Energy and Space: Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum
There is a substantial cadre of people and organizations that are very interested in the space industry. The whole industry is currently worth about $350 billion dollars, but Bank of America predicts 30 years will see an increase to nearly $3 trillion dollars.
While mostly concerned with Earth-orbiting satellites, a small portion of the industry is seriously considering the mining of asteroids on the assumption of a tremendous payback from the presence of metals and minerals in these floating mountains.
NASA has missions scheduled in 2021 and 2023 to explore 16 Psyche, an asteroid that contains a lot of resources. It is a 130 mile diameter nickel and iron asteroid thought to once be part of the core of a planet.
The material of this asteroid is similar to that at the center of the Earth, mostly iron with some nickel and traces of other metals. It’s the other metals (palladium, gold, etc.) some would be interested in, but the iron alone is, according to an article from USA Today, worth $10,000 quadrillion.
Let’s think about that. If you did manage to bring this space mountain into Earth orbit, nobody on Earth would buy a pound of it. It is iron, but it still needs to be melted down and turned into usable shapes, so it is essentially high grade ore. Iron ore is going for $70 per ton but this has been pre-smelted by the fiery center of a now-defunct planet so let’s give it a round figure of $100 per ton.
There is about 1,150,000 cubic miles of iron. A cubic mile of iron weighs about 36 billion tons and is worth $3.6 trillion dollars. So the whole caboodle is worth only $4,000 quadrillion, not $10,000 quadrillion. Hah! Gotcha, USA Today! Who cares. It’s a lot.
When you go to sell it, though, no one on Earth wants it. It currently costs $10,000 dollars per pound to get something into orbit and, therefore, $10,000 per pound to get something back to Earth. Your ton of high grade ore jumped to $20,000,100 per ton on the open market because of transportation cost. Buyers on Earth would rather pay the $70 per ton. I don’t blame them. You grifter!
There are only two options; sell it to someone that is going to use it for construction in space or figure out a cheaper means for getting it down to the Earth’s surface. Discussion of the latter will be the subject of another article.
No one is building enormous structures in orbit … yet. Your asteroid is like that 1000 acres the family owns outside of Phoenix. You know that someday it will be worth a lot when developers are ready for it. You need money now, though, to pay the bills. It doesn’t help that it cost nearly half a trillion dollars to get it back to Earth, and it is really your great grandchildren who will reap the benefits because it would take so long to move that much mass.
To give you a financial break let’s say the asteroid is not 16 Psych but 162173 Ryugu. This is a rock that comes within 6,000,000 miles of Earth (very close) in December of 2020. It is a more manageable size (1km diameter) and contains not just nickel and iron but cobalt, water, nitrogen, hydrogen, and ammonia as well. Here is a great site for picking out your asteroid. That’s where I found 16217 Ryugu.
A Falcon Heavy delivers your 30,000 pound asteroid retrieval robot spaceship named More In That Vein from Cape Canaveral into a high Earth orbit. More In That Vein unfolds its solar arrays and begins the electrolysis of water, burning the hydrogen and oxygen in thrusters.
It arrives at Ryugu six months later. The apparent rotational velocity of the surface of the asteroid is only one quarter mile per hour, no problem for the agile More In That Vein to match up to. The spaceship’s interface adaptor frame comes into contact with the surface at a pre-screened, structurally sound spot and sixteen explosive bolts penetrate the surface and expand slightly to provide a solid connection between the ship and the asteroid.
Robotic crawlers explore the asteroid for water and methane. Finding a major deposit of ice, it mines this to top the tanks off for the trip home and sets up an automated refill schedule. Meanwhile, More In That Vein has de-spun the asteroid to zero rotation and plotted the quickest journey back to Earth orbit. Its swivel-mounted engine swings to the calculated coordinates and fires up gently so as not to disturb some slight structural faults uncovered by prospector bots and heads back to Earth with its treasure.
The artificial intelligence of More In That Vein constantly adjusts the course of the asteroid, micromanaging it into place at the L5 Lagrange point of the Earth-Moon gravitational system. This is a stable point 239,000 miles from both the Earth and the Moon.
Yeah! But you still can’t sell anything. It is too expensive … wait … my phone. Let me get this. It’s for you. The Chinese want one million tons of shaped steel for a facility orbiting the Moon and a ten year option on three more million. Lucky you. Someone on Earth has just announced a breakthrough in fusion technology making it commercially feasible. The Chinese are going to build a Moon base and space elevator to extract hydrogen-3 (tritium) from the Moon’s surface and sell it on Earth to make those new fusion reactors purr like kittens.
Obviously, no one is going to retrieve an asteroid on speculation. The initial investment is too much to leave to chance. There will be a lot of wheeling and dealing. If you hear of a robot asteroid miner being launched you will soon hear of a major orbital space project being planned for the Earth or the Moon.
Energy and asteroid mining are intertwined. Whether its mining the Moon for hydrogen-3; or building giant mirrors to gather solar energy, convert it to microwaves, and send it back to Earth; or finding water to split into hydrogen and oxygen to burn for rocket fuel; the basic economic reason we will go into space will be for energy. There is simply so much of it, and it is so cheap there will be no way for the uber rich to funnel all of that energy wealth into their pockets. Their pants would fall down. Energy needs to be available in vast, non-polluting, inexpensive quantities for the lifestyles we are accustomed to on this fine blue marble to be maintained without detriment to the environment. The resources we extract from asteroids are an important part of that equation.