Falcon Heavy And Asteroid Mining

Martin Elvis says it’s a game changer. BFR would be even more so. But this (from the story’s author) is a little silly:

Also, I feel like launching all of those rockets and processing the metals can’t be good for the environment.

The metals would be processed in space. The whole point of this is to start to move industry off the planet, which would be great for the environment. He should try thinking, and doing some actually analysis, rather than going on feels.

[Tuesday-morning update]

This seems related, sort of: Planetary Resources has a funding shortfall.

Seems like those billionaires who supposedly founded it don’t actually have that much faith in the venture.

26 thoughts on “Falcon Heavy And Asteroid Mining”

  1. “Falcon Heavy May Have Drastically Increased the Number of Asteroids We Can Mine” – It sure did. The number is currently zero, until we have cheap access to space. Falcon Heavy brings that nearer.
    The rest of the calculations in the article are irrelevant as far as I can see.

    One of the comments, “What does the market value, currently based on scarcity, become? Doesn’t it suddenly become worthless unless someone with lots of guns is there to control the supply? It would seem that there’s no real economic value in such a venture.” doesn’t seem to understand the principle of supply and demand. Yes, the price will fall. However, based on the potential demand curve, the suppliers can make a profit based on the whole area under the curve till it reaches their costs. That can be an enormous profit.
    But beyond that, the fact that a much larger demand for that product is being met is a profit for everyone else in the world. We now have much more of what we needed than we had before.

    1. Another comment was: So… what happens if we suddenly have a billion tons of gold (or any other rare commodity), in orbit around our planet, easily accessible in the scheme of things?

      If they taught history in school, this guy would immediately see a parallel with the arrival of Spanish gold and silver in Europe. Inflation and Tulip Mania were a result.

        1. Andrew, I misread your comment. I agree that today gold is considered a commodity, but gold is still a currency. Central banks do purchase it. If the fiat currency collapses, gold will be the standard. If we flood the market with a billion tons of gold, it will certainly cause inflation.

    2. BFR/BFS dramatically changes this but having something in space isn’t the same as having it on Earth. How does it get down to Earth and when would the owner decide to ship it?

      It isn’t in the best interest of asteroid miners to flood the market and there might be a strong distinction between a space based market and an Earth market.

      The timelines for asteroid mining are very long right now, so it seems likely that stock would be sold over a period of time so that operations could be supported until the next delivery from the mining ships.

  2. Value based on scarcity doesn’t quite mean what some people seem to think it means. Silicon is the most common solid on earth, but until somebody gathers it up and does something with it, it isn’t usable for anything but ephemeral beach ornaments.

    The usable form of the material is where scarcity matters, not necessarily of the material itself.

    1. There were lots of comments like “PV will be expensive because it needs much silicon, which costs $, therefore we need to do alternative technology .”

      But the ubiquity of silicon means the cost is driven entirely by the process to purify it, and processes can improve up to actual physical limits. The cost of poly-Si has fallen a lot over the years, and can probably fall more.

  3. In addition to cheap access to space, we need cheap delta-v at the asteroid. My vote is for nuclear thermal, assuming the asteroid has some element which is 1) not in demand and 2) vaporizable.

  4. Has anyone read John Ringo’s Troy Rising books? How feasible is what he does with asteroids in the books. If you haven’t read it, what he does is launches tons of mirrors into space to heat up asteroids. They spin the asteroids as they melt them and then the metals sort by density with the most dense metal in the center.

    I’m just a space enthusiast; I’m a musician by training. The success of Falcon Heavy and the coming of BFR has me very excited about all of this.

    1. I haven’t read Ringo’s Troy Rising stuff. I’ll put them on my list. I liked Ringo’s Honorverse collaborations with David Weber.

      On the subject of asteroid refining, I think it would need to be done in multiple stages. First, would be to wrap up the asteroid in a retort or bag of some kind and heat it, maybe with microwaves, to drive out all the volatiles. One of these – almost certainly the dominant one of these – would be water, which, as others have noted, is likely to be the most immediately valuable commodity minable in space.

      After the asteroid has been thoroughly baked dry, the rest could be spun up and placed in the focus of a very large, and very deep, parabolic reflector. The reflector would need to be large as solar flux is only 10% – 15% as strong as in Earth-orbital and cis-lunar space at Asteroid Belt distances. It would need to be deep to recapture as much as possible of the black body re-radiated energy from the “spit-roasting” asteroid.

      A second reason the reflector would need to be large is that black body re-radiation losses increase with temperature so the reflector would have to be able to heat at least parts of the asteroid mass up to the melting points of nickel and iron – 1,726 and 1,811 degrees K., respectively.

      Which brings us to another complication. Iron and nickel both boil at temperatures hundreds of degrees Kelvin below the temperature at which Tungsten merely melts. So asteroid refinement via spin-melting might need to be done in multiple stages that end at a series of ascending temperatures.

      Between heatings, the reflector would need to be moved back so the current surface crust of the asteroid could be peeled off. Given that the asteroidal mass would already be spinning, such peeling presents its own complications.

      The large disparity in the melting points of potentially significant metallic and metallic-based-compound contributors to asteroidal masses might make a series of successively larger such parabolic reflectors desirable to allow for a reasonable processing flow. These could, perhaps, be nested like measuring spoons for transport from one target asteroid to another and redeployed upon arrival.

      The first heat would probably serve to concentrate light metal oxides and some light carbon-based compounds (e.g., silicon carbide) on the surface in a form akin to that of furnace slag from terrestrial refining processes. Pure light metals, silicon and carbon would require extensive post-processing from this state to one of useful purity. Industrial-scale processes akin to terrestrial zone refining and mass spectroscopy would likely figure prominently among the needed steps.

      The second – or maybe some higher-numbered – heat would melt nickel and iron. Inside the nickel and iron shell would be a mixture of unmelted grains of heavier metals and heavy metal oxides and carbides. Iron and nickel, to the extent present, would probably dominate the heavier stuff in terms of both mass and, especially, volume as they are of lower density. Rather than trying to peel the iron and nickel off the refractory residuum in the center of the melt mass, perhaps just slicing the “ingot” lengthwise with a laser and scooping out the powder-to-chunk-size refractory metal, metal-oxide and metal-carbide bits would make more sense. Not having to build a reflector big enough to melt this stuff directly might also be an economic incentive for this approach.

      Bottom line? Spin-melting an asteroid as a refinement technique is possible, but also presents complications – including potential loss of valuable fractions with both low and very high melting and boiling points absent some non-trivial pre- and post-processing. I foresee a great deal of “cut and try” ahead for would-be asteroid miners in working out techniques that are satisfactory from both the standpoint of purified material quality and of economics.

  5. Troy Rising was fun. The spin the asteroid and melt idea was done in the Rosinante novels by Alexis Gilliland in the early 1980s. They found an asteroid with gold in it, refined it and used it as economic warfare against certain powers on Earth.

  6. The metals would be processed in space.

    Even though this is the case, aren’t there risks to polluting the area of space processing facilities occupy?

    Creating giant dust clouds wouldn’t be ideal. Could toxic materials glom onto space suits on EVAs and then contaminate the interior of ships/stations?

    It is great that asteroid mining might be a thing relatively soon. All that is needed is a massive prospecting effort and then moving beyond theorizing to actually learning how to process an asteroid into ore. Even if this is really expensive, it is well within the realm of possibility that it will lead to massive returns on investment.

  7. “Also, I feel like launching all of those rockets and processing the metals can’t be good for the environment.”

    Larry Niven mentioned that in Fallen Angels.

  8. The most valuable thing we can easily mine from NEOs is water ice. With water ice you get radiation shielding, propellant, air to breathe, water to live in, literally everything necessary to sustain life and grow an off planet presence.

    John S Lewis years ago suggested that half of Earth orbit crossing NEOs are extinct comets, which means they are high in water ice. The other thing they have in large quantities are long-chain carbon molecules (PAHs, oil and asphalt precursors).

    A large number of them are as close as the moon in terms of Delta-V, though trip times are long. Figure out an appropriate power system (yes, I am talking about nukes), and you conquer everything from Earth to the Belt in short order. Cheers –

  9. In his Instrumentality stories Cordwainer Smith had two kinds of currency, called SAD money and FOE money. The acronyms stood for Safe and Delivered (a space resource or product available, but still in space) and Free On Earth (meaning your space resource was on the ground).

    In my old Asimov’s story “The Rocket into Planetary Space” (title cribbed from Oberth, of course), I suggested there could be a viable intra-space trade in hydrocarbons, processed CHON from carbonaceous bodies that could stand in for petroleum, as well as light hydrocarbons from places like Titan. I pointed out we already have a highly evolved hydrocarbon technology, for plastics feedstocks, as well as fuels. I also noted these stable products could benefit from the “pipeline effect.” It doesn’t matter how long it takes what’s in the pipeline to get to the other end, so long as it keeps coming out of the spigot, once flow is established. Solar sails could transport tanks of whatever from Titan to Luna, and so what if the tank took ten years to make the trip? Then you also have an infrastructure of durable goods transport by unmanned freighter. Lightsailer delivers ethane to Cislunar space and takes a load of Ramen noodles back to the Saturn system…

    1. Mining resources off of some of these moons sounds a lot easier than deconstructing asteroids. The technological hurdles are lower and while there are long transit times, comparing to a transit timeline for asteroid mining doesn’t matter because of the unknowns for processing.

      The pipeline analogy works for asteroid mining too but before that is possible, prospecting and processing would have to be very mature and even then there could be gaps and gluts. The advantage would be in the variety of resources. Resources transported from Saturn’s moons would be a known constant allowing for good planning on how and when to use them.

      Maybe we will get some interplanetary tugs soon that will allow something like this to happen.

      Question though, what do the launch seasons look like or would resources just launch whenever despite the inefficiencies?

      1. I think the launch windows for unmanned sunjammers carrying inert cargoes would be irrelevant. This just assumes there are hundreds to thousands of freighters sailing between planets at any given time.

        Mining and even diverting asteroids to Earth orbit is pretty old in science fiction. Probably the best early work was a juvenal called “Rip Foster Rides the Grey Planet” from 1949, better known to people my age as “Assignment in Space” from the 1958 edition. It was as by Blake Savage (pen name of Hal Foster, who also wrote the Rick Brant juveniles under the name John Blaine). In it, newly minted Planeteer lieutenant Rip Foster is given a squad of space marines, a supply of 5 and 10kt nukes, and sent to take a “thorium planetoid” away from the bad guys and return it to Earth orbit for use by the Federation of Free Governments.

        I’ve always thought that the first space pioneers would be corporate employees on long-term assignments working resource nodes (probably as equipment repairmen, rather than miners). I figured they’d go on years-long assignments, and many would take their families, since they might be going to a job site in the outer solar system for 10 or 20 years, maybe for good. I figured these works would wind up being the first “colonists.” Musk seems to feel otherwise, and he’s much more likely to determine what really happens than someone like me writing “fairy tales of science.”

  10. How much supplies come from Earth still? If say 10% comes from space with a much lower price, the space company can charge Earth prices and pocket the profit. I checked the world market for Platinum is about $20 billion a year in 2016, 10% is $2 Billion a year weights about 16,000 kg. If they can get the costs significantly below $2 Billion, they can make a viable business.

  11. Getting to an asteroid is mostly moot for making its metal economically useful. It’s the cost per kilo of transportation that matters. For BFR to be useful, the asteroid would either need to be a destination to visit, or it would need to carry equipment that would move the asteroid home, or it would need a refiner and an even lower cost method to send the metal home. I like Mackey Chandler’s April Series (book 1 I think) where they move a decent size metallic asteroid to Earth as one of the plots. E.g., mining (61278) 1986 DA means moving a 3 km diameter object all to somewhere where it could be mined or it needs to be mined in place and a 7.1 km delta-v needs to be overcome to get the refiner there and again to ship the goods home. At $32,000/kg platinum qualifies as something that might be economical to ship both ways via BFR, but it’s hard to see that being the best use of BFR for a while. Lower quality deposits than that asteroid may be more likely to be economical sooner. E.g., prospecting the Moon for M-type asteroid strikes you only need to overcome 2.7 km/s to get the refiner there and get the goods home. Plus you have some economies of scale with other lunar transport and commerce. And if you can actually use the biproducts on the Moon (like in _Artemis_), then the business case may close easier.

  12. One interesting possibility of asteroid mining is the possibility of finding novel materials.

    This is not just SF handwaving. A meteorite from Russia had some extremely weird stuff in it, quasicrystals made of aluminum, copper and iron. Finding reduced aluminum is weird enough.


    Also, now that we’ve seen an interstellar asteroid, there’s the possibility of finding asteroids that were created long after our solar system formed. These could have very unusual isotope ratios. For example, uranium fresh out of its R-process source is more than 60% U-235.

  13. The technology gap is just too large. Until we have people living in space I don’t think asteroid mining will happen to any reasonable degree. We need to have an in-space economy before such efforts will become viable IMHO. This means things like space hotels, in-space repairs, and fuel depots will likely happen first.

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