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The Emerging Economy of Near Earth Asteroids

Using infrared spectroscopy scientists have determined that a single asteroid could potentially contain enough Platinum Group Metal to drastically alter the economy. Intrepid aerospace organizations like Deep Space Industries, and Planetary Resources, are first on the scene to develop the necessary technology and plans to implement it.

Humans have been enchanted by the cosmos for as long as we’ve had eyes to peer above. For as long as we’ve asked some of the biggest questions out there. What is our place amongst the stars? Is there an end to the sky? In fact much of our ancient culture has been engraved in to the earths celestial sphere. Testament to our fascination lies a pantheon of gods strewn throughout a vast stellar atlas – animating the constellations with tales of love and war.

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Since then our sentiment has evolved to encompass a more objective albeit no less than riveting scientific approach. Sometime during the 18th century our focus shifted from reverence to analysis. A quest was undertaken by curious men of olde to quantify their experience of nature. During the enlightenment Sir Isaac Newton and Rene Decartes shook off religious authorities and began to explore their own understanding of reality. In doing so they successfully blazed a trail for centuries to come. Other aspiring naturalists would come to heed the call and take to the bow of science in an attempt to understand the immense complexity we often take for granted.

The first asteroid was discovered in 1801 by Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi and was so large he actually thought it was a planet. Rightfully so, in fact Ceres is the largest in our solar system. Although it was considered an asteroid for the longest time it is now referred to as a “dwarf planet”. This discovery was perplexing to astronomers for they had never seen an object lighter than a star that bore no planetary disk. This is when Sir William Herschel proposed the term asteroid meaning “star like” or star shaped”. In fact Scientists continued to use asteroid and planet interchangeably until the late 19th century.

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Ceres and it’s strange white light phenomena

By the latter half of the 20th century stories of asteroid mining were common in the genre of science fiction. To this day they are a staple of Hollywood film dealing with the subject matter of space colonisation. In the “The Expanse”, for example, a scy-fy network television show often referred to as “Game of Thrones in Space” a large portion of the story takes place on Ceres. One of the main protagonists a “Belter” was born in the Asteroid Belt where his faction is responsible for the transportation and extraction of water from icey meteors. The crew on-board the Canterbury (below) become the main protagonists after a run in with a deadly stealth freighter.

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The Expanse

In the meantime there are preliminary steps to asteroid mining that need to be addressed. One of them being the development of a stable infrastructure for construction and re-fuelling. Most fuel is exhausted simply trying to get off the Earth. Once a vessel is out of the atmosphere the remaining journey is relatively cheap in comparison. The development of stationary outposts in cis-lunar space could act as a scaffold for further expansion, preventing the need for complex re-entry plans and reducing the cost/environmental impact of energy usage.

By passing a bill in August 2015 the US government made a clear statement on the rights of any group to harvest space resources. In doing so they’ve justified various investments made by Google founder Larry Page among others to bet on the asteroid mining corporation “Planetary Resources”

“A United States citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an
asteroid resource or a space resource under this chapter shall be
entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including
to possess, own, transport, use, and sell the asteroid resource or space
resource obtained in accordance with applicable law, including the
international obligations of the United States.””

Furthermore US congress has made it clear they hold no jurisdiction in outer space and no right to control materials that come from therein

SEC. 403. DISCLAIMER OF EXTRATERRITORIAL SOVEREIGNTY.

It is the sense of Congress that by the enactment of this Act, the
United States does not thereby assert sovereignty or sovereign or
exclusive rights or jurisdiction over, or the ownership of, any
celestial body.”

University of Nebraska Professor Frans von der Dunk discusses the important implications of Space Law in asteroid mining.

The Frontier is rife with aerospace organisations looking to claim their bounty in outer space. Two of the most prolific competitors in the industry include “Planetary Resources” and Deep Space Industries. Originally “Arkyd Astronautics”, Planetary Resources was founded in 2013 with the goal of expanding earths economic sphere in to the solar system. The CEO of Planetary Resources Lewis Hewicki is a former NASA systems engineer and the organisation has many wealthy backers including Google cofounder Larry Page, and Titanic/Avatar director James Cameron who depicted planetary mining in his latter movies. Which was also a huge ethical theme in the film.

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Even know they didn’t reach their Kickstarter goal of taking “space selfies”  Planetary Resources gained support from some prominent figures early on as a result of  this initial public campaign. Their Arkyd-100 Space telescope will act as an advanced satellite for study of water on Earth as well as in Asteroids. Using infrared hyperspectral sensors the Arkyd-100 will monitor the ground with far more accuracy then normal telescopes, as well as survey nearby asteroids without interference from atmospheric clouds. The companies business model revolves around outsourcing the Arkyd as well as using it for asteroid reconaissance.

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Whether or not it’s water, fuel, or other supplies it costs around 50 million dollars a ton to launch something in to our atmosphere. There are over 400 commercial and government satellites orbiting our planet at any given time and since re-fuelling is so expensive most of them are simply abandoned when they run out. Otherwise those organizations who own satellites that have the ability to “plug in” and refuel will pay up to 50 million dollars a ton to keep them hoisted in orbit.

Because of this lack of an orbital fuel supply there exists an entire market waiting to be tapped for any organisation that can provide a quicker, cheaper alternative to launching everything from earth says Lewis Hewicki, Planetary Resources CEO. Furthermore, if satellites were designed to take advantage of the ability to re-fuel in orbit they wouldn’t need to be abandoned, and pollution in outer space wouldn’t be as much of a problem as it now.

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Like Deep Space Industries, PR envisions an elaborate infrastructure that combines innovations in “water splitting” rocket fuel, 3D printing and aerospace technology to create outposts for the conversion of asteroid materials in to fuel. On January 7th 2016 they were the first to demonstrate how construction in outer space may actually work by printing an object entirely composed of iron ore from a real asteroid.

As with Deep Space Industries they recognise that by erecting fuel depots in outer space, and mining water from asteroids they can avoid expensive launch costs and reduce the price of operating in space by 95%. This could lead to an incredible expansion unrivalled by modern times. The biggest boundary to space exploration has always been the expensive launch costs. With this out of the picture anything is possible and the sky is no longer the limit.

Now that’s all well and good but how is the company doing in their main goal of developing spacecraft? Well on April 17th 2015 the Arkyd 3 prototype was launched in to orbit and deployed from the ISS on July 16th 2015. Unfortunately the company has not disclosed any post ISS launch information.

Their latest model, The Arkyd 6 will be the first craft to employ infrared spectroscopy. The launch, originally slated for late 2015 has been pushed back several times, and despite PRs claim of “an upcoming scheduled launch of the company’s Arkyd 6 spacecraft onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket” the event has yet to appear in the Falcon X schedule for this year.

 

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However, on November 3rd 2016 the company announced a partnership with the government of Luxembourg. They finalised an agreement for 25 million euros and are now looking to launch the first commercial asteroid prospecting mission in 3 years.

Planetary Resources displays their futuristic Arkyd-200 concept model

The business of space exploration is full of uncertainty. In this piece – one part of a long cautionary piece on their “investors” page Deep Space Industries warns of the potential risk that accompany “forward looking statements” .

 Important factors that could cause the Company’s actual results to differ materially from those in its forward-looking statements include government regulation, economic, strategic, political and social conditions. If any of these risks or uncertainties materialize, or if our underlying assumptions prove to be incorrect, actual results may vary significantly from what we projected.”

Originally the company started with optimistic plans for the deployment of 3 spacecraft and a micro-gravity foundry that can print 3D objects in zero grav.

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As this cautionary side note would seem to suggest their preliminary operation did not pan out as well as they thought. Originally their first prospecting spacecraft, the “firefly” was set to launch in 2015. After no word from the company or media regarding the launch and no information available as to what exactly happened we can only assume that they did not meet their projected financial goals or have hit some form of regulatory roadblock. The original concepts proposed by DSI are no longer available on their website. In their place is a similar story to PR of a developing partnership with the Government of Luxembourg. Apparently the European country – both small, rich and ‘landlocked’ will have a quite a large hand in the development of technology for Asteroid Mining.

This new technology includes the Prospector-x, Prospector 1 and Harvestor class of vessels. A timeline on their website details the relative length of each mission but has yet to publish any dates.

dsitimeline

The first vessel slated for development is the Prospector X – a small simple, rectangular craft built for testing Prospector-1s technology in low earth orbit first. It’s important that DSI prove to investors like Luxembourg that they can get the job done. By demonstrating their patented COMET-1-300 WATER THRUSTER and other gadgets like radiation proof avionics and optical navigation they hope to secure necessary support for more advanced stages of development.

The real fun starts with Prospector 1. Despite the future emphasis on water electrolysis, DSI explains in their mission statement that Prospector-1 will initially depart from Earth and navigate most of the distance using chemical propulsion systems. Once the Prospector-1 is close enough it will detach, extend solar arrays and utilise a more agile “water thruster quad pack” to secure a landing zone, scanning the asteroid as it nears. Once the vessel has landed it will continue scanning, gathering information from deeper within the asteroid and broadcasting it’s location back to DSIs headquarters in Luxembourg

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Since the Harvestor concept stage has yet to begin there is very little information available on this vessel.

A few common trends arise across the present day vanguard of space exploration. Regardless of the company or organization involved there tends to be an emphasis paid to the initial deployment of these microsatellites or “cubesats” under 500 kg. These miniature sized vessels including the Arkyd and Prospector are much cheaper to launch than their full size counterparts and imply less risk to investors. Not to mention their size is particularly suited for reconnaissance as they can assemble in large formations to gather data from multiple angles.

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A report by BIS research published in 2017 details the market potential for microsatellites. At a compound annual growth rate of 37.91% they estimate that the global market is expected to reach 6.35 billion by 2021 and has grown an average of 40% each year since 2011. A separate report by Spaceworks reveals that the commercial sector is growing fastest and will soon account for the majority of craft being launched. With all that being said it’s no wonder why companies like Planetary Resources and DSI are looking to push the boundaries. Since the majority of micro satellites are launched from earth and point solely to Earth there is quite literally a pot of gold (and even more importantly – platinum) waiting for anyone that can use these vessels to set up the first asteroid economy.

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Skynews

It is true that some asteroids are worth trillions of dollars in platinum, however it costs 54 kg of fuel or 50 000 dollars to launch a kilogram of equipment (or anything) in to Geosynchronous orbit. As a report by the astrogeology comittee details, that is 48% less than a kilogram of platinum would fetch on earth. What this means is since it costs more to launch equipment/fuel in to outer space than we would get for platinum back on Earth it is not wise to mine the precious metal right away. In fact you would make more money starting off by mining water from asteroids, splitting some of that water in to hydrogen for fuel and oxygen for air and trading these supplies to private/government satellites.

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Experts agree that Geosynchronous orbit is the best location for an oasis of supply depots. Since it costs 54 kilograms of fuel to get to GEO but only 2 kg more to escape Earth orbit this altitude is particularly well suited for a 3D printing foundry and/or regolith refinery. Regolith is the unconsolidated rocky material of an asteroid.

Advancements in Plasma propulsion and in citu solar powered water electrolysis will probably eventually replace the need to split water at a refinery but we’ll always need some sort of construction material. Through the use of additive manufacturing (3D printing) in geosynchronous orbit we can melt, pour and shape regolith in to the necessary building blocks for expansion deeper in to space.

Geosynchronous orbit vs Geostationary orbit

RF Wireless World

 

 

Sources

06/02/15 Safe and Efficient Asteroid Mining

“Asteroid Mining” 2013 AAIS Space Conference and Exposition

10/10/16 Deep Space Industries Unveils First Asteroid Prospecting Spacecraft

01/03/16 The Truth About Asteroid Mining

09/09/15 The Potential 100 Trillion Market For Space Mining

01/07/16 Planetary Resources & 3D Systems Reveal First Ever 3D Printed Object from Asteroid Metals

04/14/15 Arkyd 3 Reflight (A3R) Launches From Cape Canaveral On SpaceX CRS-6

09/16/15 Planetary Resources’ First Spacecraft Successfully Deployed, Testing Asteroid Prospecting Technology on Orbit

 

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Asteroid-Mining Plan Would Bake Water Out of Bagged-Up Space Rocks

The Apis plan involves harvesting up to 100 metric tons of water from a near-Earth asteroid, and taking the material to lunar orbit or other depot locations, using only a single SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch, Sercel added.

 

 

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