Asteroid mining? Really?



An outfit out of Portland, Oregon, called Allied Market Research (AMR) is touting (for sale) an “Asteroid Mining Market Report” that sounds mighty iffy to me.

The whole asteroid-mining thing seems iffy to me, but more on that later.

To start, AMR claims the global asteroid mining market will reach $3.8 trillion by 2025. That’s ridiculous. First, no one knows enough about the composition of any known asteroid to reasonably estimate the value of its mineral resources. (See below.) Second, no one yet has the technical means to establish an asteroid mining operation in space. (According to an MIT study group, opening a mine and separation plant on Earth can cost from $500 million to $1 billion, depending on the location, element, ore grade, and a variety of other factors.) It’s 2019. I do not believe that anyone, anywhere on Earth, has the technical and financial resources on hand to establish such an operation over the next six years.

According to AMR, “Innumerable space missions planned by government and private players, surge in R&D investments by market players to deploy space mining processes, and use of asteroid-derived print materials in 3D printing technology drive the growth of the global asteroid mining market.” This statement also is ridiculous. No government or private party is planning an asteroid mining mission – not even an asteroid prospecting mission. Planetary Resources wanted to engage in asteroid prospecting but could not raise the financing to do it.

As to a surge in investments to develop space mining processes – well, I’m not going to buy this report, but I suspect the “surge” is rather small, in dollar terms. As to the use of asteroid-derived materials in 3D printing – we have no asteroid-derived materials on Earth right now, beyond a tiny sample of the asteroid 25143 Itokawa returned to Earth by Japan’s Hayabusa mission.

I mean tiny. According to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, the returned sample consisted of 1500 grains, 10 micrometers or smaller in size, containing the minerals olivine, pyroxene, plagioclase and iron sulfide. No titanium, platinum, or diamonds here.

Yes, institutions around the world house meteorite collections – meteorites being fragments of asteroids that make it to the surface of Earth – but my understanding is that these meteorites are being studied to gain insight into the origin and evolution of the solar system, not to determine how businesses can get rich in space.

Anyway, back to AMR. It is an arm of Allied Analytics LLP. The latter apparently has offices in Portland, Oregon; Hong Kong; and Pune, India. I have been unable to find a web site for Allied Analytics LLP – only press releases it has issued, posted on a web site called Open PR.

And again, let’s get back to the AMR market report. AMR says “the key market players analyzed in the report include Asteroid Mining Company, Bradford, iSpace, Kleos Space S.A., Planetary Resources, SpaceFab.US, Sierra Nevada Corporation, Offworld, and Virgin Galactic.”

The two asteroid-mining companies that popped up in 2012, after President Obama told NASA to develop what became the (now-defunct) Asteroid Initiative, were Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources. Both apparently were financially unsustainable as asteroid-mining companies. Both were acquired by other companies in 2018 (see below).

I have never heard of a company called Asteroid Mining Company. (Anybody else?) “Bradford” must be Bradford Space– a company that makespropulsion systems, space station facilities, attitude control systems, and technologies for deep-space missions (no mention of mining technology on its web site). Bradford bought Deep Space Industries (DSI) last year.  Preceding the acquisition by Bradford, DSI appeared to have backed out of the business of asteroid mining and gone into the business of developing propulsion technologies. DSI now serves as an outlet for Bradford’s business activities in the U.S. space market.

Last year, blockchain venture production studio ConsenSys, Inc., acquired Planetary Resources. ConsenSys said it plans to “operate its space initiatives” – whatever they might be – out of Planetary Resources’ former headquarters in Redmond, Washington.  (Do not ask me what a blockchain venture production studio is or does, or what it has to do with space.)

iSpace is “a global services company focused on Information Technology Services, Business Process Services, Location Based Services and Healthcare Solutions.” (??) Kleos Space appears to be in the low-Earth-orbit nanosatellite business. Spacefab says its focus “is to create a space manufacturing service that will allow everyone, from governments to individuals, to affordably build their own space projects.” Offworld, based in California and Luxembourg, claims it is “developing a new generation of universal industrial robots to do the heavy lifting on Earth, Moon, asteroids and Mars.” You can check Sierra Nevada’s web site to see what that company does (asteroid mining is not mentioned). Last I knew, Virgin Galactic was strictly in the business of (planning for) taking tourists on suborbital flights.  For years now, Richard Branson has been saying that Virgin Galactic flights are imminent.  I take all the rhetoric on the company’s web site – “democratizing space” and “opening space to change the world for good” – with several grains of salt.

As to the value of asteroid resources, my colleagues who study asteroids keep telling me that no one knows enough about the mineral composition of any given asteroid to come up with a reliable estimate of its market value. And that’s aside from the cost of standing up a mining operation in space and returning resources to Earth (one rationale provided for asteroid mining is that we are running out of resources here on Earth).

At a meeting in Houston, Texas, today, members of the NASA Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) discussed whether SBAG should identify a “goal” relating to asteroid resource utilization. Discussion addressed what science is needed to enable resource utilization, the need to define measurements and analyses that are required to identify a resource-rich asteroid, and the need to define resources of interest from asteroids. “We are well behind where we need to be” in assessing NEO resources, one scientist said at the meeting. Sounds to me like we’re still at square one when it comes to assessing the nature and value of asteroid resources.

Nonetheless, wild claims about asteroid resource values persist. Mashable reported on April 26, 2012, that an asteroid named Amun is worth $20 trillion. According to the story, Amun contains $8 trillion worth of platinum, $8 trillion in iron and nickel, and $6 trillion in cobalt. The source? A 1996 book by planetary scientist John Lewis, Mining the Sky: Untold Riches from the Asteroids, Comets, and Planets. Again, my colleagues who study asteroids keep telling me that no one knows enough about the composition of any given asteroid to produce reliable estimates of resource values. So let’s just say that Dr. Lewis’s projections are optimistic speculations not based on scientific evidence. (I will blog again later about the sources of these wild-eyed value estimates.)

On January 14, 2017, Global News Canada reported that an asteroid named 16 Psyche is worth $10,000 quadrillion. This information was attributed to Lindy Elkins-Tanton, principal investigator for a NASA mission in development called Psyche, which will visit 16 Psyche. This asteroid was chosen as the target for this mission because it appears to be the exposed nickel-iron core of an early planet. Science goals and objectives for the mission make no mention of resource prospecting.

One last thing. On January 23, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and the Kingdom of Belgium signed an agreement to “to collaborate on the development of an international framework for the exploration and utilization of space resources.” Seems premature to me. Luxembourg claims it aims “to contribute to the peaceful exploration and sustainable utilization of space resources for the benefit of mankind.”

When Planetary Resources first came on the scene, it claimed it aimed to mine asteroids for the benefit of “mankind.” The history of mining on Earth shows that – while, yes, people buy the products that are made from the mined resources – mining operations are conducted for the benefit of company profits, first and foremost.