By David Robinson
The next future of mining is out of this world
Business has to think ahead, but how far? Ten years? Fifty? One hundred?
In ten years, mining will have changed very little. More electronics, more automated vehicles, pressure to cut emissions, more robots, a few nuclear-powered refineries perhaps. Nothing very exciting. There is no way to guess how we will get the metals we need in a hundred years.
But in fifty years a revolution will be under way. Asteroid mining will provide a growing fraction of the metals we use, and we may be talking about the end of mining on earth. That could make long-run planning a bit tricky for mining supply companies.
Some supply companies have begun their transition already. WGM claims to be Canada’s longest running independent firm of geological and mining consultants. The company has been consulting on space mining for over 20 years. It has just done a conceptual study of Lunar Water Mining. The space-based market for water, it says, will be worth US$206 billion over the next 30 years. Water on the moon will go for 5000 times the wholesale price of beer on earth.
NASA estimates that value of the gold, iron, nickel, water base metals and other elements that can be recovered from the asteroid belt could be worth over $700 quintillion. That's $100 billion U.S. for every person on Earth! No wonder Neil deGrasse Tyson believes that the first trillionaire will be an asteroid mining mogul.
Companies are already preparing to mine asteroids. Planetary Resources, funded by Larry Page, chief executive of Google’s parent company, Eric Schmidt of Alphabet; and Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, has been a leader. Another, Deep Space Industries, had $10 million in sales in 2018 and was planning a launch for 2020. Both Deep Space and Planetary have been bought by larger companies with more diverse space businesses. In the tech sector successful start-ups are gobbled up by bigger, slower fish.
Space mining technology is developing rapidly. NASA has lab-tested optical mining (basically sticking an asteroid in a bag and drilling with sunlight. There is lots of free sunlight in space. ) Japan’s Hayabusa2 dropped tiny hopping robot rovers and a small bomb on asteroid Ryugu. That single small asteroid has an estimated value of $30 billion. Japan also has at least one space-mining supply company company, ispace, that specializes in robotic rovers weighing just 4 kg that could be used for asteroid exploration.
We are still decades away from the day when semi-automated operations harvest the ridiculous amounts of platinum, gold, diamonds, and rare earth metals just waiting out in space. It will happen, though, and it will transform the world economy.
Solar power satellites like the one China is working on could reliably supply 2,000 gigawatts — or over 1,000 times more power than the largest solar farm currently in existence. Optimists think they could wipe out the fossil fuel industry within a decade once they can source materials from asteroids or the moon. Cheap energy has been the foundation of our growing wealth.
It is about to get cheaper. According to John Mankins, a former NASA scientist, “We're looking at a 20-year window to completely replace human civilization's power infrastructure.”
It isn’t just the energy sector that will be transformed. The terrestrial steel industry could be reduced to a recycling industry, out-competed by new steel from high grade asteroid-sourced ore that uses no fossil fuel and draws no energy from any earthly source.
Financial impacts will be dramatic. There will be massive investment in asteroid mining and in building the infrastructure to support it. Some analysts expect a century long economic boom. Investors and entrepreneurs will be racing to be the first trillionaires.
Mining supply companies want to get in on selling space-age picks and shovels to space age prospectors, might start by designing and building robots for the coming gold rush in space. Prospectors and miners will need a whole range of lightweight sensors, drills and control technologies. They will need autonomous machines and tele-robotics, and materials handling equipment. Companies that succeed will be sending their intellectual property into space, then reapplying it on earth.