PLANETARY PROSPECTING: EXACTLY WHY DOES EVERYONE WANT TO MINE ...

September 13, 2015 By Joseph P. Farrell

As most regular readers here are aware, over the past few years there has been a push, both in media coverage, and in reality, for mining local celestial bodies: asteroid mining. There have been a spate of articles and press releases about this or that private company developing this or that reusable booster, or robotic technology, and even NASA has joined the fun with articles about actually going out there, and grabbing and snabbing an asteroid, parking it in orbit around the Moon, and mining the daylights out of it. (These usually ignore the pesky little problem of what are they going to do with the asteroid once they've denuded it of wealth.) Said articles in some cases have even been accompanied by artist's drawings of the NASA plan to build large "space cups" that will simply catch the roving rocks like a gold ball (no two or three putts allowed).

The real question that has always bothered me, and I'm sure it has bothered a lot of other readers here, is how is all this going to be cost effective, a problem that the following article, shared by Mr. S.D., makes abundantly clear:

Space prospecting: How Planetary Resources selects its asteroid mining targets

So again, how is all of this going to be cost effective? After all, just the technology to prospect for the "right" asteroid to mine is quite expensive. You or I are not going to go to our local Wally World and pull a satellite off the shelf(at least, not yet), and launch it into space(another expensive prospect), and then maintain the facilities and highly skilled technicians that have to watch the satellite and interpret the data it sends back. We've also heard stories about the vast amount of wealth out there to be had, if we can just get to it and mine it.

But again, if it's not cost effective, why bother? The article above informs us that planetary prospectors, besides looking at things like the asteroid's velocity, rate of spin, proximity to Earth, and so on, are also looking at its probable contents, nickel, cobalt, or even lowly iron. But I don't recall hearing any news recently about "peak cobalt" or the looming "titanium shortage" unless "they" have been lying about those things too. So again, why go out there for your cobalt, when it is much cheaper to mine it here?

As we've been watching these stories develop over the years, and following them on this website in the occasional blog, the problem of "cost effectiveness" has always nagged at me and, as I suggest, probably has with most of the readership here. I've said, clearly and unequivocally, that chemical rockets would not seem to be a very cost effective way of mining anything out there. And then there's the problem of what to do with
"it" once you've mined it(another question that these types of articles typically ignore). The implicit assumption has been that it would be brought back to Earth and somehow brought to the surface (yet another very expensive proposition), again, with the current off-the-shelf equivalent of the wood-and-canvas Wright Brothers technological equivalent of the space age: the chemical rocket and space shuttles. I've speculated, along with many here, that the mere talk of mining anything in space is perhaps an indicator of other not-so-public technologies that would make such mining feasible and cost effective. And, if you've a few spare billion in pocket change, on the way to proposing to "nuke" Mars (as Mr. Musk has recently done), you might want to drop a few hundred million in the development of rather different propulsion methods on a much more covert basis. But again, a billion here, and a billion there, and pretty soon - as the old Senator Evrett Dirksen(I believe) once said - you're talking some serious money.

On top of this, I wonder(thanks to a fascinating lunch and discussion recently with a friend in the oil business) just exactly what type of accounting space mining will use? Suffice it to say, that's a subject for another day, but from what I've gathered thus far in my meager attempts to research petroleum industry accounting practices, one of those methods makes eminent sense, and the other is rife with possibilities for, well, fraud.

All these considerations suggest that either the return on investments from asteroid mining must be far greater than initial investment - and some estimates do put the wealth "out there" in the trillions if not quadrillions of dollars (a handy thing to have laying around out there if you're trying to get rid of all those quadrillions of dollars in bad derivatives paper) - or there is(here comes the high octane speculation) something else entirely in play.

That "something else" might be indicated by one very odd statement made in this otherwise "set piece" article, a statement so odd in the context of a rather dry presentation of the general problems of planetary prospecting that it sticks out like a sore thumb, especially in an article that repeatedly suggests the whole problem of "cost effectiveness" and "return on investment":

In the future, Planetary Resources plans to go after metallic (M-type) asteroids containing metals like Iron, Cobalt, and Nickel — which can be used to build structures in space, without having to haul the metal up from Earth’s surface. (Emphasis added)

That, it would seem to me, is a rather large admission, for while such plans to use local celestial bodies to "island hop" from one to the other, building facilities and ships as we go, have been around for years, the mention in the context of mining, of commerce, suggests that it might have been taking place on a small and covert scale for some time.

After all, Ben Rich, who is known to have said "We found an error in the equations and now we can take ET home," might just as well have said "We found an error in the equations, and now we can mine the stars."

Or to put it "country simple": it would seem that returns on investments and cost effectiveness would mandate very different technologies than the wood and canvas of chemical rockets.

See you on the flip side...