Ep. 495: Update on Asteroids & Prospects of Asteroid Mining

Our knowledge of space is starting to match up with our ability to get out there an explore it. There are several companies working on missions and techniques to harvest minerals from asteroids. What other resources are out there that we can use?

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Show Notes

Asteroids on Wikipedia
Asteroids
Asteroid mining
What we can mine? Helium, water,
Do not use Helium!
Helium 3
Planetary Resources
Deep Space Industries
Mining asteroids could unlock untold wealth – here’s how to get started
Falcon Heavy Could Make Asteroid Mining a Reality

Transcript

Podcast Transcription provided by GMR Transcription

Fraser: Astronomy Cast Episode 495 Asteroid Mining Update. Welcome to Astronomy Cast a weekly facts-based journey through the Cosmos where we help you understand not only what we know but how we know what we know. I’m Fraser Cain, publisher of Uterus Today, with me as always Dr. Pamela Gay, the Director of Technology and Citizen Science at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and the Director of Cosmo Quest. Hey, Pamela how you doing?

Pamela: I’m doing well, how are you doing Fraser?

Fraser: Very well, now, before we get in to today’s show we have an announcement to make. And I have a written announcement here that I’m going to read out so that I get every little piece of data correct. So, here we go. There are only a couple of episodes left of Astronomy Cast before our summer hiatus and that means there’s only a couple of episodes before we reach our 500th episode. The 500th episode is going to be recorded live at the beautiful Wildly Theater in Edwardsville, Illinois at Sunday, September 16th.

And the WSH crew is inviting everyone to come to Edwardsville the weekend of September 15th and 16th for a weekend of astronomy related festivities culminating in the live recording of the 500th episode of Astronomy Cast. So, you’ll be able to meet me and Pamela as well as our families along with people from the WSH crew and Cosmo Quest. In addition, to the live recording of the 500th episode, I’m told that we’re gonna be doing a special live QA episode of my guide to space at some point during the weekend, which makes sense. And they will be renting a local brew pub for most of Saturday where they’ll be other things going on, there may even be beer.

There are other activities in the works, such as fluid painting of tiny planets with Pamela, maybe you’ll teach me how to do this. Outings to local attractions and weather permitting we’ll do some star gazing on Saturday night. To register and for more information head over to astronomycast.com go to the trips pull down menu and click on AC500 Weekend. Pre-registration is now open, it requires a non-refundable $50.00 deposit and everyone who pre-registers even if you have to cancel will received a goodie bag full of memorabilia from the weekend.

And you can pay the full $200.00 registration fee or you have the option of paying $50.00 now and the balance of $150.00 any time between now and August 15th. Hope to see you there. All right, this is gonna be fun, 500 episodes.

Pamela: It’s terrifying.

Fraser: And a huge thank you to Gordon and Nancy and a bunch of the people at the weekly space hangout crew who took it upon themselves to organize this because neither of us have the energy, have the time or bandwidth to organize anything this complicated. Like, we will show up and we will stand in front of whatever crowds you put us in front of and entertain but to work out all of the little details, man, that is amazing and I really appreciate their help. So, let’s get on with today’s show.

Our knowledge of space is starting to match up with our ability to get out there and explore it and there’s several companies working on missions and techniques to harvest minerals from asteroids. What are the resources out there that we can use? Now, Pamela, you put this in as one of our update shows, have we done a proper asteroid mining show or are we just doing an episode about asteroid mining? Have we just been binge watching the expanse and now it’s all we can think about is just harvesting resources from space?

Pamela: That maybe part of it, although, for me, I have to say binge reading the book series. So, we’ve stuck bits and pieces of asteroid mining in all throughout our shows but what we’ve seen since the beginning is we’ve gone from talking about it as we will capture an asteroid and we will bring it nearby and we will use it to build future spacecrafts. To, huh, people are actually gonna like fly out and explore them in situ, to huh; we’re not using them for any of the things we thought we were gonna use them for. So, plans have changed and I think rounding up all the bits of information that we’ve give over the years that have now utterly changed in to one updated episode makes a lot of sense.

Fraser: Well, and there’s a bunch of companies that have formed to do this, there’s some really interesting research that’s been done. There’s of course, what SpaceX is doing, there’s a lot of work being done in situ resource utilization, which I think could be a whole episode on its own.

Pamela: Yes.

Fraser: And there’s some gadgets going on board the Mars 2020 rover that are gonna help try and figure some of this stuff out. So, there is a lot of work across a bunch of different fields to figure out how we can acquire resources from asteroids and other objects in space. So, now, you had sort of quickly gone over a bunch of ideas there about how we thought that we would like bring some of these samples back to earth. So, can you sort of go through that history a bit and how we got to where we are now?

Pamela: So, the original picture, and this is the one that I remember growing up on in science fiction was that asteroids are going to have vast amounts of metals. And rather than having to launch these heavy weight atoms up in to space we’re going to fly out and either mine the asteroid directly to get at these previous heavy atoms. So, here we’re talking about going out and getting iron, getting gold, getting whatever you want to make your spacecraft. And since then, we’ve kinda realized that most space rocks are kinda carbony kind of like the minerals in your back yard and not really the kind of stuff that you wanna be building your spacecraft out of.

This has been a slow discovery aided by sending mission after mission through the asteroid belts, we still only have a handful of high resolution images of different asteroids. But none of them seem to be that solid chunk or 10 kilometers across metal ore that we used to think would be out there.

Fraser: I mean, they’ve gotta be out there, I’ve got a chunk of it right here on my desk.

Pamela: Well, so do I, I have one right here, I found my first.

Fraser: Yeah, you did.

Pamela: Yours is bigger.

Fraser: So, we both have a chunk of space metal, so the metal is out there but not as common as we hoped and maybe not as easy to acquire. Unless you wanna go to Asteroid Psyche which is this gigantic planetoid made of solid metal which I do.

Pamela: But in general, we’re looking at most 10 percent of the asteroid composition across all the asteroids is going to be these heavy metals. So, the reasons that we go to asteroids have slightly changed, just a bit.

Fraser: Right. So, what kinds of resources now are we thinking we’re gonna be finding on the asteroids that we can use?

Pamela: The kind that gets used to fill up party balloons and freeze things to microscopic temperatures.

Fraser: Helium?

Pamela: Helium 3.

Fraser: Right. And even just regular Helium, it’s a non-renewable resource that we’re just letting off in to the atmosphere here on earth.

Pamela: Yeah, so you’re actually, any of you out there watching, listening you are being extraordinarily of our planets resources every single time you buy a child a balloon or buy yourself a balloon or buy someone get well balloon that float on their own. It’s fine to buy balloons, fill them with water, fill them with paint, fill them with the air out of your lungs or out of your bicycle pump.

Fraser: Fill them with the tears of children who don’t get Helium balloons anymore.

Pamela: Whatever you feel them with, don’t fill them with Helium, don’t do the smurf voice, chipmunk voice thing, all these things are a waste of the non-renewable resource that we need. So, the machine that if you ever have severe lung issues that they use to image your lungs, requires Helium 3. So, if you don’t care about creating Einstein content sets which also requires Helium 3, think of your lungs, think of your lungs. Do not use Helium.

Fraser: Wow, you really are a party pooper.

Pamela: No, I’m good with parties, I’m just Helium pooper.

Fraser: Right. So, then where are we gonna find this Helium out in space?

Pamela: It turns out that Helium is mixed up in the Matrix of a lot of different minerals on the moon, in the asteroid belt, in a bunch of different places. So, what we need to do is essentially go out, grab ourselves a chunk of asteroid and grind it up and see what emerges. And some of what emerges is going to be these Helium 3 that we really need.

Fraser: And so, with the, we’ve talked how maybe gonna be mining from the moon but the asteroid mining gonna be easier, is it gonna be a better way to get at these resources than trying to go and pull it out of the lunar regolith?

Pamela: The lunar regolith is perfectly reasonable but at a certain point it would be nice to start having that station that we can use that’s part way between here and the outer solar system. And the moon is halfway between here and everywhere else and then everywhere else is a lot more than halfway away. So, if we go out and we start working in the asteroid belt, first of all it gives us a whole lot more places to go, second od fall they have less gravity to tray and escape from. So, if you’re grabbing the Helium 3 there it’s easy to take back off and bring it back.

Fraser: And what is the benefit of, obviously, you wanna be able to make Helium balloons when you’re in your space station, what is the benefit of Helium 3 specifically?

Pamela: It’s a highly polarized atom. So, normal every day Helium the stuff that does, for the most part, go in balloons, there’s probably gonna be a few Helium 3 atoms in there. But the bulk of the Helium is consisting of two protons, two neutrons, two electrons, so we have this gorgeous symmetry going on. Now, in many of the minority Helium atoms we have this combination instead of one neutron, two protons, two electrons. And in this one neutron scenario it turns out that we can do all sorts of cool stuff with physics, this is where it starts to become important in imaging because it has a spin of one half.

And this spin allows you to manipulate with different magnetic fields, it becomes useful in cryogenics in ways that Helium with two neutrons is not. Basically, it comes down to what can you do in a magnetic field with Helium 3 that you absolutely can’t do with pretty much anything else.

Fraser: And one of the other advantages is, should you be able to figure how to use it in fusion reactions, it doesn’t give off as much ionizing radiation as a deuterium reaction or a hydrogen or tritium reactor or something like that. So, if you wanna have your Epstein drive and you wanna have that power by your Helium 3 reactor not your tritium reactor. So, when you think about compact fusion sources things like. But of course, just technology of making fusion reactors, we’re still waiting for [inaudible] [00:13:49] which is still a couple of decades away and to then make them out of Helium 3 is another challenge.

So, in the future this will be a big source of space power. Now, Helium’s one –

Pamela: Water.

Fraser: – water is the resource that we really have all kinds of uses for.

Pamela: And this is where it really is that science fictiony future of we’re starting to come to terms with the fact that the earth’s water probably didn’t actually come from comets like we thought. The age of heavy bombardment was rocks not ice the way we might have been forced to envision it dur to lack of imagination. Now, that we’ve started to measure the ratio of different kinds of water and different comets we’re finding in general, they’re not the kind of water ratios that we see in our own oceans and we’re also finding thank to the [inaudible] [00:14:50] that asteroids are wet, even the dry ones are wet.

And it may be that our oceans are all of the water that was trapped inside asteroids. And asteroids are drying out, they’ve been baked for a while so this is rot of like drying wood it starts out wet and over time dries out except we’re drying asteroids. But they haven’t completely dried out, there’s still these volatile, still these ices in there and this brings us back to my favorite idea which is the hollowing asteroids out and flying them over to another star system. Here it can, if we’re starting to look at the expanse, we can imagine hollowing them out, sticking colonies in them, sticking them in a home and transfer orbit so that you can use them to get between objects at different points in time.

And you have the water that humans need for so many different things, including growing plants, including caring for livestock and caring for ourselves. All right in the water locked in the rocks.

Fraser: Yeah, we drink it, we breathe it, we –

Pamela: Metabolize it.

Fraser: We metabolize it, it’s rocket fuel, so there’s all kinds of reasons why water is gonna be one of the most useful resources we can get our hands on. Now, there have been a couple of companies that have arisen since we started Astronomy Cast to try to push us towards that future of harvesting minerals from space. So, what are some of these companies?

Pamela: So, Planetary Resources is one that’s near and dear to my heart. They crowd funded their early rockets, the poor company and this was probably one of my most traumatic moments as someone who teaches science communication. There Arkyd 3 original cube sat that they were using to test some of their technologies actually was exploded on the [inaudible] launch back in 2014. And I was doing a live presentation to students on this is how you cover live events when five minutes in to my presentation poof goes the rocket. So, I know my first email after that experience was to the good folks at Planetary Resources.

And what’s kind of amazing is one year later July 16th, 2015 they deployed a new version of their rocket. Now, this time they did it in a little bit safer of a way, they launched it and they pretty much pushed out an airlock and I’m okay with that.

Fraser: Right, so what is their sort of current plan? Like, when you say they have their Arkyd it’s like a telescope really to be able to examine asteroids.

Pamela: They have two of them. So, Arkyd 3 was the first one and it was just 10 x 10 centimeters in size and this was one, as I said, it was funded through crowd sourcing. So, this was what everyone helped make a thing. It tested imagery, it tested the ability communicate, it tested solar panels and it did it in a little tiny platform. Now, not one to sit around with only having little tiny not useful spacecraft when your goal is mining asteroids, they have this long-term plan for building up to sufficiently more sophisticated flight-tested technology that they feel safe making that first journey to an asteroid.

Now, before you go to an asteroid you try things out in low earth orbit. Our planet is a rock, a lot of the technology they need they can deploy examining our particular life having rock. So, their next launch was of the Arkyd 6, this one flew on one of the Indian rockets and it is sending back really cool images of our own planet earth that it’s using to do things like detect water, using thermal imaging in combination with visual imaging. So, they’re making the progress they want to make to get to that measuring water future, that mining future.

And what I love, is they’re also growing, so they’ve gone from a little tiny 10 centimeter across spacecraft to something that is starting to be more of a bonafide suit craft spacecraft. Now, they’re still not digging but they have their ground work laid out for them, and like I said, it’s incremental progress that all has to be made before you go out and just starting digging in to space rocks instead of earth rocks.

Fraser: So, what comes after, right now they have their little telescope up in space and they’re starting to categorize and examine some of the objects that are out there. What is their sort of long-term plans for being able to actually mine these places?

Pamela: So, they’re working towards their Arkyd 301 spacecraft. This is going to be a bigger spacecraft with more sophisticated communications and detection software. And their goal of their initial mission is going to be to identify asteroids that contain water. So, it’s not going to be go forth and dig, it’s going to be go forth and find the water. Now, this is a story that we’ve hear NASA tell in it’s exploration of Mars, so we’re now starting to see two parallel tracks where we have a commercial space agency picking up that, let’s go to the asteroids strat while NASA continues the let’s go to Mars strand.

And both sets of data gathering humans, one called engineers and the other called science, both doing the exact same thing. Their journey is to find the water.

Fraser: And you’ve probably heard that there are more resources, there are trillions of dollars’ worth of mineral resources on just individual small asteroids. The key of course, is going to bringing them back to earth. Have you heard the plan for how they think they might be able to bring say a ball of platinum back from an asteroid?

Pamela: No. This sounds like something, again spacecraft are generally dead to me until they take off because they like explode.

Fraser: So, Peter Diamandis who is Head of the X Prize and is on the board for Planetary Resources, he says they’ll spin it in to this sort of wall. And then have this impact the earth’s atmosphere and it will slow down just as it comes in to the atmosphere and actually be able to decelerate and it won’t burn up because it has this gigantic surface area.

Pamela: They’re going to make a giant brillo pad.

Fraser: Yeah, giant meteors made of gold that will softly re-enter the earth’s atmosphere and land without losing any of its material and giant platinum and iridium and things like that. I think it’s a pretty neat idea.

Pamela: There’s no controlling where that comes down.

Fraser: Well, you know, you have your spacecraft go and detached at the exact right place but true it’s gonna be tough. But, as I’ve mentioned in the past gravity wells are for suckers, so you wanna keep that stuff out in space so you can build your spacecraft and build your future space colonies. Now, Planetary Resources is one, there’s another company that’s doing this as well and actually people in the chatter are mentioning a third one out of the UK. So, the second one Deep Space Industries, Rick Tomlinson and team.

Pamela: Right, so this is another one, what’s getting me is the marketing that we see with these two companies because they’re both climbing to be the first to do what they’re doing. So, they’re advertising at Deep Space Industries that they’re going to have low cost deep space exploration spacecraft. So, the impression that I get of what they’re looking to do is they’re going to go out, find the stuff but they’re also looking to be the group that will now be carrying pay loads for other people.

So, they’re looking to advertise the volume of space that they have on their probes, the typical distance that they can go, they’re looking at getting to about 2.5 au, so we’re not quite talking as far as Jupiter, so I question their word deep space. But I am amused nonetheless at their marketing team.

Fraser: Anything above 100 km is deep space.

Pamela: It’s space.

Fraser: It’s space, it’s all, from that point on it’s as deep as it is big. One of the great things about Deep Space Industries and one thing that I kind of like about their approach is they’re developing essentially a propulsion system –

Pamela: A platform.

Fraser: – a platform for these small mineral exploration and then eventually retrievable satellites and then they’re finding customers to purchase these. So, while Planetary Resources has lots of investments but also went the crowd funding way. Deep Space Industries is going this way where they’re bringing on customers to purchase the underlying flight hardware for their various cube sats and things like that. And it seems like a really smart way to sort of scape up your operations and learn how to do this.

It’s the SpaceX way, right, where they have paying customers; they give them cashflow to be able to continue their development deeper and deeper and deeper. And to sort of be the people that supply the shuttles.

Pamela: Can we say further instead of deeper?

Fraser: Sure, farther if it’s distance.

Pamela: I just have –

Fraser: Deeper in to deep space, well it’s Deep Space Industries.

Pamela: Well, fine, fine.

Fraser: It’s not far space industries.

Pamela: It should be.

Fraser: Sure. But I like that idea, there’s a great sort of saying or saying, when you go up and find out about the gold rush in Northern Canyon, Yukon, you find out that it was the people who sold the shovels that made all the money.

Pamela: That really made out, yes.

Fraser: Yeah, it was not the people who were searching for gold; it was the people who were supplying the people searching for gold. And I think that’s a great way to go as these companies are building these platforms that then the people who wanna go and try to prospect on an asteroid, look for resources on a comet will have to buy their spacecraft. So, I think it’s really clever, it’s a really great way to kind of position yourself.

Pamela: And Deep Space Industries, as much as I sound like I’m mocking the marketing team, they really do kind of like, they’re doing actually marketing which we don’t normally see in science. So, they have a little tiny cube sat that’s water powered and it’s named Comet because it’s water powered.

Fraser: Yeah, it’s a water-based propulsion system.

Pamela: And it’s clever.

Fraser: Yeah, but imagine that future, right, where you land on a comet, you land on an asteroid, you find water and then you turn that water in to propulsion and then you go land on another asteroid and you just keep this going. So, I think it’s a really clever idea for travelling around in space from world to world with this renewable resource.

Pamela: And this really is a hardware selling operation, they’re the ones selling the shovels to the miners, they are advertising Comet as already approved on multiple launch vehicles, it’s flight-tested, here you go, let’s talk money folks.

Fraser: They’re $200,000.00, you can buy your own Comet engine and attach it to your cube sat for $200,000.00.

Pamela: So, here we are they have that, they’re working on their explorer, as I said, I’m deeply amused at 2.5 au which is not to Jupiter being Deep Space, but that’s okay.

Fraser: You get to 2.5 au.

Pamela: No, I’m too lazy.

Fraser: Okay, me too.

Pamela: So, yeah, these are two different companies with two completely different business profiles. Deep Space Industries is working to sell the shovel to the people who are going to go out and do the mining and I keep thinking this is also the place that like your university aerospace department can go to launch their next graduate students’ project. Then we have on the other side, Planetary Resources, is like we’re just gonna get this done, we’re just gonna go find you that water and define all the technologies that you need and keep going from there.

So, we have the one team that is basically the prospecting team, that’s Planetary Resources and then we have the team that’s the shovel selling team, and that’s Deep Space Industries.

Fraser: Yeah, that’s a pretty interesting state that we’re in and you can just imagine how things are going to accelerate when SpaceX, for example, gets the BFR flying or even the Falcon Heavy. You’re going to be able to purchase space on that and as long as you’re willing to go to the asteroid belt like everybody else who’s gonna be on that mission, then you won’t have to pay a lot, so you buy your little prospecting spacecraft you put it on the BFR. For a couple of hundreds of thousands of dollars maybe a million you’re off to acquire resources from the asteroid belt. And maybe you’re gonna strike it rich, you’re gonna bring back that beautiful spun gold and drop it back in to the atmosphere.

Pamela: What I’m waiting for is the day that premium automobiles, so like, your BMW 6 Series and cube sats have the same cost. I think that’s gonna happen in the next decade or so.

Fraser: Yeah, it’s a cool time to be a part of this and I think we’re all gonna see this technology come a lot more quickly than I think we’d ever expected. We’ve spent so many years wondering when people are gonna set foot on the moon again. But now when you’re looking at SpaceX preparing to launch 12,000 satellites just to provide us the internet. The cost will be coming down dramatically, you’re gonna see utilization of the resources of the solar system happen a lot more quickly than I think we’d ever anticipated.

Pamela: I’m waiting for the day when the science fair winners are getting cube sats as part of their prizes and when wealthy people put in to orbit their own little security thing from space or something.

Fraser: All right, well, thanks Pamela, we’ll see you next week.

Pamela: See you.

Male Speaker: Thank you for listening to Astronomy Cast, a non-profit resource provided by Astrosphere New Media Association, Fraser Cain, and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can find show notes and transcripts for every episode at astronomycast.com. You can email us at info@astronomycast.com. Tweets us at astronomycast. Like us on Facebook or circle us on Google Plus. We record our show live on YouTube every Friday at 1:30 pm Pacific, 4:30 pm Eastern or 20:30 GMT. If you missed the live event you can always catch up over at Cosmoquest.org or on our YouTube page.

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[End of Audio]

Duration: 31 minutes

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