There's gold in them thar' space rocks, say the miners of the future. There's also platinum, rare earth elements, and even water. Mining in space may sound like science fiction, but as the founders of two space mining companies recently told me, their plans are very real.
Meet the Miners
About 4 billion years ago, gravitational turmoil in the early Solar System bombarded the inner planets with asteroids. Astronomers call this period the Late Heavy Bombardment. Early Earth was a roiling mass of lava, and as metal-rich asteroids hit the molten surface, they sank inward to the planet's core. That's why Earth's core is made of iron, and why metals like gold, silver, and platinum are relatively scarce in our planet's crust.
"What we are mining on Earth really is mining the asteroids," explains Naveen Jain, founder and executive chairman of Moon Express. On Earth today, he says, "the easy stuff has been mined, and now you have to continue digging deeper and deeper and deeper." Indeed, what we aim to mine on asteroids isn't so different from what we mine on Earth.
The asteroids still orbiting the Sun are made of the same materials as the ones that made up the Late Heavy Bombardment. Their highest concentration is in the Asteroid Belt, a band that lies between the orbits Mars and Jupiter, but there are plenty of asteroids whose orbits carry them much closer to Earth. Astronomers call them "near-Earth objects," and Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer of Planetary Resources, says they're the best place to start space mining. Planetary Resources will test its Arkyd 3 prospecting satellite in orbit later this summer, and plans to start commercially mining asteroids by the early 2020s.
Arkyd 3. Credit: Planetary Resources
Moon Express founder Jain's fledgling company, meanwhile, is the leading contestant for Google's Lunar XPrize, which aims to spur lunar exploration with a $US30 million prize, and plans to send its first prospecting mission to the Moon next year.
There's a very simple reason why the Moon is a target for Moon Express. It endured the same Late Heavy Bombardment as Earth, but it cooled and solidified more quickly — and it has no atmosphere to burn up meteorites on entry. Jain says this means that metals are just waiting to be picked up on the lunar surface.
"All of the asteroidal material is going to the Moon, and is being shattered and is lying on the surface, so in some sense, what you're doing is literally collecting this stuff right from the surface of the Moon that you want," he explained to Gizmodo.
And in the absence of a lunar atmosphere, the Moon's surface doesn't get eroded by wind and water, so the scars of ancient impact craters remain fresh — offering ready access to deeper deposits of minerals.
Where Will They Go First?
The companies that may one day mine these resources have very different ideas about where to stake their claims.
Jain and Moon Express, for instance, say the Moon is a logical place for development, because it contains material from billions of years worth of asteroid impacts, all in one place. "Why would you want to go to an individual asteroid when Moon has been aggregating the asteroids for 4 billion years?" he said.
Moon Express has already built and tested a lunar lander capable of landing and taking off again, which it demonstrated in a tethered test flight earlier this year. That earned the company $US1 million from Google for being the first — and so far, the only — ompany to reach that milestone in the Lunar XPrize competition. To win the full prize, Moon Express will have to land on the Moon, travel 500 meters across its surface, and send home high-definition video of the trip.
But Planetary Resources says that it sees asteroids as easier targets than the Moon. "Many of these asteroids are actually easier to get to with respect to rocket power than landing on the surface of our own Moon," contends Lewicki. "Landing on the Moon is an extraordinarily difficult thing, and coming back is even harder, but with the asteroids, because of their lack of gravity, and because there's so many of them, it's an easier place to get started."
Of course, it may not really matter where the first space miners stake their claim in the long run, because others won't be far behind with their eyes on other sites. Lewicki told Gizmodo, "Just as humans have presence all over the Earth, whether it's the South Pole or the other 6 continents and research bases, I look forward to humans having presence at all the interesting places in the Solar System, whether it's the Moon, Mars, or hollowed-out asteroids."
Asteroid Ida. Credit: NASA
When They're Getting There
Jain says that Moon Express plans to launch its lunar mission next year. "Our first mission is primarily a prospecting mission, then we're going to start bringing this stuff back in our second and third missions," he said.
Along with the lander, that first mission will carry a small telescope called ILO-X, built by Moon Express for the International Lunar Observatory Association. ILO-X will be accessible online to students, teachers, researchers, and members of the public. "Anybody will be able to go onto the internet, and they will be able to control the telescope, take a picture and download it," said Jain.
Moon Express is also working on an unmanned shuttle, which it says could carry experimental materials back from ISS, or loads of minerals back from the Moon. Like NASA's former Space Shuttle program, the Moon Express drone shuttle is designed to make a relatively smooth landing when it returns to Earth — but unlike the old Space Shuttle, the Moon Express vehicle will be autonomous. "You press the button, and it comes gliding down through the re-entry [with] a heat shield, and it opens up the parachute, and it uses its own GPS to land within a ten-meter accuracy," explained Jain. The first shuttle is on the ISS manifest for a 2016 mission, he told Gizmodo.
Artist's conception of Moon Express lander on the Moon. Credit: Moon Express via NASA
Meanwhile, Planetary Resources has an early version of its Arkyd prospecting satellite aboard ISS right now. Arkyd 3 is a prototype to verify that all the satellite's basic systems will work. The company plans to test more advanced features on its next model, Arkyd 6, including an infrared sensor for detecting water — the first material the company wants to harvest — and a precision pointing system which will be essential for laser communications. That mission is scheduled for launch next year.
"We see being able to extract a commercially usable amount of water is really in the early 2020s," said Lewicki. That will start with using telescopes on Earth to narrow down a list of asteroids that probably contain water. "But in order to be sure, we actually have to send out a robotic spacecraft and make measurements quite close to the asteroid to be able to tell with enough confidence to begin the next stage of exploration." That, of course, is where the Arkyd satellites come in.
Lewicki says Planetary Resources plans to start by bringing back smaller quantities of water to test in the lab, but eventually, the company expects its water-mining business to grow alongside the space industry. "As the technology matures, and of course, as people can start to count on this water sourced from space, the two will kind of develop in parallel, starting with refuelling satellites in Earth Orbit that are actually already up there today, and going to building out new things that are beyond anything we've done in history so far," he said.
Rare Earth Elements and Precious Metals
Space mining companies are, of course, optimistic about what they will find.
Many observers are interested in space as a ready source of what are called rare earth elements — seventeen metallic elements which are crucial to the electronics industry but not often found in large enough deposits for mining. At the moment, 97% of the world's rare earth elements come from mines in China, which is a security concern for the U.S. and its allies, and an economic concern for many consumer electronics companies. Space mining, if successful, could break China's near monopoly on rare earth elements, reduce the cost of many consumer electronics, and alleviate the impact of rare earth mining on Earth's environment.
Aerial view of a rare earth mine in Mongolia. Credit: NASA
But how common are they in space? "As you can imagine, they are called rare Earth elements, they are not called rare Moon elements," said Jain, and there do seem to be surface deposits of rare earth elements on the Moon, according to satellite observations. However, it's not yet clear how abundant they are, since rare earth elements are still hard to detect with remote instruments, and the Apollo missions only visited about 5% of the lunar surface.
The presence of precious metals like platinum and gold in space is better understood. In metallic asteroids, Lewicki told Gizmodo, "It's really still just a very small amount of the asteroid, certainly less than a hundredth of a per cent, but it's a very valuable and very useful hundredth of a per cent."
And based on the fragments that have made it to Earth's surface as meteorites, some asteroids may have much denser concentrations of these metals than we've found so far in the Earth's crust. It's likely that the Moon's has at least the same abundance of platinum-group metals as on Earth, and it's probable that it has at least some deposits with the same concentration as metallic asteroids.
Of course, "abundant" is a relative term. Metals like the platinum-group metals and rare earth elements aren't really common anywhere in the universe. They're produced only by the death throes of massive stars, after all.
A platinum nugget. Credit: Alchemist-hp via Wikimedia Commons
As with rare earth elements, bringing back precious metals from space could lower costs, but Jain isn't worried. "You know, people say, 'if you could bring a gazillion tons of platinum, don't you see the price of the platinum coming down?' And I say, 'Do you realise, if I do bring the gazillion tons of platinum, I'll be way too rich to figure out whether it would be down or up?'" Jain told Gizmodo. But he added that he sees mining rare earth elements and precious metals as a short-term project. In the long run, he's much interested in other possibilities.
So are Lewicki and Planetary Express.
First Target: Water and Orbital Fuel Stations
Despite the glittering appeal of bringing home expensive metals like gold, platinum, or rare earth elements, the entrepreneurs who plan to actually build the first mines in space get more excited about something that seems mundane by comparison: water.
Infrared view of water ice deposits on the Moon. Credit: NASA
"Water really is the exciting thing that is going to open up our ability to explore and develop space," said Lewicki. Space missions need water, and lots of it. Crews need it for drinking and hygiene, and deep space missions could use water for radiation shielding. And of course, it can be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel.
Today, space missions have to bring everything they will need from Earth — food, water, and enough fuel to reach a destination or maintain an orbit. Rocket launches are expensive, and just how expensive they are depends on how much mass is being launched. According to Lewicki, "Shipping one ton of water into space today costs more than $US60 million, and each human in space actually takes several tons per year, even with recycling, to support their activities in space."
But if missions could take on fresh water supplies, or refuel, in orbit, whether the water comes from the Moon or a near-Earth asteroid, they could launch less material from Earth, save costs, and potentially stay in space longer or travel further, according to companies like Moon Express and Planetary Resources.
"They can refuel themselves right in Earth orbit or in the Moon's orbit going forward. In some sense that would reduce the cost of the rockets because you don't have to carry all the fuel," said Jain. "Just like when you go from California to New York, you don't carry all the fuel, you refuel yourself on the way."
Lewicki said, "Just like we have gas stations and resources where we need to use them all across the United States and elsewhere in the world, we'll develop that same infrastructure in space, and we'll use the resources in space to help do that."
Monetizing the Moon
According to Jain, relatively ordinary moon rocks themselves could be worth the trip. "Just bringing the Moon rock itself to Earth, I think, as a novelty item can be just an amazing good business," he said.
Currently, NASA owns the only moon rocks ever carried home on a spaceship, but other pieces of the Moon have found their way to Earth over the last few million years. When large asteroids stuck the Moon, the impacts blasted chunks of the lunar surface out into space, and some of them struck a nearby innocent bystander — Earth. These rocks, called lunar meteorites, are worth a fortune.
According to Jain, "I mean, gold is about $US50 a gram. These lunar meteorites sell for anywhere between $US1,000 to $US10,000 a gram, so they are more like 20 times to 200 times pricier than gold, just the meteorites. And if you're able to bring the real Moon rocks, I suspect, in the marketplace, even a small quantity of Moon rocks would be worth a billion dollars."
Building in Space
Although returning precious metals to Earth is likely to be profitable, both companies seem to see space mining as a way to build infrastructure for space exploration in the long run. For example, water could provide fuel for vehicles and support human crews and possibly even plans. And metals from asteroids and the Moon could be the backbone of orbiting habitats or material for microgravity spacecraft factories.
"In the long term, you want to really keep the Moon resources and use them in situ; that means using the resources on the Moon for, essentially, living on the Moon, or creating some type of a stepping stone for deeper space exploration," said Jain. "What we're looking at is, in the long term or intermediate term, you want to be able to create a habitat on the Moon, and whether it's using the lava tubes or whether we are using, essentially, some type of biosphere, as long as we have water there, and we have a great soil, you should be able to essentially use a 3D printing lab right there, right on the Moon itself, to be able to create the habitat that we need."
Lewicki also envisions using 3D printing on a large scale, using materials that Planetary Resources hopes to mine from near-Earth asteroids, and he told Gizmodo that Planetary Resources is currently researching the technology with a company called 3D Systems.
"There's a lot of metal in an asteroid, just simple iron and nickel and cobalt, things that are actually useful for building space structures," he said.
Today's spacecraft, from satellites to deep space probes, are built on Earth, and that means they're built with a rocket launch in mind. "We actually have to build it to survive a very challenging and very difficult rocket launch, and have to fit it into the shroud on top of the rocket, and oftentimes, like with the Mars rovers or other things, we have to do all sorts of complicated things to fold it up and make it fit in the small space." By constructing spacecraft in orbit, using metals mined from a nearby asteroid, engineers could avoid those constraints.
Regulations and Claim-Jumping
For Jain, the prospect of larger-scale human presence in space raises interesting questions. "If you generate income from Moon, all on the Moon, is it taxable or is it not taxable? I finally concluded the government will always take their piece of the pie," he told Gizmodo.
And it's not at all clear yet how Earth's governments would address import taxes on materials brought to the planet from space, although Lewicki said that those regulations would probably develop along with the industry. "Just how we track ships coming in and out of port, we'll develop this industry in space as well," he said. There's some precedent already — when the crew of Apollo 11 returned from the Moon, one of their first stops was a customs checkpoint in Hawaii.
Other aspects of regulating the space mining industry are starting to come together. Earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the SPACE Act, which said, among other things, "Any asteroid resources obtained in outer space are the property of the entity that obtained such resources, which shall be entitled to all property rights thereto, consistent with applicable provisions of Federal law." The "applicable provisions of Federal law" line could pave the way for taxing income earned in space or materials brought down from orbit.
And claim-jumping may be just as illegal in space as it was in the Old West. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty provides for a 125-mile "non-interference" zone around any crewed spacecraft, for safety purposes. It's not yet clear whether that would apply to mining operations on the surface of a body like the Moon. But Jain sounds optimistic about the possibility; he told Gizmodo, "That, to me, is starting to get pretty close to the right of I am here, and it's mine."
Of course, the non-interference zone wouldn't apply, necessarily, to unmanned operations, which means that autonomous mining operations, like those planned by Planetary Resources, might not be covered, at least by that treaty. That remains to be determined.