In the July 29, 2013 issue of Space News there is a point and counter point article by Ambassador Roger Harrison and myself. Ambassador Harrison takes the negative premise and I take the positive. Here are links to the abbreviated versions in Space News.
I would like to present the expanded version of my comments that we originally did as it more fully develops the ideas involved in extraterrestrial mining. One thing to note is that this was originally going to be published in a defense oriented publication so my style here was to appeal to that demographic.
The Case for Extraterrestrial Mining and Infrastructure Development
Recently a respected colleague, Ambassador Roger Harrison, invited me to work with him on a point counterpoint missive regarding the pros and cons of extraterrestrial mining. Ambassador Harrison took the counterpoint while the positive argument it is left to me. The ambassador kindly wrote his first, allowing me, like General Lee at Chancellorsville to counterpunch. Like General Hooker’s position on May 2nd 1863, Harrison’s position looks unassailable. Rather than the superiority in troops and logistics that Hooker had, Harrison marshals facts and figures as if they were divisions. Like Lee, let us examine these facts and figures and search for weaknesses or flanks to be turned.
Harrison’s stipulations provide me room to maneuver but he has anchored his position with the economic argument. The strongest argument is that asteroid mining costs will be astronomically high and inexorably fixed. His example is NASA’s billion dollar plan to return 60 ounces of material from an asteroid. He concedes that private enterprise may do this 10x better but that even if you grant this, the cost still far outweigh any profit.
Harrison’s detailed arguments are impressive, like the positioning of Hooker’s corps. Beyond the small arguments of radiation damage, temperature swings, and equipment longevity, his heavy artillery targets the fact that asteroids orbital geometries render opportunities to return materials to the Earth few and far between, making the time cost of money excessive. Harrison also makes the argument that capital costs are extremely high, reducing the investment net present value. Finally, he confidently asserts is that it is an illusion that we are running out of resources, there are plentiful supplies, just ready to be wrested from the Earth.
As a further argument in depth Harrison suggests that the cost of some resources, such as diamonds, are controlled by cartels and that even if you solved all the other problems, in the end politics would intervene to buy your loyalty to scarcity in order to maintain profits, negating the transformative value of vastly increased resources. Like Hooker in the afternoon of May 2nd, Harrison makes the conclusion that there is no escape from his overwhelming argument. His lines have been dressed, the troops are in place, and like Hooker waiting for Bobby Lee to break his teeth on his lines, the ambassador is confident in victory. However, are things as they seem?
Cost and Scarcity Argument
The terrestrial mining industry is the obvious analog for in space mining. Mining today is not a pick and shovel operation. No longer can a grizzled prospector with a good eye easily find an economically viable ore body. Today mining begins as a complex and expensive adventure of discovery using sophisticated geophysical instruments in search of what is hoped are billions of dollars worth of resources. After the resource is quantified then several years and billions of dollars are spent in the capital phase of mine development. Table one gives an indication of the capital cost and timelines for just a few large projects ongoing today:
|Minas Rio (Brazil)||
|Pueblo Viejo JV (Dom Republic||
|Pascua Lama (Chile/Argentina)||
|Cerro Casale (Chile)||
|Donlin (USA Alaska)||
|Los Prelambres (Chile)||
|Quebrada Blanca II (Chile)||
Table 1: A Selection of Large Mine Projects Today
These project costs are representative of the major players such as Barrick Gold and Anglo American. Following the footnotes reveals that energy, labor, and infrastructure costs have escalated dramatically recently. Political costs are also rapidly rising due to the greater environmental effects of the mines. These problems were outlined by Dan Wood, of the W H Bryan Mining & Geology Research Centre, the University of Queensland, Australia in a Distinguished Lecture before the Society of Environmental Geologists entitled Crucial Challenges to Discovery and Mining – Tomorrow’s Deeper Ore Bodies; the opening is reproduced here.
It is stating the obvious to observe that there is no shortage of metal in the Earth’s crust, only of known ore. Unfortunately, ore is becoming increasingly more difficult to define with any certainty. For many metals, what is now considered ore is trending to lower grade and it is becoming more deeply situated. Moreover, as the declining discovery rate over recent decades has shown, it is becoming more difficult to discover an ore body now than it was 30 – 50 years ago.
Compounding the problem for mining companies and their explorers, this is all happening at a time when the demands for many mineral commodities are at all-time highs, and increasing. Without doubt, the world’s exploration teams will require a significantly improved future discovery performance if the present inventories of mineral-commodity ore reserves are not to be seriously depleted as the demand for mineral resources escalates over the coming decades…
Wood goes into the political arguments related to the increasing desire of states to retain more of the earnings from mining of their national resources and increasing costs incurred by environmental activist groups lawsuits. Wood provides crucial insight into the problems confronting terrestrial mining today as demand skyrockets.
GDP growth and the increasing global resource demand is addressed in a report, Iron Ore Outlook 2050, commissioned for the Indian government. The GDP of the major powers (U.S. Europe, China, India, Japan) is forecast to rise from $48 trillion in 2010 to $149 trillion by 2050. The report’s substance is that with this massive increase in global GDP, a scramble for global metal resources is inevitable and this report advises India on strategies to obtain their share.
If the trend lines of increasing cost, lower quality ore, and rising demand continue, there are three potential outcomes. The first is the global collapse forecast for so long by the Limits to Growth school of thought as economically recoverable resources are exhausted. The second and more likely scenario is a global war over resources driven by increasingly fierce national economic competition. The third, and most desirable, is to increase the global resource base by the incorporation of the resources of the inner solar system into the terrestrial economy. What is clear is that increasing cost, scarcity, and political trends point to a time when it may be less expensive to mine resources in space than the Earth. It is not a question of if, it is a question of when, and how.
Architectures for Space Mining
I grant Ambassador Harrison that if we were to take the path toward extraterrestrial mining that he presents as his strawman, the likelihood of success would be small for the reasons that he states. However, his scenario is based upon decades old approach to the problem. The argument is a time cost of money proposition related to the time factor and cost of operating at any asteroid. Due to orbital dynamics the best case is just about a two year cycle of mining and then returning material to Earth. Planetary Resources seeks to mitigate this by returning an object to the Earth for mining. However, this has its own time cost of money and large political issues as well.
We need look no farther than our own Moon to see a means to escape this quandary. Following are some ideas for architecture implementation that lay to rest the idea that any such effort’s costs will be astronomically high and inexorably fixed.
Lunar Resources of Asteroidal Origin
A 2011 Science Daily article provides the succinct answer for the Earth, and by extension, the Moon regarding asteroidal resource availability.
Ultra high precision analyses of some of the oldest rock samples on Earth by researchers at the University of Bristol provides clear evidence that the planet’s accessible reserves of precious metals are the result of a bombardment of meteorites more than 200 million years after Earth was formed.
The Moon was subjected to this same bombardment and it is reasonable to extend the idea that these same metals are there. This thesis is developed in my chapter for the book “Return to the Moon”. Thus, I stipulate that a large, highly fractured multibillion ton resource of a metal asteroid exists within 25 km of the lunar north pole. The Apollo samples confirm that the lunar highlands have high concentrations of meteoric metals.
Building the Infrastructure, Profitably
Common to the development in large scale mining today is the provision of unrelated infrastructure. Barrick and Goldcorp are building a $300 million dollar power plant to provide power to their operations at he Pueblo Viejo gold mine in the Dominican Republic. The same will be true on the Moon. I choose the lunar north pole as a base of operations because along the rim of the crater Whipple, which is on the rim of the crater Peary, there are four areas totaling approximately 10 km2 that are at a “peak of eternal light”. At least seasonally and perhaps all year this area is in sunlight 100% of the time. This eliminates the need for nuclear power, at least initially. Using aerospace grade solar cells I can provide about 545 watts of power per m2. After conversion losses this is about 500 w/m2 of AC power. This gives a potential of 500 megawatts per km2.
With the SpaceX Falcon Heavy (F9H) I can place about 6,000 kg of payload on the Moon. This is enough for a 125 kilowatt powerlander, along with a laser communications system, a petabyte of computer server, and at least 10 small (30 kg each) advanced rovers. The F9H cost is $83m, and the cost of the lander with the desired payload is about $500m. I can immediately generate revenue from the use of the laser communications system. Utterly secure, 25 gigabits/sec communications with an unhackable data server would easily be worth $150-250m/year in revenue to the U.S. government, based on the cost of the Advanced EHF and other wideband military satellites. The yearly cost to support this is $1-2m dollars, thus my first infrastructure payload for mining is already generating strongly positive cash flow.
Many of the issues that Harrison pointed to do not exist at the lunar poles. Thermal gradients are small, hovering around -40c. The dust and grit are there, but not any more than at a terrestrial mine. The rovers use microwaves to sinter landing pads for more powerlanders. Another four launches and units and $1.5b later (multiple units cost drop dramatically in aerospace), I now have .6 of a megawatt of power on the Moon, along with a lot of equipment that since it is modular, can be reconfigured on the fly for different tasks. Since we are 356,000 km from the Earth, we can operate 24/7 using a mix of autonomy and telepresence.
Changing the Game (The Stonewall Jackson Effect)
Using swarming technology the 50 rovers work as a group on various tasks. The landers propulsion systems are removed and structural parts not needed by the powerlanders anymore are reconfigured into a single stage to orbit system that can lift or land more than 30 tons of payload. We use the fifth propulsion system tanks to store water. Some of the rovers are designed to scoop up regolith laden with water that is only 8.5 km from the base site. This water is processed and transferred to the tank of lander 5 where it is electrolyzed. Some of the rovers are configured to carry this hydrogen and oxygen to the SSTO lander, which over a month’s time, is filled up.
Now another payload from Earth is delivered, a 12 ton payload that meets the SSTO lander in lunar orbit. Additionally, the five ton F9H upper stage is grabbed by rovers reconfigured to this task and attached to the SSTO lander. The SSTO lander now lands a total of almost 17 tons of payload. The payload mix is radically different as well. The payloads are large 3D printers configured for metals and basalts, an induction furnace, fuel cells, large electric motors, computers, and many other parts needed to build larger surface systems, including advanced robotics designed for multiple tasks. The entire cost of this payload is no more than the half billion for the powerlanders as we are not shipping assembled systems but subsystems and parts. These modular parts will be assembled into systems on the Moon via telepresence.
The End of the Beginning and the Beginning of the Future
Now we have the equipment to build large surface systems for regolith processing, water harvesting, and metals processing. Mass drivers can be built and payloads returned to the Earth. To this point we are beginning the mining process and providing investment return. This is done by integrating technologies that are just now starting to change the world here, and by thinking differently about how to do mining. Another key element is to move as much infrastructure development in situ rather than shipping everything up from the Earth as each kilogram saved lowers costs. The lunar north pole location allows continuous shipping of finished high value metals and products. The diversity of resources on the Moon is far greater than on an asteroid, bringing further opportunity for profit. Proximity to the Earth brings other opportunities for applications bringing near term profit.
Have we proven the economic viability of extraterrestrial mining? Not quite, but we have shown that we can envision a way to lower cost and bring early cash flow by moving the crux of the asteroid mining proposition to the Moon, which is the final refutation astronomically high and inexorably fixed costs position. In terms of cost, the numbers for lunar industrialization and mining are very comparable to a large terrestrial mine project. The architecture ideas put forth have comparable cost and provide an investment return within 48 months of project start.
Thus like Lee and Jackson at Chancellorsville, we have declined a direct confrontation, yet provided a victory over the status quo, by showing that solutions are possible that have not been thought of by the generals of the political science world. It will take a book to develop these thoughts properly and perhaps it is time to do so.
What about the asteroids? I agree that without extensive infrastructure development, mining the asteroids is an extremely expensive proposition today. However, the development of a lunar infrastructure to mine asteroidal materials there and develop an industrial base is a major step in the right direction to lower these costs. It is a fallacious argument that our move into space is a question of the Moon, Mars, or asteroids. These destinations are mutually supportive and their economic development will transform our global civilization as much as the development of the new world 500 years ago.
 http://www.infraline.com/steel/Iron_Ore_Outlook_2050.pdf Accessed April 16, 2013
 University of Bristol. “Where does all Earth’s gold come from? Precious metals the result of meteorite bombardment, rock analysis finds.” ScienceDaily, 9 Sep. 2011. Web. 20 Apr. 2013.
 Return To the Moon; Apogee Book Series, ISBN-10: 1894959329