Could asteroid mining become a space Gold Rush?

March 13, 2013, University of Alabama in Huntsville
Luke Burgess and Grant Bergstue illustrated as contemplating an astroid field.

Grant Bergstue and Luke Burgess figure an asteroid mining space economy would be easier to build if there were the equivalent of a few Stuckey's around out there.

The pair of graduate students in the Laser Science and Engineering Group (LSEG) at The University of Alabama in Huntsville say the day will come when a economy will need outposts on dwarf planets like Ceres to provide fuel, liquids and supplies.

Like Stuckey's, the business of these outposts will be collecting energy in a centralized place for distribution, and like sodas and Slim Jims in convenience store aisles, water and sundries will also be there for the space traveler.

It's the infrastructure that will be needed to collect and distribute that energy that intrigues the pair. "A lot of our research is on establishing some sort of energy infrastructure in space, because if you are going to work in space, you will need energy there," Burgess said. They see lasers as the only feasible space energy pipelines, and have written papers on what an efficient laser distribution system would look like and on using for propulsion and mining activities.

Recent LSEG papers include Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) publications "Planetary Defense and an for Near Earth Space" (Vol. 99, No. 3, March 2011) and " for Space" (Vol. 99, No. 11, November 2011), as well as International Astronautical Congress (IAC) publications "Energy Support for Missions in Near Earth Space" (IAC-2011-D5.1.1), "Beamed Energy for Ablative Propulsion in Near Earth Space" (IAC-2011-C4.8.2) and "Advancing the Beamed Energy Ablation Driven Propulsion Engine Concept" (IAC-2012-C4.6.6).

Under the guidance of Dr. Richard Fork, Electrical and Computer Engineering professor, the team works like this: Bergstue is the optics man and Burgess is the electronics guy. Burgess is researching how best to transmit short focused while Bergstue investigates how best to make such a system safe.

Laser energy transfer in space is not subject to Earth's limitations. Like fog in a flashlight beam, Earth's atmosphere disperses the laser and the pulse collapses on itself due to air molecules. In space, lasers have a clear shot.

"Laser based energy goes a lot farther in space than on Earth," Bergstue said. "There's no distortion. A lot of my research has been on how to do it safely." Less distortion means a more concentrated pulse.

"In space, the reason you want to go with higher frequencies is that you want to be able to keep the beam focused," Bergstue said. That requires a smaller receiver surface area to collect all the energy beamed to a mining craft or spaceship.

For his part, Burgess said, "I work more on how quickly the electronics can respond to an object that is blocking the beam so as to avoid damage."

The dwarf planet Ceres looks like a good rest stop. It has gravity, water and it is decently spherical for good orbiting. They figure it's perfect for a system of teamed satellites that will collect the sun's energy and then beam it to nearby spacecraft via short-pulse lasers.

"It would make an excellent base," Burgess said. Just as Gold Rush stores sprang up to supply miners, companies would invest to energize space mining. "That basically is what we recognize, that entrepreneurs have the ability to put unmanned craft in orbit to serve as a 'rest area' for other craft."

Energy needs and exploration will first be driven by asteroid mining, they think. Companies like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries are already blazing the trail.

"Asteroids coming near Earth are probably more likely to be mined," said Burgess. "We already have a system to detect the ones that are coming close. Humankind has equipment in place to do this. It's just a matter of choice of investment."

In this fledgling phase, the same kind of collection system envisioned for Ceres could orbit Earth, using lasers to refuel mining operations. From there, Burgess and Bergstue envision asteroid mining growing toward the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

"I think it's really plausible when you look at it," Bergstue said. "It's going to take some work and development, but we're trying to increase the technology to be able to do it."

Asteroids that pass near Earth are also an efficient way to move mining equipment farther out. "What we can do is hitch a ride," Burgess said. "The vehicle gets within the gravitational pull of the asteroid and rides out to its destination."

Deep space exploration can pay future dividends to governments willing to invest in it today, Burgess said. "Governments could collect data and information about deep space mining probabilities and sell that information in the future to companies."

Development of a space economy is a question of national will, he says, much like the effort to put man on the moon. "The portion of our national resources spent on space these days is a small fraction of what was used then."

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5 / 5 (2) Mar 13, 2013
the day will come when a space economy will need outposts on dwarf planets like Ceres to provide fuel, liquids and supplies.

It's a fundamental requirement. All production that can be done in space should be done in space. It saves orders of magnitude on cost and return of investment, and over the long term the savings and profitability is exponentially higher than any attempt at direct mining would be.

So ideally you mine all energy and material resources in space, and as much as possible, produce all finished products in space which will stay in space. It may be cheaper to send drop pods (made from space materials,) back to Earth on one-way missions to be collected by the company in the case of bulk refined materials, such as gold or platinum ingots.

I am anxious about the Dawn spacecraft because I want to see what Ceres really looks like up close. How much water really is there, what is the topography, is it cratered, crevasse, or is it smooth?

Land a rocket on ice; ouch.
5 / 5 (2) Mar 13, 2013
I am anxious about the Dawn spacecraft because I want to see what Ceres really looks like up close.

Same here. This thing is one of the rare round object in the solar system that we have very little idea of what it looks like.

I also hope someone sends a robot there. Enough with mars now. Move on, people.
5 / 5 (2) Mar 14, 2013
Enough with mars now. Move on, people.

I sincerely doubt we know enough about mars to move on to other more distant planets, moons, and asteroids. Money is and may always be the road block to exploring our solar system and the rest of the Universe.

Unfortunately we need a major discovery in space that draws the attention of the masses before any such funding will become available.

Lets take things one step at a time. Willingness to spend billions of dollars to explore Mars is at this point is astounding. I'm happy were on Mars rather then just writing science fiction.
3 / 5 (2) Mar 14, 2013
My advice is not good, but it is cheap.
Once we get out of this gravity well I advise against going down another.
The resources that are interesting are already out of planetary wells.
Send the stuff to L4 and 5 if you feel that it is better not to stray too far from home. That feeling won't last more than a generation.
The rocks that you send back to the Lagrange points can be arranged in a hollow sphere to shield against radiation. And then machines could process the elements to create the first habitat with what ever artificial gravity strength you prefer.
Uncomfortable and dangerous in the beginning?
You Betcha.
With a couple of generations of effort you will be envied.
5 / 5 (1) Mar 14, 2013
Asteroids that pass near Earth are also an efficient way to move mining equipment farther out. "What we can do is hitch a ride," Burgess said. "The vehicle gets within the gravitational pull of the asteroid and rides out to its destination."

This guy is obviously clueless when it comes to rocket science, but then again, he isn't a rocket scientist. One of them is in lasers and optics and the other is computers and electronics, so they don't really need to know anything about propulsion and orbital mechanics. If you can get your rocket to match the speed and direction of an asteroid, then there's no need for the asteroid at all. At that point you have already spent all the fuel needed to attain that vector, with or without the asteroid.

The only good reason I can think of for traveling with an outbound asteroid would be if you had people and wanted a radiation shield.

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