Trillions of Dollars Above our Heads: Asteroid Mining

There are plenty of ore-bearing asteroids above our heads. Accessing their resources presents a huge incentive for future space exploration. There is already a race among entrepreneurs to be the first space resource tycoons, though it may still take decades to land a mining probe on an asteroid.

One activity that will pave the way for asteroid mining is comprehensive mapping of asteroids’ contents. Some research suggests that in order for an asteroid to be worth mining, it should carry resources worth at least $1 billion. This means it’s important for space miners to identify which asteroids hold that much value before attempting any mining operations.

Cubesats may help in this process. In January 2018, the American space company Planetary Resources launched and tested its Arkyd-6 cubesat. However, as an indication of how uncertain the future of space mining is, Planetary Resources has since announced it is downsizing in the face of financial difficulties.

Filling Space spoke with two experts in space mining: Professor Matthew Weinzierl from the Harvard Business School; and Dr. Amanda J. Hughes, a postdoctoral researcher at the Liverpool John Moores University who also consults for the Asteroid Mining Corporation. They provided their thoughts on this nascent industry.

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What are the fundamental risks of economic development for asteroid mining even after initial technological obstacles are solved?

MW: The most important challenge for potential asteroid miners will be finding willing customers. Bringing mined material back to Earth will be prohibitively expensive in many if not most cases, so demand will likely have to come from space-based customers. Currently, they are very few in number. Other challenges include the risk that companies’ property rights will be controversial if they secure resources worth large amounts and, related, that it will be difficult to find sufficient investors to fund the high costs of these companies’ highly risky business models.

How much is the cost of designing and launching a cubesat to identify asteroid mining opportunities?

AJH: The Asteroid Mining Corporation is currently designing the Asteroid Prospecting Satellite 1 (APS1), its first observation technology demonstrator. It has an estimated cost of $3 million. The aim of APS1 is to identify platinum-rich metallic asteroids. The design consists of a cubesat with a telescope and optical instrumentation.

Do you think it is possible to employ low-cost small satellites to find suitable targets near earth for asteroid mining?

AJH: The main challenge with cubesats is in the design constraints that a small satellite inherently suffers from compared to larger satellites. Asteroids themselves do not emit light. They are viewed by observing sunlight that is reflected from their surfaces. As a result, they are faint objects and can be difficult to see. This is particularly so for asteroids that are nearer to earth and are often much smaller in size. Observing them requires larger telescopes and sensitive optical instrumentation, both of which can be challenging to fit onto a small cubesat.

Despite the challenges involved, cubesats are of particular interest as they offer exciting new opportunities in the field of space exploration. The costs of these cubesat missions are relatively low when compared to past space missions, allowing for the development of new approaches to space exploration that would not be possible with previous generations of satellite due to their incredibly high costs.