For all the awesome superpowers that understanding physics grants us, there are some things that drag us down. Gravity really wants to keep us on this planet. It takes 50 kilograms of rocket propellant to deliver just one kilo of cargo to low earth orbit. As gravity gets weaker however, things get easier. Another four kilos of fuel will get that cargo into geostationary equatorial orbit (GEO). After that though, the physics of inertia in a vacum takes over. Just two more kilograms of fuel could deliver our hypothetical cargo to pretty much anywhere in the solar system. The problem is that you have to bring fuel with you. Those six kilos of fuel needed to escape the gravity well from Low Earth Orbit (LEO), require 600 kilos of fuel to escape earth gravity.
There are lots of companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin tinkering with the economics of scale for LEO and GEO delivery systems but only a few thinking further than that. What if we didn’t have to escape the gravity well with all that fuel? What if we could establish factories and mine the needed materials for space exploration – in space? That’s where astroid mining comes in.
There are a couple of different approaches in play at the moment. According to Wired, Planetary Resources raised $21 million of venture capital for an Earth-observation program called Ceres. They are planning to launch ten earth observation satellites with an observational capacity specifically designed for prospecting. Their approach is essentially to sell earth observation data to terrestrial customers while testing and refining the technologies that will enable them to identify and later capture the water or heavy metals contained in near-earth asteroids. This in turn will facilitate the production of fuel and spacecraft off-planet.
Another player is Deep Space Industries. Later this year they are planning to launch Prospector-X™. This is a spacecraft financed through a partnership with the Luxembourg Government and designed to test the technologies needed for mining asteroids and building a supply chain in outer space. The company then plans to license or sell its water-based propulsion system, radiation-tolerant avionics, and optical navigation system to others who want to take part in the bonanza to come.
Once we have enough information on the location of these resources, mines will have to be set up and infrastructure must be build off-planet. According to The Economist, one company, Tethers Unlimited is building and testing robots to build structures with robotic arms using 3D printing techniques while in orbit. Exactly this kind of orbital technology could be supplied with the raw materials obtained from the mining of asteroids.
All these projects are still in their infancy. But just imagine what kind of value could be created if the economics of building things in space was made 1000x more efficient than the approach we’ve been using up until now.