Study looks at making asteroid mining viable

Sep 26, 2012 by Andy Tomaswick, Universe Today
Study looks at making asteroid mining viable
Artist concept of the Robotic Asteroid Prospector. Credit: Marc Cohen et al.

There's been a lot of buzz in the media lately about mining asteroids, largely brought on by the introduction of Planetary Resources, Peter Diamandis' new venture into the industry. But is this business proposition actually viable? NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts is funding a study that hopes to answer that question.

Called the Robotic Prospector proposal, the project is part of the NIAC's Phase I program awardees. It is headed by Dr. Marc Cohen, an architect based in Palo Alto California, with help from Warren James, a trajectory expert, Kris Zacny, a roboticist at Honeybee Robotics and Brad Blair, a mineral economist. Their proposal studies the fundamentals of some major questions facing the asteroid mining industry. What kinds of mission and spacecraft design are necessary? Is the right kind of mining technology available? And most importantly, is there even a viable business model for doing it in the first place?

Dr. Cohen himself is skeptical that there is, but points out that's part of the reason he's so interested in performing the research. Contributing to his skepticism are the numerous assumptions the proposal is based on. These include a telescope in Venus orbit to help the search for near-Earth objects (one of NASA's primary mission statements, and similar to the B612 Foundation's that will hunt for ) and regular commercial access to a service base located in a Lagrange point from which to launch the missions.

"We're trying to make the assumptions really clear, specific and explicit, so we understand what the trade-offs are," Dr. Cohen told Universe Today. "One thing we're being very careful about is not going in with any preconceptions."

The assumptions lead to a spacecraft design, possibly using a solar-thermal , that launches to a NEO from the Lagrange point station, mines and processes the material at the asteroid and then returns it to the Lagrange point for shipment back to Earth.

Dr. Cohen explained that the team is trying to find the requirements that would make a robotic asteroid program commercially successful.

There are still plenty of challenges to solve, including developing trajectories that allow the spacecraft to make repeated, short trips to the asteroid it is mining and handling any sort of technical problems without a human presence nearby. If it manages to resolve some of those difficulties, the project could result in the outlines of one of the backbones of the future space economy. It might also attract funding for the Phase II round of funding from NIAC next year.

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1 / 5 (1) Sep 26, 2012
They need to understand that you should land on Earth as seldom as possible, as I'm sure they know.

The solution I proposed to prevent the most valuable materials burning up on re-entry to Earth was to create cargo ships using the less valuable materials: iron, aluminum, silica, etc, and fill them with the Platinum group, and rare Earth metals.

This method will greatly reduce launch costs, however such drop pods will require some means of course correction to ensure they land in a location that is safe yet easily accessible.

For this purpose, you might build some sort of solar "Tractor" which would haul the cargo in "drop pods" and correct the course and then drop them. Then the "tractor" would return to the refinery to pick up the next load. to be time-wise efficient you would need a "fireman's chain" of these robots going around the clock.

whenever possible, structural components should be made from the less valuable metals in space, not launched from earth.

Expand, expand..
1 / 5 (1) Sep 26, 2012
The biggest benchmark would be when you can make the majority of the components for a SECOND refinery using only materials made in space, because at that point, you would cut out almost all Earth-launch costs.

One of the biggest advantages of asteroid mining is that, with some probe and telescope scans, you can find the type you're looking for, and you know there's heavy metallic ores there, but you just don't know which type right away.

Obviously the biggest disadvantages are logistics and maintenance.

To this end, the mining facility should have as many "passive" components as possible, with as few moving parts as possible. Reliance on lasers and possibly direct solar concentrators for mining and refining is a requirement IMO.

Refining metals in space may require some form of vapor process, which is very high energy, but can probably get metals to .9 or better even in low gravity. Direct concentrated solar may be the only viable fuel option.
not rated yet Sep 27, 2012
Complex heat shielding might not be necessary. Getting a heat shield into space (or manufacturing one on the spot - or even going for fully ledged drop pods) is probably a lot more costly/complex than just living with a small percentage loss of a sizeable ore dump.

Drop it near an uninhabited coastline (or into some designated area in central Australia, Africa, China or Siberia. ) and you're good.

But I still think the overall costs are WAY too high to consider this at present.