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Asteroid mining: Time to invest?

About the author

Richard is a science journalist and presenter of the Space Boffins podcast. He edits Space:UK magazine for the UK Space Agency, commentates on launches for the European Space Agency and is a science presenter for BBC radio. You can also follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

A close-up view of Eros taken by Nasa's Spitzer Space Telescope (Copyright: Nasa)

A close-up view of Eros taken by Nasa's Spitzer Space Telescope (Copyright: Nasa)

For one week only, our space columnist Richard Hollingham turns financial adviser* to tackle readers'** questions.

Hi Richard, I am a successful multibillionaire businessman searching for something new to change the world. It can’t be evil. Is asteroid mining the answer? Larry P

Well Larry P, with headlines such as billionaires say they will save humanity by mining asteroids you might be forgiven for thinking all the Earth’s problems are over. Not to mention your future investment decisions. Certainly it sounds like there is a lot of money to be made with plenty of benefits for all humanity. But are asteroids really worth the billions of dollars the promoters claim?

Planetary Resources has announced its plans to identify, prospect and mine asteroids and return the resources to Earth. The US company is targeting platinum-rich asteroids as well as rocks with a high-proportion of water. These are serious people, with serious money. So, you would expect their maths to add up.

“We’ve completed a detailed technology roadmap,” co-founder of the company Eric Anderson tells me. “We have outlined all the different bits and pieces that we need to develop to ensure we have low cost, highly reliable, high performance spacecraft to do everything from prospect to extract resources.”

Anderson says they aim to make money along the way by developing and selling new technology. At the moment, for instance, they’re working on a laser communications system for MIT and Nasa to improve communications in outer space. “Then we have a number of other contracts that are for pieces of our technology that are useful in other areas.”

All of which should help keep the business going for a few years. “Then we move onto the prospecting phase,” says Anderson. “We can characterise the top 20 or so asteroids for maybe four or five hundred million dollars, which is nothing in the mining industry.”

“A 30m (90ft) diameter platinum-rich asteroid is worth about 50 billion US dollars – you’re talking about something the size of a big house – if you can’t extract the resource from a rock the size of a house for less that 40 or 50 billion dollars, something’s wrong.”

Space refill

But not everyone agrees that asteroid mining makes financial sense. Editor of Spaceflight magazine and former Nasa scientist, David Baker, is more cautious in his calculations. A contributor to my podcast, he points out that this isn’t a new idea.

“I did some work on this sort of thing back in the 1970s when eco-planetary exploitation was all the rage,” says Baker. When he examined the costs of surveying, extraction, refining and getting the material back to Earth, it just didn’t add up. “The whole thing is like a slippery pig,” he says. “Just when you thought you had it, the thing gets away from you. You would certainly need a massive market to justify the outlay.”

So what is the market for the platinum metals – the bulk of the material that Planetary Resources hopes to mine?

An ounce of platinum will currently set you back more than $1550. Platinum group metals (including Ruthenium, Rhodium and Palladium) are becoming increasingly valuable for a range of industrial applications. But if you want to make money from mining them, does it make any sense to flood the market with extraterrestrial platinum, driving the price down?

“Nothing would make me happier,” exclaims Anderson. “We want to create a world of abundance. I believe the more we have that’s available for humans to create new machines and computers, new medical devices and renewable energy devices using platinum group metals that don’t cost $1500 an ounce, the better.”

This is all very well, but where’s the profit for investors like you Larry P? This is where much of the coverage of the Planetary Resources launch has rather missed the point. It does not take much digging to discover that this endeavour is more about mining resources in space, for use in space (it’s in big letters on their website). Or, in other words, interplanetary gas stations.

“We want to establish propellant stations around the Earth-Moon system and, quite frankly, around the Solar System,” Anderson explains. “So missions that launch from the surface of the Earth need not carry the fuel with them to go any further than the gas station.”

By his calculations, a 50m (150ft) wide asteroid that is made up of 20% ice would generate enough liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen to have launched every space shuttle mission in the history of the space shuttle programme. “That’s an enormous amount of fuel that becomes available.” Suddenly, human missions to Mars and beyond become much more feasible. “This has the ability to reduce the cost of deep space exploration by [factors of] 10 or 100.”

And, as we know from the oil industry on Earth, if you have got the monopoly on gas supplies, you can’t fail to make money. Although that does rather assume that there’s an interplanetary transport industry to support. No point in owning a space gas station, if no-one has any rockets to fill up.

So Larry P, investing in asteroid mining is definitely high risk. This unprecedented venture faces enormous technical and financial challenges. But talking to Anderson it’s clear that this is about a lot more than just profit: “At its very core, this is about creating an economy in the solar system…this is about creating a pathway for humans to colonise the solar system. That’s what it’s really about.”

Before we go, just time for one more question. James C of Los Angeles writes: Will there be blue aliens living on these asteroids?

No.

*Richard Hollingham is not a qualified space financial advisor

 **These are not actual reader’s questions. However. Richard is always keen to hear from you. If you would like to comment on this story or ask a question, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.