Friday, March 16, 2018

The View From Les Houches: The Return of Space Mining?

Robert Ayres, well known for his work on biophysical economics, gave a talk dedicated to space mining at the School of Physics in Les Houches this March. Ayres just touched the subject that gave the title to his talk, spending most of the time to describe the plight of the mining industry, faced with the shortage of rare minerals. Yet, the fact that he used that title is an indication of the increasing popularity of the meme of mining space. It is still a marginal subject of investigation, but you can see the trend in Scopus, here, for the search term "space mining":

In a previous post of mine, I was not optimistic about space mining. I said that there was nothing interesting to mine in space and that the whole idea was proposed by people who knew little or nothing about geology. Asteroids and other small space bodies contain no ores because they never went through the processes of deposit creation that took place on the Earth. No ores- no mining. Basically, the growth of interest in the subject may be more a symptom of growing desperation rather than something that could be plausibly done.

I remain more or less of this idea: going to space to bring minerals back to Earth makes little sense, But, recently, I have been re-examining the concept and I discovered that there may be a logic in it if we just we change the target market from the Earth to space.

Space is a growing business with plenty of interesting applications: communication, exploration, astronomy, earth monitoring and more. Elon Musk is no fool and if he developed a heavy rocket launcher, it is because he saw the need of it. So far, every gram of the devices and the structures sent to space came from the Earth's crust. And sending things to space is awfully expensive. So, it could make sense to examine the possibility of assembling space structures using materials mined in space.

It would still be difficult, perhaps impossible, to mine rare minerals in space, but asteroids are rich of elements such  such as iron, nickel, aluminum, titanium, silicon and even carbon and water in the form of ice. These minerals are not there in the form of ores, but they form a sufficiently large fraction of some asteroids that extracting and purifying them could make sense. Take also into account that space is rich in solar energy that can be transformed into electric power by PV panels and that in space you have little to worry about pollution and greenhouse gases.

Of course, putting together a mining industry in space is a task which was never attempted so far and the unknowns are enormous. It was discussed back in the 1970s when the concept of "space colonies" became popular. But, over the years, it became clear that humans are not made for space; too expensive and too dangerous. Instead, space is a good place for robots which can do the same things human can do in a better and cheaper way. And these robots could be made, at least in part, from materials obtained from asteroids.

Is it possible? It depends on the trajectory of the world's economic system. If we manage to collapse as badly as some models predict, then space robots will soon become something made of the stuff dreams are made of - just like the angels which once were thought to be pushing planets along their orbits. But if humankind manages to keep a functioning industrial economy, then why not? Our robot-children could explore space and maybe build a new silicon based ecosystem, out there. The future is beautiful because it is always full of possibilities.


  1. Hi Ugo. One obvious resource present in asteroids and other small bodies is rocket fuel. If for some reason humans start travelling between planets, the water ice scattered around the solar system may become an important commodity.

    As you write, humans are not designed for space. To this day we have no observations of living tissue faring outside the Earth's magnetosphere. With current technology we should expect a low survival rate among those travelling to outer planets (Mars included). Why should then we send robots there is hard to answer (exploration is fine, but large infrastructure?) However, colonizing a planet like Venus looks rather more feasible: close to Earth and with a thick atmosphere shielding solar and cosmic radiation.

    A non-so-pop science introduction by Isaac Arthur to asteroid mining is well worth the time:


  2. all that humankind can do is dependent on readily available energy

    that is the basis of our current economic system, and it is the underlying force that enabled us to put men on the moon, and probes further out into space, for whatever reason.

    that industrial system is entirely dependent on burning fossil fuels, of which we have, maybe 20 or at a push 40 years worth left.

    one must surmise that asteroid mining will require colossal industrial (fossil fuel) input here on earth to make it happen, and in addition, to give it purpose.---ie whatever we find on asteroids has to be brought back to earth for a 'reason''---that reason being to keep our earth-workshop going.---because earth-employment requires constant energy input.

    now---my point is that we do not have the means even at the design stage, to construct and deploy asteroid mining robots---not to say it couldnt be done, but it must be some way into the future.

    but if it is in the future, our existing industrial infrastructure will not sustain itself for long enough (say into the 2040s earliest) to provide the engineering backup to bring all these fantasies to reality

    by 2040, humankind will be so short of basic fuels that we will be too busy fighting over the dregs of it to worry about asteroid mining.

    and as a final point, all asteroid mining would be with the intention of bringing back 'stuff' with which to create new energy-delivery machines.

    wouldnt the cost cancel out energy benefits?

    or have i missed something here?

  3. Bonjour Ugo et bravo pour avoir su préserver votre âme d'enfant. Mais en quoi une armée de robots qui batifolent dans l'espace et qui construisent un écosystème basé sur le silicium nous intéresse t-il? Je suis à base de carbone tout comme des milliards d'êtres humains qui sont en souffrance sur notre planète aujourd'hui et qui seront encore plus en souffrance demain. Je précise que mes enfants sont aussi basés sur le carbone et ne seront jamais basés sur une chimie à base de silicium. Quels problèmes vos enfants-robots vont-ils résoudre? Quels problèmes vont-ils créer? Avez-vous oublié les deux révolutions que Dennis Meadows nous demande de faire dans nos têtes avant que la science ne puisse être un facteur de progrès pour l'homme?
    Jean-Luc Jourdain

    1. Jean-Luc, ce n'est pas une question de ce que nous interesse ou pas.

  4. >The future is beautiful because it is always full of possibilities.

    Do you think people come to your blog because they like a positive spin on things? ;-)

    Come on, give us some bad news instead. Tell us about the unintended consequences of asteroid mining.

    1. Come on, DiSc, you are a masochist? You like the things you hate?

  5. Could Elon Musk exist without subsidy?
    PS Fossil fuel stocks will be sufficient for an albiet diminishing rate of use for decades. Robots will be built. So, does that change any trajectory?

  6. There's a tendency for science fiction to become plausible, even when it remains fiction. Terraforming Mars? We can't even terraform the Sahel. In fact the opposite--we are wrecking soils all over the planet. And melting ice. Mining asteroids? When it costs a billion dollars to go get something worth a million dollars (being generous here), it really doesn't make much sense and probably never will. The big idea humanity needs to absorb is limits to growth. Planetary boundaries. Enough is enough.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)