Asteroid resources: how much do we know?

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Credit: denofgeek.com

Last week I blogged about a recent, dubious, assessment – for sale – of the asteroid mining market. My readers know that I think the idea of mining asteroids is far-fetched, to say the least. Today I will comment on the sources of valuations of asteroid resources. As I said last week, my colleagues who study asteroids tell me that no one knows enough about the composition of any given asteroid to assess the value of the resources it contains.

Since last week, I have looked at a paper recently published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, “How many hydrated NEOs are there?”, in which asteroid scientists Andy Rivkin and Francesca DeMeo explain how they have estimated the water resources that some near-Earth asteroids contain. Here’s the “plain-language summary” of their paper (if only all journals provided such summaries):

“We know that some asteroids formed with water ice, and that early in solar system history that ice melted and reacted with rock to create “hydrated minerals”, which have water as part of their structure. Asteroidal hydrated minerals are particularly interesting because they often are found along with organic materials, and it is thought that asteroids may have been important for bringing water and organic materials to the early Earth via impacts. Hydrated minerals are also of interest to asteroid mining companies, which hope to make their extraction and processing as the basis for their business. For these reasons, we are interested in understanding how common hydrated asteroids are in the population of objects with orbits like the Earth’s. There are a few different ways we can make the calculation, but all of the estimates suggest that hydrated asteroids are more common than we would think from the pieces that fall to Earth, and that dozens of them are larger than 1 km in diameter and take less fuel for a round-trip spacecraft than to the surface of the Moon.”

This paper (alas, behind a pay wall) is well done – really, the only well done paper published in a legitimate journal that I’ve seen on the subject of asteroid resources. But I must point out that the water in these asteroids – like most of the water on the Moon – is bound up in rock, and therefore would be a challenge to extract.

Okay, on to the subject of today’s post – the sources of wild-eyed projections of the market value of asteroid resources.

A Luxembourg-government-backed outfit called Space Resources recently reported that a study financed by the Luxembourg Space Agency projected the “space resources utilization industry” would generate up to 170 billion Euro in value over the 2018-2045 period. I took a quick look through the report and saw no references to scientific assessments (or any other sources) of the value of asteroid resources. Recall that Luxembourg has declared an interest in asteroid mining: “With its SpaceResources.lu initiative, Luxembourg has positioned itself as the European hub in the future space resources economy. The exploration and utilization of space resources is set to generate attractive opportunities in Luxembourg, Europe and worldwide, both for established and start-up players.” (I don’t get it.)

Forbes.com reported in May 2017 that an asteroid named 16 Psyche is worth $10,000 quadrillion. This asteroid is the target of an upcoming NASA planetary-science mission called Psyche. The science goals of this mission are to “understand a previously unexplored building block of planet formation: iron cores; look inside terrestrial planets, including Earth, by directly examining the interior of a differentiated body, which otherwise could not be seen; explore a new type of world. For the first time, examine a world made not of rock and ice, but metal.” The Psyche mission is not a resource prospecting mission.

Nonetheless, Forbes reported, “If anyone could mine that asteroid, the resulting riches would collapse the paltry Earth economy of around $74 trillion.” The source of the $10,000 quadrillion figure apparently is Psyche principal investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton. Global News Canada reported in January 2017, “If the 200-kilometre-wide body [16 Psyche] could somehow be transported back to our planet, Elkins-Tanton has calculated that the iron alone would be worth US $10,000 quadrillion.”

A popular source of estimates of asteroid resource values is a 1996 book, Mining the Sky: Untold Riches from the Asteroids, Comets, and Planets, by John S. Lewis, now professor emeritus of planetary science with the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. (Lewis also wrote Asteroid Mining 101: Wealth for a New Space Economy, published in 2014.) According to Wikipedia, in 2013 Lewis joined Deep Space Industries as chief scientist. Now that DSI appears to be out of the asteroid mining business, I assume Lewis is no longer its chief scientist. In his introduction to Mining the Sky, Lewis writes, “The tired old myths of limited resources and finite living space available to humankind cannot be sustained in the face of the discoveries now pouring in daily about our solar system.” He advocates for human expansion into and settlement of the solar system: “there is enough raw material in the asteroids to support a population larger than that of Earth.”

In 1994, a paper by U.S. Geological Survey scientist Jeff Kargel, “Metalliferous asteroids as potential sources of precious metals,” was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets. Kargel wrote:

“Recent discoveries of near‐Earth asteroids (NEAs) and chemical analyses of fragments of asteroids (meteorites) suggest that there may be a gold mine, literally, in near‐Earth space. Judged from meteorite analyses, two types of asteroids offer particularly bright prospects for recovery of large quantities of precious metals (defined as Au, Pt, Ir, Os, Pd, Rh, and Ru), the ordinary LL chondrites, which contain 1.2–5.3% Fe‐Ni metal containing 50–220 ppm of precious metals, and metallic asteroids, which consist almost wholly of Fe‐Ni phases and contain variable amounts of precious metals up to several hundred ppm. The pulverized regolith of LL chondrite asteroids could be electromagnetically raked to separate the metallic grains. Suitable metallic asteroids could be processed in their entirety. Statistically, there should be approximately six metallic NEAs larger than 1 km in diameter that contain over 100 ppm of precious metals. Successful recovery of 400,000 tons or more of precious metals contained in the smallest and least rich of these metallic NEAs could yield products worth $5.1 trillion (US) at recent market prices. If marketed over 20 years, this would represent a 10‐fold increase over the recent global production rate of all precious metals combined. The market response to the hypothetical introduction of such large quantities of precious metals is difficult to predict, because these metals historically have not obeyed normal economic laws of the market. An empirical model suggests that the effects on market prices of a hypothetical increase in production of a given metal can be predicted given existing knowledge of the metal’s present market value and production rate. This model suggests that the total value of 400,000 metric tons of precious metals, if marketed over 20 years, would decline to about $320 billion ($16 billion per year). Except for Au, for which production and prices would be marginally affected, the market prices of precious metals may decline by 1 to 2 orders of magnitude if one of the six asteroids were to be mined to depletion over 20 years. Less conservatively, there is a 50% chance that the richest metallic NEA contains at least 1.9 million metric tons of precious metals; this quantity, if marketed over 40 years, may be worth approximately $900 billion at collapsed market prices ($22.5 billion per year). The actual economic and technological impact of asteroidal metals may be considerably greater due to the increased availability and reduced prices of these resources. Despite this great potential, first‐order technological, scientific, and economic uncertainties remain before the feasibility of exploitation of asteroids for precious metals can be ascertained.”

I find Lewis’s and Kargel’s projections wildly optimistic, at best. And, again, these projections do not take into account the expense of establishing mining operations in space (or moving asteroids into near-Earth space).

And then there’s Ian Webster’s Asterank.com, a web site providing estimates of the market value of asteroid resources that was purchased by Planetary Resources in 2013. (I’m not sure who owns asterisk.com these days, as Planetary Resources has gone out of business — see below.) Webster says on Asterank:

“Scientists know very little about the composition of asteroids. Most data used in our calculations come from the JPL’s Small Body Database and the Minor Planet Center. The overwhelming majority of asteroids have no spectral classification and are missing other important data attributes. Without full information it is impossible to fully estimate the true value of an asteroid or the cost of mining it.” As to asteroid resource valuations, “Asterank applies accurate, up-to-date information from world markets and scientific papers. To ensure realistic estimates, data from meteorites on Earth and known reference asteroids heavily influence our calculations…. Value estimates are based on the mass of a given asteroid and its spectral type. Asteroid spectra is used to infer composition, which, in conjunction with current market prices, determine potential value.”

(Ian Webster is lead engineer for Zenysis, “an interoperability platform built to accelerate global development goals, and improve lives everywhere.” Whatever that means.)

To reiterate, most of my colleagues in the small-bodies research community agree that we don’t know enough about asteroids to determine whether any are so rich in valuable mineral resources to justify plans to mine them. While many wild claims have been made about “trillion-dollar” asteroids – often in the media, and sometimes by otherwise reputable scientists, they are just that: claims, not facts.

Finally, in last week’s post I mentioned that a blockchain venture production studio called ConsenSys, Inc., had acquired Planetary Resources last year (Planetary Resources being one of the two companies that popped up in 2012 claiming to be in the asteroid mining business). And I had said in that post that I did not know what a blockchain production studio is or what it has to do with space.  On February 1, Alan Boyle explained on Geekwire “how satellites and blockchain go together.” It still has nothing to do with asteroid mining, as far as I can tell. For me, the Geekwire report shed some very dim light on the subject, but you can read the report if you’re interested.

I also reported last week that the only company I could identify via Google named iSpace – a company named in the above-mentioned dubious asteroid market assessment as playing a role in the asteroid mining business – was “a global services company focused on Information Technology Services, Business Process Services, Location Based Services and Healthcare Solutions.” Well, it turns out that there’s another iSpace – actually, it’s  ispace-inc. – a Luxembourg-based company that claims, “By taking advantage of lunar water resources, we can develop the space infrastructure needed to enrich our daily lives on earth—as well as expand our living sphere into space.” (I’m not investing.)