Asteroid Mining: Economic and Ecological Motivations

“There is simply not enough platinum and rhodium
going round on this planet to satisfy the collective
demand of automotive emission-control systems.”
Johannes W. Schwank (2007)
University of Michigan

We are at the start of an epochal transformation of human industry.

To date, all material inputs for all productive technologies have been extracted from Earth. For the first time, we can now imagine, design, and construct the tools and systems that will allow us to move from our current, limited terrestrial resource base to an ever expanding, extraterrestrial resource base.

This paradigm shift in industrial processes will enable hitherto unattainable levels of well being for human communities on Earth as well as the emergence of new economies and ecologies off planet.

There are compelling economic and environmental arguments for incorporating asteroid mineral wealth into the fabric of human society.

The economic argument for asteroid mining is straightforward. There is substantial demand for several metals that asteroids can supply. Rudimentary versions of the production technologies that can link extraterrestrial supply with terrestrial demand have been developed and deployed. (The Hayabusa is due to return mineral samples from near-Earth asteroid 25143 Itokawa in 2010.) The costs to advance these production technologies are dropping, due to ongoing progress in computing systems and autonomous robotics and to the rise of commercial space flight.

Environmentally, it makes more sense to grind up a lifeless asteroid than a living mountain to secure useful metals. In addition, by a fluke of celestial evolution, many asteroids are particularly rich in the platinum group metals (PGMs), which are required for the automotive catalytic converters of today and the clean burning hydrogen fuel cells of tomorrow.

The platinum group metals available at the Earth’s surface are quite limited. PGMs top the list of “most critical minerals” in a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences. More than three-quarters of the world’s supply of platinum—and more than 85% of the rhodium—comes from a single geological feature, the Bushveld igneous complex, in South Africa. Prices for platinum and rhodium reached record highs earlier this year, driven by market demand for industrial uses coupled with investor demand for platinum-based exchange traded funds (ETFs). Over the next few decades, demand is expected to outstrip supply, according to researchers in the U.S., Japan, and The Netherlands. Their econometric models show that terrestrial reserves of platinum could be exhausted by mid-century.

The two near-Earth asteroid rendezvous missions that have been launched—the NEAR mission to 433 Eros, and the Hayabusa mission—cost less than $200,000 each. The first demonstration asteroid mining mission may cost a billion dollars, roughly equivalent to a single Space Shuttle flight. But the potential return value of a single 500-meter asteroid is in the tens of billions of dollarsfor the platinum group metals alone. After the PGMs are extracted, tons of iron, nickel, and other useful materials will remain that can be used to build structures in space, such as space-based solar power systems, that may in time allow us to “establish ourselves as a space-faring civilization” (Peter Diamandis 2008). Mining efforts that return a tiny fraction of unprocessed asteroid material for laboratory study could also lead to significant advances in our understanding of the galaxy and the early solar system.

More than 5,000 near-Earth asteroids have already been detected. More than 10% of these are easier to reach than the moon. New telescopes (such as Pan-STARRS and the LSST) are expected to detect more than 500,000 NEAs over the next 15 years, according to a new report from the Association of Space Explorers. This report, which will be presented to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in February 2009, focuses on mitigating the threat of an asteroid impact. Near-Earth asteroids present a mixed blessing: They are potentially the most dangerous of celestial objects and simultaneously the most accessible sources of new wealth in the solar system.

Among other projects, Abundant Planet is working to identify the most attractive asteroid opportunities from the growing multitude of potential targets, so that we may bring this new wealth to Earth and begin to expand the human experiment beyond the home planet.