13, 2016 #23
    Running a mining facility on a body in the asteroid belt has too many technological and logistical show stoppers. There's no way operating and transportation costs would ever be covered by the profit in bringing materials to Earth or even to Earth orbit. The only way I see feasibility with current technology is to haul an asteroid into Earth orbit. Even so that takes a lot of energy. As it is spacecraft only carry the fuel they need for the most efficient trajectory possible.

    Bringing an asteroid into Earth orbit does solve most of the logistical problems. Mining can be controlled from Earth in real time using robots. Products can be simply dropped to Earth in a capsule. Any problems with equipment can be handled with a trip to Earth orbit which is something we're pretty good at now. It's still a very expensive thing to do, but could be highly profitable.

    There's also the potential for mining on the Moon. Though it would still be more logistically difficult than mining an asteroid in Earth orbit. Mining on the Moon would have to be done in a similar fashion as it's done on Earth. Valuable minerals are much more accessible on asteroids. Asteroids have not endured accretion to the extent of planetary bodies. That allows heavy minerals to be mined from the surface of the body in less dense material. Also the frequency of valuable minerals is greater since smaller bodies were never as molten and with less gravity heavy minerals remain on the surface.
     
  25. Sep 13, 2016 #24
    Turning parts of asteroids into space stations and mining the rest doesn't require any new technology. What's missing with us is steadfastness of purpose. Our democratic systems don't let leaders with long-range visionary plans rise to the top, or at least not often. When everybody votes, the wisest and most responsible people are always out-voted, and their greater ability to choose the best path into the future is wasted.

    Most people have about the same degree political responsibility as bacteria growing in a Petri dish. They babble, and some of them can do algebra, but they don't really think. Instead, the media do their thinking for them, and the media are run by people who would rather rule on all humanity on one planet than permit humanity to scatter out to the stars, where the centralized rule of them all would be impossible, where they couldn't all be enslaved by means of usury, and where they couldn't manage every conflict so that they always benefited no matter which side won.

    Almost any asteroid in interstellar space having a mass of 1e15 kilograms or more, will have enough metal to make an O'Neill Cylinder 8 km in diameter and 32 km long, and enough deuterium from water ice to make billions of years' worth of electrical power (for heat and for light and for oxygen production, and for power tools) from fusion. The colonists only need to show up with start-up resources, with life (viable, seed, and printable DNA), with tools and with engineering ability, and they can make a home on a 100-km diameter rogue asteroid.

    As the generations go by on such a colony, the surviving peoples will have been winnowed by natural selection such that they can handle the hazards of a deep space environment with easy grace, whereas we stumble and lurch about most ad-hoc-ly while dealing with those hazards. Accidents will still happen once in a while, of course, but it would be as rare as someone falling off a roof and breaking his neck upon hitting the ground, and it would be remarked upon the the same way.
     
  26. Sep 25, 2016 #25
    I think that's a rather cynical view of the public. There's enough brilliant entrepreneurs with the desire and means to do something like extraterrestrial mining. SpaceX and Elon Musk come to mind. Certainly there are people that fall into the category you describe, but there are enough outstanding minds out there accomplishing things beyond that.

    There are some that may fear the expansion of mankind into the frontier, but that's always been the case and nobody has yet to shut it down. If the public as a whole made a bid to increase investment into space something like this could happen faster, but I think it will happen at some point much to the chagrin of anyone opposed to it.
     
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