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First Survey of Commercially Viable Asteroids Estimates Only 10 Are Worth Mining 265

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the hope-they're-wrong dept.
KentuckyFC writes "In 2012, Richard Branson, Larry Page, and Eric Schmidt announced the launch of Planetary Resources, an ambitious start up with the goal of mining nearby asteroids for natural resources. Now an academic survey of ore-bearing asteroids estimates that only about 10 are likely to have resources worth mining. The new approach is to create a Drake-like equation that starts with the total number of asteroids and determines the percentage that are close enough to Earth, the percentage of these that contain valuable resources, the percentage of these large enough to pay for a space mining mission and so on. Each of these factors is filled with uncertainty but the bottom line is that when it comes to platinum group metals such as platinum, palladium, and iridium there are likely to be very few worth exploiting. That has significant implications for the future of space exploration. With so few commercially-viable space rocks out there, knowing which ones to pursue will be hugely valuable information, concludes the study. And that means the prospecting of asteroids is likely to become a highly secretive commercial endeavor in the not-too-distant future."
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First Survey of Commercially Viable Asteroids Estimates Only 10 Are Worth Mining

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  • by mythosaz (572040) on Wednesday January 08, 2014 @02:32PM (#45899957)

    ...someday we'll have the technology to shotgun baseball sized probes at the hunks of rock and figure it out. [Citation needed.]

    That said, the real question is what is the intersection of the availability of asteroid mining technology with the obsolescence of the need to mine these asteroids.

    • You bring up a good point mentioning the "obsolescence of the need to mine these asteroids," but I disagree that we'll hit that point for two reasons.

      1) Materials science keeps coming up with fascinating new things that we can do, but often requiring exotic (i.e., rare) elements. Sure, there's tons of things we can do with carbon, but there will always be things where other materials are needed. Unless you're going to argue that it will be cheaper to make elements on demand through nuclear reactions, new

      • by bobbied (2522392)

        . (And then there's the environmental advantage of mining asteroids over terrestrial mining.)

        What, pray tell, might the advantage be? I dare say that creating a rocket and fuel to launch tones of stuff far enough into space to reach an asteroid is going to be pretty rough on the local environment. Then add the ability to return at least some recovered mass and I'm thinking we are nowhere near an environmental wash for quite some time.

        • Check out Australia's iron mining for a reasonable example of what he meant. Launching "stuff" will get progressively easier (as it is doing right now). Building the infrastructure is the expensive part. Returning materials can be done with cheap drogue shoots. Environmental wash could easily be one generation away.
        • by EdZ (755139)

          I dare say that creating a rocket and fuel to launch tones of stuff far enough into space to reach an asteroid is going to be pretty rough on the local environment.

          Don't forget that after a handful of mission to metal-rich asteroids and water-rich asteroids, you have all the materials needed to assemble further missions in orbit. Much cheaper than lofting all that stuff out of Earth's gravity well.

    • Really bad idea. If you make them baseball sized, they'll inevitably precipitate back to Earth.

  • Uncertainty (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Russ1642 (1087959) on Wednesday January 08, 2014 @02:32PM (#45899959)

    This kind of estimating may have an order of magnitude error. So it could easily be only 1 asteroid worth mining. Let the asteroid war begin!

    • by Trepidity (597)

      Recent measurements estimate that 10 +/- 20 asteroids may be commercially viable to mine!

      • by shadowrat (1069614) on Wednesday January 08, 2014 @03:07PM (#45900327)

        Recent measurements estimate that 10 +/- 20 asteroids may be commercially viable to mine!

        so there could be -10 asteroids worth mining? Somebody has to make the 10 asteroids first?

        • by bobbied (2522392)

          Somebody has to make the 10 asteroids first?

          Oh for MOD points! LOL..

          I think you hit the problem square on. There is a LARGE chance that mining asteroids will never be viable.

        • First you need to split up larger asteroids. The most effective strategy is to position your ship in a corner.

          • by Megane (129182)

            The problem is that once you get them split up small enough, they're all whizzing around and there are a lot more that can hit you. And even if you get them, eventually some alien flying saucers get pissed off and start shooting lasers at you.

            The only way to win is not to play.

        • by Mitreya (579078)

          so there could be -10 asteroids worth mining?

          These are the Soviet Russia asteroids.

          Because in Soviet Russia, the asteroids mine you!

        • I've heard of of an asteroid in near earth orbit, filled with oxygen and useful industrial materials. It's apparently called "ISS" which must be some sort of ancient Babylonian goddess or something.

        • by icebike (68054)

          so there could be -10 asteroids worth mining? Somebody has to make the 10 asteroids first?

          Think of the tax write-offs!!! Negative Revenue! Negative Profit! Negative Inventory! Tax attorney Nirvana!

        • by danlip (737336)

          All of which will make a WOOSH sound as they pass over your head.

    • Re:Uncertainty (Score:4, Interesting)

      by VernonNemitz (581327) on Wednesday January 08, 2014 @03:16PM (#45900415) Journal
      I prefer to think that the definition of what is "valuable" is subject to change. This idea [halfbakery.com] describes a kind of "overview" regarding converting just about anything into a pile of resources. The main cost is Energy. And in space, solar energy can be very cheap. IF they bother to put a solar-power station into Space, that is, with the goal not of using it to beam energy to Earth, but to use it to "smelt" (for want of a more precise word) space rocks down into useful oxygen, silicon, aluminum, iron, magnesium, etc. Then it won't matter in the least if one of those space rocks happens to be full of platinum.
      • More to the point, they are basing this judgement on what is commercially viable FOR INVESTORS ON EARTH to mine. Asteroid mining has never been about how commercial competitive it would be versus mining the same materials from the Earth. Rather, asteroid mining has always been suggested as a way to kick-start space industry, because Earth-to-orbit fuel costs are so amazingly high. Sure you could grab some huge chunk of platinum from deep space and drop it down into Earth's gravity well to be harvested by p

    • by icebike (68054)

      This kind of estimating may have an order of magnitude error. So it could easily be only 1 asteroid worth mining. Let the asteroid war begin!

      Four guys doing back of the envelope calculations does not justify any mad rush to start mining.

      Even the summary ends with a totally unwarranted suggestion:

      With so few commercially-viable space rocks out there, knowing which ones to pursue will be hugely valuable information, concludes the study. And that means the prospecting of asteroids is likely to become a highly secretive commercial endeavor in the not-too-distant future."

      The submitter suggests that since there are so few valuable asteroids and since its (currently) impossible to mine them, that a commercial mad rush to do so is bound to start any minute now.

      That is just daft.

  • Drake (Score:5, Insightful)

    by wiredlogic (135348) on Wednesday January 08, 2014 @02:33PM (#45899963)

    And much like the Drake equation if even one of the inputs is a WAG the final result is meaningless.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      And much like the Drake equation since nearly all of the inputs are WAGes the final result is meaningless.

      FTFE (Fixed that for everyone)

      • by TheCarp (96830)

        Course I did a little wikipedia reading and even the SETI folks say the Drake equation shouldn't really be looked at as a real equation that produces a real result:

        Therefore, the SETI League states that the importance of the Drake equation is not in the solving, but rather in the contemplation.[1] It may be more useful to think of it as a series of questions framed as a numbers game.[8][10] The equation is quite useful for its intended application, which is to summarize all the various concepts which scient

    • What does "WAG" stand for? The only thing I can find is "wives and girlfriends" which doesn't seem to make much sense in context.

  • Why just look near Earth? Won't we want to build stuff far away from Earth too? Seems like having building supplies near Jupiter might be useful and a lot cheaper than bring them with.

    • by Whorhay (1319089)

      Exactly, they seem to only be looking at it in terms of bringing materials down to Earth's surface. The biggest boon of this kind of work is that it will finally mean having access to inexpensive, relatively speaking, materials for construction in space and possibly on other planetary bodies.

      • With what energy? Short of fission or fusion, how exactly do you plan on smelting ore in space (let alone forge it)?! Perhaps fusion in zero-G might make it easier, but who knows at this point. It's not being done now.

        • by gbjbaanb (229885)

          I don't know, but there's a lot of solar energy in space that doesn't get reduced by an atmosphere. That said, why not fusion - Voyager was powered by a little plutonium, so its not like we can't send the required materials up there.

          Chances are we'll be needing a moonbase before we get to the asteroids for anything other than science.

          • by rhook (943951)

            The amount of available solar energy decreases fast the further away from the Sun you get. This is why most of the planets are cold and lifeless. Jupiter only receives 1/27 the amount of sunlight that the Earth does.

            • Use gravity. We've been slingshotting satellites for decades. Just sling an asteroid towards Mercury where you built that big solar powered smelter and then slingshot the results back to Earth.

              If you're going to build an industry, think in terms of an entire industry, not just the pieces.

              Just for clarity, from Juipiter -> Neptune are gas giants and most likely wouldn't have life even if they were warm.
          • by bobbied (2522392)

            I That said, why not fusion - Voyager was powered by a little plutonium, so its not like we can't send the required materials up there.

            Oh yea, that's a great idea. Let's put a nuke power plant into space. Do you know how much these things weigh when you add the necessary shielding so that humans can approach the thing? You don't have to shield the whole thing, like here on earth, but it's still going to be a lot of mass.

            BTW, Voyager 1 &2 are powered using HEAT which is produced by radioactive decay, which is really not fusion in the chain reaction sense.

            • by Guspaz (556486)

              Not really. There are designs out there for pretty darned light reactors. The soviets had some designs specifically intended for space that were pretty light, TOPAZ-2 was half a ton, and I read about a Los Alamos design that was half that. Current nuclear reactors are generally not optimized for weight. Naval reactors are optimized for size.

              Also, why would you want or need to approach a nuclear reactor in space? Shielding wouldn't be light, but you don't need to fully shield the reactor. You put shielding t

              • by bobbied (2522392)

                The reasons for not using nuclear power in space are political, not technological.

                I wouldn't say that, the reasons are environmental and economic, with political coming up last on the list.

                But don't downplay the technical issues either. Sufficient shielding for even the crew and work areas for a reactor that can produce enough energy to smelt metals won't be light. TOPAZ-2 was about 1,000 Lbs for 2 Kw of power and was NOT built for flying next to humans. Getting a pound of mass out of earth orbit is an expensive thing to do in terms of pounds of fuel needed and the vehicle to launch

                • by careysub (976506)

                  The reasons for not using nuclear power in space are political, not technological.

                  ... Sufficient shielding for even the crew and work areas for a reactor that can produce enough energy to smelt metals won't be light...

                  Umm. What crew and work areas?

                  Asteroid mining is going to be done by robots, or it won't be done at all. The enormous cost difference between putting a robot probe in space vs putting a man who is pretty much dead weight is well known. A robot can operate for a decade unattended (Opportunity, still operating on Mars, will hit this mark in three weeks time). Asteroid mining is tailor-made for robots who have no use for a stinking atmosphere or gravity.

        • With fission and fusion. Why are you excluding them?

        • by Baloroth (2370816)

          With what energy? Short of fission or fusion, how exactly do you plan on smelting ore in space (let alone forge it)?! Perhaps fusion in zero-G might make it easier, but who knows at this point. It's not being done now.

          Solar panels. Solar energy is quite efficient in space, especially when you don't have to worry about things like the Earth getting in the way of the sun. Granted, solar panels are less effective out in the asteroid belt, but it's still a viable method.

          • by CreatureComfort (741652) on Wednesday January 08, 2014 @03:31PM (#45900531)
            Why waste time with that? For smelting, pretty much all you need is a good fresnel lens [instructables.com].
          • by bobbied (2522392)

            For smelting metals, I'd figure some mirrors would be more efficient than solar panels. Let's you do away with the inefficiencies of converting light into electricity and then into heat. I'm guessing that mirrors would be lighter too.

          • by HiThere (15173)

            Solar panels are foolish for that application. Use a large curved mirror. If you spin it right, it could be quite thin, so even aluminized mylar would work, until the radiation destroyed it. Aluminum foil would work indefinitely. (You need weights around the rim, and some weak springs, to ensure that it folds out into the right shape. Not difficult. IIRC, it's already been done to test out a solar sail.)

            Note that the mirror would be a bit better if it were thicker, and you could use a half-cylinder an

        • With what energy?

          Note the big ball of light in the sky.

          It develops about 1.3 KW/m^2 above the atmosphere. So a parabolic mirror 2km across should give you ~4 GW at the focus.

          If you can't melt an asteroid with that much heat available, you've got no business going into space.

    • by Nethemas the Great (909900) on Wednesday January 08, 2014 @03:01PM (#45900253)
      The 10 asteroids idea is based upon the premise that the resources are going intended for consumption on Earth. For the first iteration of things this only makes sense. There's no benefit to Earth based investors in resources with delta-v requirements effectively locking them to the vicinity of the Jovian system. Nor is there any ROI on resources even from NEOs that isn't in the Platinum group. Even in iteration 2 we'll still be looking at NEOs as the resources will be required for Earth orbiting projects.
      • There's no benefit to Earth based investors in resources with delta-v requirements effectively locking them to the vicinity of the Jovian system. Nor is there any ROI on resources even from NEOs that isn't in the Platinum group. Even in iteration 2 we'll still be looking at NEOs as the resources will be required for Earth orbiting projects.

        This is because you humans wasted forty fucking years not putting a space habitat on the moon, mars, etc. A big chunk of iron might be pretty damn useful off-world without Earth's gravity tax or the prospecting / mining task of the moon or Mars. When you consider the military applications of an arsenal of asteroids (Chelyabinsk was 20-30 times Hiroshima, just didn't touch ground), it pisses all over your valuations. Compare this to valuation of radio-active substances pre-nuclear bomb.

        Whomever sets up ba

  • by Anonymous Coward

    As anyone in mining can tell you, 'ore' is defined as mineral resources that can be mined at a profit. Binghman Canyon mine, for example, ran out of ore a few years ago, but then regained ore after they build a conveyer belt that let them move material more efficiently.

    The number of asteroids that are 'ore' depends on the cost of mining and the price of metal, both of which are subject to change. The cost of mining, especially, is basically unknown at this point, given that we've never done it.

  • Star Wars economy (Score:5, Interesting)

    by crow (16139) on Wednesday January 08, 2014 @02:39PM (#45900045) Homepage Journal

    What we need for this to work is essentially the Star Wars economy. Wonder how they built the Death Star and all those massive ships? Droids. If we can launch something up there that can harvest enough materials and build what it needs up there to keep going, then it just takes one launch. It sends robots to the right asteroid. They extract metals, build more robots, build space ships, go to other asteroids, and keep repeating the process. Occasionally they send shipments back home.

    We're a long ways away from that level of technology, but I don't think there's anything preventing us from getting there.

    For energy, the robots could either build nuclear or solar power systems.

    For manufacturing, 3-D printing is likely an enabling technology. It needs to advance way beyond where it is now, such as making full computers.

    Refining the raw materials found on the asteroids is another obstacle.

    I would guess it's 50 to 100 years out.

  • Bad Assumptions (Score:4, Informative)

    by HornWumpus (783565) on Wednesday January 08, 2014 @02:39PM (#45900047)

    These numbers are highly speculative and reflect bad assumptions.

    The main bad assumption: That one would mine an asteroid for any one resource. Platinum/water etc.

    Much more likely is mining whatever is there and refining it into things useful in space, at least at first. Particularly obvious is making fuel from water, but any asteroid with ice will likely also have useful metal.

    • Re:Bad Assumptions (Score:4, Interesting)

      by cusco (717999) <brian.bixby@COWgmail.com minus herbivore> on Wednesday January 08, 2014 @03:03PM (#45900279)

      Just the sheer mass of an asteroid is valuable, first for radiation protection and also for reaction mass. Strap a small nuclear reactor on a big ingot of whatever you've mined, feed slag into a NERVA-type engine, and let the resulting plasma propel your product to its destination.

    • by mdielmann (514750)

      Yeah, that was my base assumption. Just the $/kg to get anything into orbit makes it more valuable if it's already out of our gravity well. There just aren't that many things on earth that we value at greater than $1400/kg, and most of those don't count for a lot of the weight being sent up. Of course, you have to factor in the transportation cost to get it where you want it, but there are a number of options in that area, too (painting one side of an asteroid a different color can change its orbit). Im

  • Profit (Score:5, Interesting)

    by iONiUM (530420) on Wednesday January 08, 2014 @02:42PM (#45900081) Homepage Journal
    1. Step 1. Pay an academic entity to release a study saying that it's not worth mining asteroids, even if it is
    2. Step 2. In the meantime, get ready to mine asteroids
    3. Step 3. Start mining asteroids while everyone else isn't
    4. Step 4. Profit
    • Re:Profit (Score:5, Funny)

      by Oligonicella (659917) on Wednesday January 08, 2014 @04:12PM (#45900901)
      Son of a bitch, an actual step three.
    • Not only that, the yield of such intrinsic metals on these asteriods may literally be a thousand times higher than current yields here.

      Of course, very high yields of such metals can be very detrimental to the market because t he whole premise of mining is to have low availability to make extreme mining ventures viable.. Why continue spending billions of dollars in mining palladium, iridium, if the value drops to that of gold prices?

  • by bob_super (3391281) on Wednesday January 08, 2014 @02:48PM (#45900147)

    ... most rocks have little commercial value.

    Just because they have yet to get trapped by the earth's gravity well doesn't mean that most asteroids (especially the ones with the right orbits to mine) are fundamentally different in composition from what we find in the earth's crust.

  • The most precious mineral you can get from an asteroid is dihydrogen monoxide. Although common on Earth, in space this is a precious substance with myriad uses.
    • That assumes there's a buyer. Perhaps one day China might be one, but for now we're stuck with a chicken and egg type problem. This is why they're first going for the pragmatic strategy of targeting the Platinum group which might actually have a chance at yielding ROI even though they'll be shipping it back to Earth's surface.
    • by iggymanz (596061)

      most precious? space is full of that shit, a comet is just a dirty iceball.

      the oort cloud goes from about 0.08 lightyears to .8 light years out, and contains trillions of water blobs larger than 1 km in diameter (also various ammonia and methane and other hydrocarbon ones)

  • The value of information is going to be, at most, the value of the materials contained on the asteroid minus the cost of mining them. That means if there's a 5% ROI mining asteroids and you can get $100 million return out of the asteroid, then the value of information is going to be at most $100 million to mine a $2 billion asteroid.

    Then subtract the risk. Let's say that, accounting for mission failures, failure to properly assess the asteroid's value (both finding more than expected and finding much l

    • by a1cypher (619776)

      It's interesting enough that I might read it without a plot. I think if you just were to start writing about the possible future world stuff and the progression from now to then, you would have a plot. Think about the likely conflicts that might arise, the corporations that would take advantage of new technologies, and the likely response of governments and society to these changes and it could write itself.

      I find this far more interesting Sci-fi than some of the crap you see on TV now a days with alien

    • by careysub (976506)

      ... I want to be a sci-fi writer; I can world-build fantasy and sci-fi, but I can't come up with plot. They've all been done; I'd feel like I'm copying someone else--anyone else--everyone else!

      Welcome to literature. The "novelty story" phase of SF could not last forever - eventually writers will be judged solely by the quality of their writing in whatever genre the write. Just like the rest of literature - where all plots have also already been done. But that does not mean someone cannot write a better version with better characters and prose, and use the SF gimmicks in new and better combinations.

      Consider Patrick O'Brien. Hadn't all the "sea tales" already been done by C. S. Forester and predec

  • If you think of asteroids as widely scattered mountains scattered through the solar system, they are going to vary as mountains do on Earth. Most are heaps of ordinary rock and ice. Some have more minerals, some less. A very few might have a lot of resources. But even the richest asteroid is very hard to get to compared to any mountain on Earth.

  • In the future, perhaps a long time from now, there will be orders of monks living beyond earth and they will predictably dwell on monasteroids.
  • by Araes (1177047) on Wednesday January 08, 2014 @03:29PM (#45900507) Homepage

    In many ways, these equations are almost worse than useless. For years, the Drake Eq. gave everyone the impression there were 1 or 2 other planets in the whole universe that could support life, and reinforced the whole contingent for which space exploration is never a "cost effective" endeavor. Then we found out "oh, wait, all our guesses were wildly pessemistic." They get filled with extrapolated numbers about a place we've only begun to tip-toe into and then make dire predictions.

    Some are also just wrong. For example, he uses 4.5 km/s delta-V but that doesn't even cover the maxima for Liquid Fuel Rockets (7 to 9 km/s). If you start to approach tech like Electrostatic or Hall Effect (Ion) Thrusters you get up into numbers more like 50-100 km/s, which would probably multiply his 10 number by a bit (most of the Oort Cloud becomes available over time).

    There's just so much fuzziness here its hard to find the use in it.

    • The Drake equation was meant to be a rule of thumb not unavoidable fact. The factors were changed as more data became available because frankly scientists use empirical data and not wild guesses. For example scientists have long suspected typical solar systems had planets; the problem was proving that they did. The types of planets is another issue; gas giants are easier to detect because of their size but smaller rocky planets may be more plentiful for all we know.
      • Rules of thumb usually come close to reality, that's why they're used. The Drake equation is so loose it yields a **huge** range, not narrow. As a list of variables to consider, fine, but it is worthless as a rule of thumb, otherwise it would yield close results to the earlier numbers with our current knowledge and it doesn't.
  • by gmuslera (3436) on Wednesday January 08, 2014 @03:36PM (#45900577) Homepage Journal
    The kind of investment needed to mine a single asteroid put a limit of what is viable and what is not, at least in the most straightforward way (launch a rocket to that asteroid, mine it, send the materials to earth, game over). But can that limit be lowered changing the goal? What instead of searching for a platinum rich asteroid the goal is iron or needed materials (fuel?) ones to build/resuply ships already in the asteroid belt, would that initial investment raise the bar in what is profitable and what not? One of the biggest costs should be the initial launch of the ships from Earth, where every pound matters.
  • >> And that means the prospecting of asteroids is likely to become a highly secretive commercial endeavor in the not-too-distant future.

    Given the large numbers of even hobby astronomers, the chances of sneaking a payload into space are pretty small. (See also: X37).

  • This is just random low grade physics fantasy pondering:
    Once you can get a hold of an asteroid, you have a place from which you can exert a force. So 2 things can happen:

    You can use force to chuck little pieces of asteroid back towards Earth to be collected "somehow"
    You can jump from asteroid to asteroid.
    All this would take precise calculations, but it doesn't suffer from "weak thrust ion drives", "weak solar sails", or "limited conventional thrusters." If you do your math calculations correct to jum
  • When companies and research teams look at things like asteroid mining, or space exploitation in general, they tend to look at thing purely from an monetary perspective. So, the "economics" if you will.

    This, by and large is the outlook most folks have. Indeed, it is our nature to take the low hanging fruit without any thought to future ramifications.

    The conversation should not be one of strictly money though. Instead, they should look at the long term effects of striping our planet of natural resources.
    In th

    • Your point is good and I have a previous post in this topic agreeing with you. I would point out here that you should be aiming your convictions at the environmentalists, not business. They are the ones pulling very hard on the reins of progress and without that, we *cannot* take those practices off-planet.

      Look at them this way, their "economics" simply replaces currency and goods with their personal wonderment and almost religious zeal for natural "purity". So, like some (not all) CEOs, anything tha
  • I'm going with Ceres and Vesta. You guys can have the other ones.

  • A space elevator would change the economic equation quite a bit and make a lot more of them viable.

  • Its garbage equation that has ZERO scientific value.

    End of discussion.

  • Why? Do some of them contain bitcoins?

  • Let the government mine the least desirable asteroids for the public good. Leave the most profitable ones for the corporations to mine. I am sure the corporations would be happy to chip in to help pay for it with taxes...

  • The problem with this study is that it presumes that the materials collected will be used on earth. The idea behind Planetary Resources is that they would be used in space.

    A bottle of water costs what? $1 maybe $2. The cost to put that bottle of water into space can range from $1,000 to $10,000. If Planetary Resources can find some asteroids with ice, extracting the water is not that difficult a task. The problem is getting the machine for mining into place because putting things into orbit is so crazy ex

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