Is water the new oil of space?
As space colonizers such as Elon Musk and Jeffrey P. Bezos (owner of The Washington Post) aspire to shrink the cost of space travel, interest has picked up among oil states and others in how to power space settlements using water and minerals mined from the heavens.
Oil states are investing in companies and infrastructure that could one day mine minerals and water found on the moon and in asteroids.
“They are investing in it in order to attract business to the Middle East,” James said. Oil states have large, empty spaces, relatively small populations and are located near the equator. The UAE has launched a multipronged effort to establish a space industry in which it has invested more than $5 billion, and that includes four satellites already in space and another due to launch in 2018.
“The Middle East is ideal for launching rockets and spaceships,” James said. “It’s the long-term solution. Oil and gas may not run forever. So they are looking to invest and be part of the new, future economy.”
The water is critical. It can be turned into hydrogen to fuel the spaceship, oxygen for breathing or left untouched for drinking and everyday use. Requiring only a four-day trip and containing lots of ice, the moon is a prime candidate for resource extraction.
The interest in space mining and industrialization has picked up in recent years as Musk, Bezos and others push outward. Part of the key to unlocking affordable space travel and space industrialization is finding extraterrestrial materials such as water and minerals that do not have to be rocketed up from Earth.
Goldman Sachs wrote a recent research note explaining that “space mining could be more realistic than perceived.” The bank in the same report said the storage of water as a fuel could be a “game changer” by creating orbital gas stations.
Most of the minerals will remain for use in space. Some rare, highly valuable commodities could be brought back to Earth. Goldman Sachs, for instance, was quoted in a 2012 interview with Planetary Resources that estimated that a football field-size asteroid could contain up to $50 billion worth of platinum.
“Asteroid mining could very quickly supply an emerging on-orbit manufacturing economy with nearly all the raw materials needed,” according to the Goldman Sachs report.
The possibilities are beginning to register with the business sector.
“Within the next five years,” James said, “mining and energy companies will start thinking about space mining before the shareholders start asking, ‘What is your strategy?’ and they answer, ‘Oh, we don’t have one.’ ”
The technology already exists. NASA launched a billion-dollar mission in September to vacuum materials from an 2,000-foot-wide asteroid called Bennu. The spacecraft is scheduled to sidle up to the asteroid in 2018, extend its arm and pull in its cargo. The ship will return to Earth a couple of years later.
But it is unclear whether mining on a wider scale is a real business, said Paul Chodas, an astronomer and asteroid expert with NASA.
The technology is there, but it’s not simple. Asteroids travel through space at tens of thousands of miles per hour. Tracking asteroids and determining their composition is difficult.
“It’s hard to determine which ones will have the most valuable minerals,” Chodas said. He said it is doable, but “the question is cost-benefit. Is it worth the cost? We don’t know yet. There is simply more work to be done to determine whether space mining is profitable. But it’s promising.”
Chris Lewicki is chief executive of Planetary Resources, a Seattle-area company studying asteroids to find one that is an appropriate candidate for mining.
Lewicki said the mining industry is a natural to make the first move when it comes to recovering space minerals because of its earthbound expertise. He foresees a small, robotic mining operation drilling for water on an asteroid in as soon as about 10 years.
“This is how [the mining industry] continues,” Lewicki said. Mining asteroids “isn’t a space project. It’s a resource project. In the same way having minerals and materials are very important for our economy, space becomes a new medium for furthering that economy.”
The regulatory phase got a major boost in 2015, when President Barack Obama signed legislation recognizing asteroid resource property rights.
The law recognizes the right of U.S. citizens to own asteroid resources and encourages the commercial exploration and utilization of resources from asteroids.
In addition to the UAE’s space industry, Bloomberg News reports that the Saudis signed a pact with Russia in 2015 for cooperation on space exploration. Abu Dhabi is an investor in Richard Branson’s space tourism venture, Virgin Galactic.
Several private companies, including Deep Space Industries, Planetary Resources and Shackleton Energy, are trying to crack the mining potential.
“If you have any significant human activity in space, then you are going to need resources,” said Peter Stibrany, chief strategist and business developer for Deep Space Industries. “It will get too difficult to launch everything from the ground.”
Deep Space Industries is four years old and living off seed money from investors and founders. Stibrany said the company is in the technology development stage and working to create delivery systems for lower orbit launches.
He said mining space resources faces what he calls a “four-dimensional problem.”
The first two are technological and regulatory, which are being addressed.
“While the psychological barrier to mining asteroids is high, the actual financial and technological barriers are far lower,” according to the Goldman Sachs report. “Prospecting probes can likely be built for tens of millions of dollars each, and Caltech has suggested an asteroid-grabbing spacecraft could cost $2.6 billion.”
James pointed to “nano-sats,” small satellites priced relatively inexpensively at $2 million each, far less than the hundreds of millions needed to place current satellites in orbit.
The third concern is the lack of a current market in asteroid resources. That should resolve itself when the space population hits critical mass, demanding infrastructure.
Then a business will follow if investors see that a reasonable return is likely over a reasonable amount of time with appropriate risks. That is the fourth hurdle.
“The end game,” Stibrany said, “is that if you have 1,000 or 10,000 people living and working in space, there is no practical way that is going to work without using in-space resources.”