Will asteroid mining ever be profitable?
What resources could be extracted from asteroid mining that would be worth the effort?
NASA actually published a study on this. This study was the main motivator for Planetary Resources to begin its work to mine an asteroid. And NASA is doing even more work to learn more. And there's the approach that Planetary Resources took that seems like the best overall approach.
The first thing to keep in mind is that asteroids contain large amounts of precious metals. It is estimated that even a small asteroid could have a fortune in platinum, at least at today's prices. Work would have to be done to ensure that value does not bring the economy down. But there are other ways an asteroid can be valuable.
There are 3 main types of asteroids. C type, S type and M type. The latter two contain significant amounts of iron and C-type carbon. Now metal on the floor is pretty cheap. The cost of iron ore is approximately $ 115 per ton. It would therefore be difficult to make money with iron ore on earth. However, there is an alternative way to make money. The Falcon 9 costs more than $ 1,800 a pound when charged to its maximum capacity. So if you can do something useful in the space of your asteroid, suddenly its value has increased dramatically. The key to short-term profitability in space is the ability to manufacture and otherwise support satellites. The amount of money that can be made increases dramatically when you can withdraw it. Rocket fuel, which could easily be made from an asteroid, costs as much as $ 1,800 a pound if you can get it to its source. It could even be worth more as fuel would extend the life of the satellites, which is a significant investment.
So what does it take to make space mining profitable? Manufacturing. If you can develop an autonomous set of manufacturing robots, you may be able to get something working. It's often quoted as high as $ 2.6 billion to break even, but that depends on whether this advanced robotics works. It might work, but I think only time will tell.
There is also a whole world of ways to create weightlessness that has barely been touched. It's a lot easier to make some things in microgravity, but we haven't really explored this space yet.
The Apollo program is the closest thing to real space mining. A total of 382 kg of stones were brought with them, which today costs around 125 billion US dollars. Asteroids would be cheaper to get to than the moon, and using unmanned spacecraft should make them cheaper, but the proven figures we have are around $ 9200 / ounce ($ 325 / g). If this cost can be lowered, which should happen by making it unmanned and a primary activity, gold could be profitable pretty soon.
The bottom line is that it will be a long time before Earth's mining industry is hit by space mining, but it would likely have a significant impact on the aerospace industry and put operations into orbit. And one day some of these materials will return to Earth.
Paul A. Clayton
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