February 1, 2019

Asteroid mining is (not) dead.

"The space mining bubble has burst"

Behind this quasi-sensationalist headline is well-informed reporting of the fact that the two trailblazer companies of asteroid mining, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, are "gone".  Planetary Resources was acquired in Oct 2018 by ConsenSys, a blockchain technology company, and Deep Space Industries was acquired in Jan 2019 by Bradford Space, a manufacture firm that designs and sells spacecraft control systems.  Anyone reading just headlines or the TL;DR version could draw the conclusion that "this pie-in-the-sky idea of asteroid mining is dead!"

The body of the article, written by one of the most highly-respected reporters in the space industry, Jeff Foust, is very fair and detailed.  The headline seems to be a direct answer to the question posed in a previous article written in 2013 by the same author.

"Asteroid mining boom or bubble?"

One could argue that we are closer than ever to seeing a commercial asteroid mining mission, especially in the past 6 years since these companies announced their intentions publicly.  Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries have both followed different paths to learning through failure.  NASA's Asteroid Redirect Mission, which was essentially an asteroid mining precursor mission, was also defunded in 2017.  The only way asteroid mining (or any space resource utilization) will take off is by shortening the return-on-investment to 5-10 years instead of a 20 year proposition.  As with anything in the space industry, the key to success is funding.  There are a lot of excellent ideas and technically-feasible mission plans, but if they're not funded, they will never get off the ground.

We'll be exploring the question, "How does the first asteroid mining mission get funded?" in a forthcoming post…

The most daunting hurdle that the asteroid mining industry must overcome is finding a steady, broad base of customers to buy resources that can be readily identified, extracted, and turned into a usable product.  In terms of relative simplicity, this is water.  For the easy-to-reach asteroid targets, water exists in the form of hydrated minerals of some types of asteroids (mostly C-types), and extracting/refining water is one of the least energy-intensive processes compared to other prevalent asteroid materials, such as silica or metal.

Foust expresses his doubts about the use of asteroid mining technology by a blockchain company, though the connection to propulsion systems seems fairly straightforward.  During the last few years, Deep Space Industries has focused on their development and sale of water-based thrusters.  Naturally, water-based thrusters are a foundation for establishing a market demand for water as propellant, which could be supplied by a burgeoning asteroid mining industry targeting water-rich asteroids.

"If you can't find the customer, be the customer."

This kind of approach will capture investor attention.  It's direct, it's incremental, and it's a way to generate revenue in the short-term while still aiming sights at the broader long-term future.

We should also not forget that at this very moment two major missions, JAXA's Hayabusa2 and NASA's OSIRIS-REx, are being conducted.

Ryugu (left) and Bennu (right) shown to scale. Images by JAXA and NASA. Comparison by Emily Lakdawalla.

Hayabusa2 is at asteroid Ryugu, OSIRIS-REx is at asteroid Bennu, and both will return samples back to Earth in 2020 and 2023 respectively.  Both missions will contribute heavily to the understanding of C-type asteroids and specifically the presence of hydrated minerals.   Fundamental knowledge of the formation environment of C-types, dynamic migration pathways, and present space weathering environment will greatly pare down the risk of sending a multi-hundred-million-dollar mission to retrieve, extract, and use those materials.  This scientific research itself is enough to classify as a "breakthrough" for asteroid mining.

Other companies, such as TransAstra and Honeybee Robotics, funded by NASA research programs, are continuing to develop hardware for asteroid mining.

TransAstra's Queen Bee spacecraft is being designed to use optical mining to extract water from a carbonaceous near earth asteroid for return to lunar orbit.

"Mining Thosands of Tons of Space Ice with Queen Bee"

Honeybee's WINE (the World Is Not Enough) system pairs a water extraction system with a thruster as a way to extend asteroid exploration missions.

"Honeybee Robotics Demonstrates WINE"

TransAstra's Queen Bee: asteroid capture and water extraction
Honeybee Robotics' WINE: asteroid explorer refueled by in-situ water extraction

We should also remember that while the companies may be gone, the people involved in these companies are still around.  Many have remained in the industry and are still passionate about space exploration.  Their knowledge gained from this first "wave" of asteroid mining is still being applied to the further development of the space economy.  For example, a core group from Planetary Resources has gone on to form Synchronous LLC, which develops multi-disciplinary engineering solutions for space hardware.

As long as humanity continues to pursue exploration and commercial activities in space, there will be a future for sourcing materials from the vast pool of resources available in space.  The answer to the question, "If not now, when?" relies heavily on the most valuable resource of all -- the ingenuity of the human resource.