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Asteroid Mining Sounds Hard, Right? You Don’t Know the Half of It

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The commercial space industry pushes a particular brand of optimism. Its urge to inspire manifests as soaring soundtracks to three-minute mission-promo videos, press releases with words like “humanity,” and slick graphics of spacecraft that don’t exist yet but could any day now. In the particular case of asteroid mining, business leaders are selling a future in which materials plucked from space rocks make up for Earth’s shortfalls and support a thriving civilization. Everyone is rich, all are happy, and no one wants for anything. O pioneers! We are them!

OK, fine, that’s an exaggeration. But the toned-down version of asteroid mining’s prospects is still hyperreal. “Our vision is to catalyze humanity’s growth, both on and off the Earth,” says Peter Diamandis, co-founder of mining company Planetary Resources, in a PR video. A graphical spacecraft, presumably future-theirs, flies away from our planet while he speaks. “At the end, the entire human race will be the beneficiary, as we expand our reach beyond the Earth, into the solar system,” he continues.

But traveling the road to space-based industry will require giant leaps. Like picking the most lucrative asteroids—the ones with lots of water and precious metals—from far afield. And negotiating spacecraft near their complicated gravitational fields. To do that, companies will have to leave the comfy confines of Earth’s orbit, where they currently do all their experimenting.

In May, Planetary Resources raised $21 million of venture capital for an Earth-observation program called Ceres. Ten small satellites will fly low around the planet, taking twice-daily images of Earth in wavelengths ranging from mid-infrared to visible—images that will “benefit multiple industries including agriculture, oil & gas, water quality, financial intelligence and forestry.” These satellites will, essentially, be prospecting Earth, using the same sensors Planetary Resources has developed to prospect asteroids.

The utility, says president and CEO Chris Lewicki, is dual. “We are taking pictures of the Earth and using them not only to understand how our technology works but also to understand more about our planet,” he says. True enough, but it’s also about the balance sheet: Earth-facing spacecraft, as all that venture capital suggests, are big money. Which is important for a company that has to continue existing until it can actually mine asteroids.

The other big name in the industry, Deep Space Industries, is also in the Earth-observation business, kind of: It sells its spacecraft technologies to other companies, some of whom want to use them to peer down at our planet. Like HawkEye 360, a company that plans to monitor and map radio-wave broadcasts in near real-time. Deep Space Industries is the prime contractor developing and making the satellites that will become HawkEye’s Pathfinder prototype. “Earth observation is kind of the hot thing in space right now,” says Meagan Crawford, Deep Space Industries’ chief operating officer. “It’s where most of the value is being created.”

But unlike Planetary Resources, Deep Space Industries isn’t planning its own world-watching missions, even if they plan to profit from others’. Their personal path to an asteroid is straighter: They hope to launch the prototype Prospector-X this year to see how its propulsion performs, how its avionics stand up to space radiation, and how its optical navigation system fares against obstacles. It will be in Earth orbit, but it’s not on the Earth-observation beat. It’s meant to show that the follow-on Prospector-1 will work—hopefully going to an asteroid by the end of the decade, the same timescale on which Deep Space is also working.

“We think the best way to determine what these asteroids are really like is to go touch and feel and interact with one,” Crawford says.

Spacecraft shortfalls

Becoming a prime prospector of Earth doesn’t quite translate to asteroids, as the two space-body types are quite different. For one, Earth is, like, right here. Asteroids are way out there, moving very fast. And that makes getting to know them hard. The companies need to know about a specific rock’s composition before embarking on a mining mission—something they can’t accomplish with the same sensors they are deploying in Earth orbit, the same ones they hope to use to get detailed information once they are actually close to an asteroid.

Scientific missions specced to learn more about what asteroids are made of, like NASA’s newly funded Lucy and Psyche, will help the companies get the knowledge they need to get power. But Crawford admits that “the biggest missing piece for asteroid mining is scientific knowledge of target asteroids.”

Asteroids’ specifics are still fuzzy. That’s why space agencies keep sending missions like Lucy and Psyche, as well as the already-launched OSIRIS-REx, Dawn, and Hayabusa to them: because we don’t know a super lot about their details, beyond predictive models based on broad categories. “We don’t have a lot of experience with the real characteristics of asteroids,” says Zoe Szajnfarber, who studies the dynamics of technological innovation at George Washington University.

What if a company chose a target asteroid based on predictions, only to find, upon arrival, that it holds much less water and platinum than checkbooks and customers hoped? Too bad, so sad. “If you make the choice to go to the one asteroid, that’s where you’re going,” says Szajnfarber. “It’s almost impossible to have enough fuel to change your mind and go to a different one.”

Then, once you get there, there’s the problem of gravity. The companies’ craft may master constellation- or formation-flying around our planet. But Earth, as globes have suggested for centuries, is basically a sphere. And its mass is pretty evenly distributed. Gravity is basically the same everywhere in a spacecraft’s orbit. Keeping spacecraft in line in such a boring gravitational field is “easy.”

But have you seen pictures of asteroids? Those pockmarked potato colonies with weird peaks and valleys have complicated gravity and composition.

The companies will have to climb over both these early obstacles before they get to even bigger ones: that part where they have to build robots that can mine and spacecraft that can bring the haul back into humanity’s reach. They can’t do any of it by planetary navel-gazing alone. But they are going to do planetary navel-gazing, whether under their own flags or customers’. That globe-centric system will at least make the companies money, which means they may be able to survive long enough to figure out how to do what they really want to do.

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