Two companies have announced plans to mine asteroids for rare minerals. Still several decades away, operations are likely to be entirely robotic. Image Credit: Alex Ries

The business of outer space

  • BY Fred Watson |
  • May 20, 2015

From mining on asteroids to hotels in orbit, Fred Watson briefs us on the economy that’s out of this world.

I WONDER IF you’ve heard of a gentleman named Dennis M. Hope, of Gardnerville, Nevada? This former ventriloquist, actor and shoe salesman has occasionally made the headlines – most recently in the New York Times – because of his claim to be the rightful owner of the Moon. He’s also made a successful living over 30-odd years by doling out portions of its surface to clients who take their deeds of lunar property very seriously – despite the fine print making it clear that they are “novelty items”.

This echoes another famous claim to ownership of a celestial body: the assertion that near-Earth asteroid Eros is the property of a Mr Gregory W. Nemitz of Twin Falls, Idaho. When NASA landed its NEAR Shoemaker probe on Eros in 2001, he sent them a $20 parking fine. NASA contested the account and, after a lengthy legal process, the case was dismissed on the grounds of Mr Nemitz’s inability to prove he owned the asteroid.

Such optimistic claims of extraterrestrial property rights have been around for more than half a century. Comical though they seem, they do have a serious side. Similar to property claims on Earth, they have to be made within a legal framework, loosely termed “space law”.

This is primarily embodied in the UN-ratified Outer Space Treaty of 1967 (or the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, to give it its official title) and subsequent amendments.

But these regulations were formulated in Cold War days, when the only visitors to space were a handful of superpowers. By today’s standards, space law is incomplete, full of inconsistencies, and ripe for challenge by would-be entrepreneurs such as Messrs Hope and Nemitz.

Until recently, such challenges were nothing more than an entertaining sideshow in the legal corridors of power, but we are now on the brink of an era in which it will be vital to tie-up the loose ends. With private enterprise becoming the dominant force in space exploration and exploitation, we are seeing the beginnings of an off-planet economy that is likely to mushroom in value, and could be worth hundreds of billions of dollars within decades. And at its heart are individuals of a very different calibre from the extraterrestrial land-agents of Idaho and Nevada.

Space technologies maintained by commercial companies

IT’S NO ACCIDENT that commercial investment in space is now taking off. Early in 2010, the Obama administration cancelled NASA’s over-budget Constellation program focused on human spaceflight. Instead, it unveiled a new vision that would allow it to concentrate on technologies needed for future space exploration, while the ‘routine’ work of servicing the International Space Station (ISS) would be delegated to the commercial sector. That sector was already well-placed to ramp up its development of necessary technologies, with several companies contracted to NASA for the provision of new launch vehicles and spacecraft.

SpaceX, for example, the space transport company founded by former PayPal whizz-kid, Elon Musk, has developed its Falcon series of launch vehicles and the Dragon capsule that will eventually transfer astronauts to and from the Earth’s orbit. Dragon made history in May 2012 when it became the first privately operated spacecraft to deliver cargo to the space station. Another US company, Orbital Sciences Corporation, is also contracted to NASA to develop its Antares medium-lift rocket, again with ISS cargo duties in mind. Across the Atlantic in Europe, Astrium is a subsidiary of the giant EADS aerospace group that launches satellites with its Ariane series of rockets.

These types of companies, together with established space contractors such as Boeing, are familiar names in the annals of what might be called conventional commercial spaceflight. Missions such as the launch and operation of communications and remote sensing satellites, scientific satellites and, of course, military surveillance satellites, have been the stock-in-trade of the commercial sector for decades, and represent an industry worth $300-billion annually. But the vision that serious money might now be made from the direct exploitation of space is a new one. And that has come principally from entrepreneurs who decided the time has come for the off-planet economy.

Space tours

THE MOST VISIBLE sign of this is the fledgling space tourism industry. Although we have heard talk of this being just around the corner for almost a decade, it isn’t yet possible to buy a ticket into space. That is mostly a reflection of the difficulty of implementing the technology to achieve this safely.

However, it’s not true to say that space tourism is complete fiction. Since the first space tourist, Dennis Tito, took to the skies in a Soyuz space capsule in 2001, there have been six paying visitors to the space station – one of whom went twice.

These trips were all brokered by a company called Space Adventures, which used spare seats on Russian spacecraft to transfer their passengers to and from the ISS. One of the principal players in this orbital wheeling and dealing, by the way, is an Aussie by the name of Mike McDowell (winner of the AGS  Spirit of Adventure Award in ’93).

Orbital space tourism of this kind is very, very expensive. None of these passengers paid less than $20 million for their 8- to 15-day trips, and one is reputed to have paid twice that amount. No wonder the Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos, saw this as an effective way of boosting its flagging fortunes.

However, this is hardly mass-market tourism. It has fallen to other visionaries to see the potential of a cheaper kind of space tourism and, of these, none is more prominent (or flamboyant) than Sir Richard Branson. Through his company, Virgin Galactic, Richard is offering an experience of space at only $200,000 a pop. And although his first revenue-earning flight is still said to be about a “year away” (and has been for some time now), he already has a waiting list of more than 500 would-be passengers.

How will Virgin provide spaceflights that are 100 times cheaper than a Soyuz trip? The answer is that you don’t go into orbit. You have a simple up-and-down flight profile that uses a rocket to kick you to a vertical speed of about 1.5km/second. When the motor shuts down, your vehicle simply coasts on upwards until it begins falling back to Earth, from a maximum height of about 100km. While the coast phase is in progress, the craft and its occupants are in a state of weightlessness, which comes to an end when aero-braking slows the craft for landing.

Richard’s confidence in space vehicles being developed for Virgin Galactic is because his primary contractor is a company called Scaled Composites, led by another high-tech entrepreneur by the name of Burt Rutan. In 2004 Burt’s company won the $10 million Ansari XPRIZE for exceeding an altitude of 100km in a privately operated piloted rocket plane twice within two weeks.

Suborbital tourism is not the exclusive province of Virgin Galactic and a number of other companies are undertaking similar projects. XCOR Aerospace, for example, is developing its Lynx single-passenger rocket plane, which is expected to offer flights at about half the cost of Virgin Galactic. What all these operators will give the space tourist is a view of the Earth’s curved surface and its thin, blue atmosphere from the blackness of space, together with about five minutes of weightlessness. It’s an attractive prospect and, as the technology advances, is likely to become much cheaper.

From a legal perspective, space tourism is currently in a situation similar to that of aviation a century ago. Safety is paramount – nothing would damage this infant venture more than the loss of a rocket plane and its passengers. On the other hand, over-regulation could stifle progress in tourism’s Next Big Thing, so legislators have to face a delicate balance in exercising control. Currently, only the USA has enacted legislation allowing the licensing of operators to take paying passengers into space (although the UK is working on similar regulations).

Other nations will no doubt follow, since space tourism seems poised to become a lucrative business. One estimate of its future market value, published in 2010, arrives at a figure in excess of $1 billion within 20 years.

Space mining for asteroids

IN TERMS OF REVENUE, however, that sum pales into insignificance compared with numbers currently being touted for perhaps the most audacious aspect of the off-planet economy – asteroid mining. Since early 2012, two new companies with serious backing have declared their intention to carry out space-prospecting for rare minerals and metals on near-Earth asteroids, and then to mine them.

Planetary Resources, formerly Arkyd Astronautics, was unveiled in 2012 by Eric Anderson (of Space Adventures) and Dr Peter Diamandis (an XPRIZE Foundation co-founder). Its financial backing comes from the deep pockets of Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt. In contrast, the slightly newer kid on the block, Deep Space Industries (DSI), is cagey about its financial resources, but is led by established space-technologists David Gump and Rick Tumlinson.

Both Planetary Resources and DSI have announced similar goals. Their immediate intention is to deploy fleets of small spacecraft equipped with remote-sensing telescopes to scout out asteroids rich in the materials of interest. A by-product of this is the discovery of asteroids that might one day pose a collision threat to Earth.

Planetary Resources has forged a deal with Virgin Galactic for the launch of these mini-spacecraft, and also has further plans in mitigating the collision risk. With a declared long-term goal of modifying the orbits of asteroids – primarily to make them more accessible for mining – there is the benefit that the same technology could be used to avert a collision.

What is the motivation for mining asteroids? Primarily it’s because they are rich in metals – such as nickel, platinum, palladium, osmium and rhodium – which are used in high-tech manufacture, but are not abundant on Earth. They could also contain water, which can be separated electrically into hydrogen and oxygen to make rocket fuel. Then the fuel wouldn’t need to be lifted from Earth. Both companies envisage setting up orbiting fuel depots for future space exploration.

Planetary Resources estimates that the platinum alone from a 30m asteroid could be worth up to $50 billion, while DSI hit the headlines early in 2013 with its assertion that the 45m-wide ‘near-miss’ asteroid, 2012DA14, might be worth $195 billion in metals and recoverable water.

Where DSI scores in sheer ambition is that it plans to harness another new technology – 3-D printing – to fabricate complex spacecraft components in orbit, avoiding altogether the need to bring the raw materials to Earth. This would be entirely robotic, along with the mining operations themselves, as envisioned by both companies. Chris Lewicki of Planetary Resources thinks that asteroid mining machinery “could vary from very small spacecraft that swarm and cooperate on a bunch of tasks, to very large spacecraft that look seriously industrial”.

Could asteroid mining work? From a practical point of view,  the technology is a long way from being available, and would be extremely expensive – much more so than Planetary Resources or DSI would like. For example, how do you extract material from the surface of an object that has barely enough gravity to hold itself together, and is rotating every few minutes? And how do you attach machinery to a surface that consists of loosely bound rubble?

Most commentators agree that if minerals were returned to Earth, there would be little economic benefit because of the incredibly high cost of vehicles that are capable of re-entering our atmosphere. Using mined materials and metals in space is more likely to be economically viable, nevertheless, as Dr Tim Spahr, director of the Minor Planet Center, at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, remarked: “They’re not going to just spend 500 million bucks, fly up there, mine the asteroid and make a trillion dollars.”

On the legal front, however, things look a little brighter than for our friends from Idaho and Nevada whom I mentioned at the outset. Although the Outer Space Treaty does state clearly that: “Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means”, there is at least one precedent in international law that should give heart to would-be asteroid miners. That is the 380kg of lunar rock and soil samples that were brought back to Earth by the Apollo astronauts, which no-one doubts are the property of the US government.

If a government organisation can lay claim to material from space, why can’t private enterprise? Clearly, although legislation covering asteroid mining has a long way to go, there is hope that a supportive framework can be developed.

Economic activities in space actualising

BY MID-CENTURY, there’s a chance many of these economic activities will have become reality. Although they sound similar to science fiction today, one only has to think of the way the development of other sci-fi concepts such as mobile phones and sat nav has been spurred by commercial demand.

By 2050, affordable space tourism is likely to have progressed beyond the suborbital to the fully orbital. Unconventional launch vehicles such as the SKYLON hybrid jet/rocket spaceplane (currently under development in the UK by Reaction Engines Ltd) could have dramatically reduced the cost of getting into orbit. There are already two prototype habitat modules in orbit – launched in 2006 and 2007 by Bigelow Aerospace – that could pave the way for future orbital hotels.  

It’s even possible there will be joy rides to the Moon and Mars. The Space Adventures company has announced plans for a fly-around-the-Moon mission – echoing the achievement of Apollo 8 in 1968 – with a fare in the region of $150 million per passenger. And pioneering space tourist Dennis Tito recently announced his Inspiration Mars Foundation, which aims to send an “older couple” (who have presumably already ironed out all their differences) on an 17-month fly-around-Mars trip. These could be precursors to a new direction in planetary tourism.

More audacious still are plans recently announced by architects Foster + Partners for the 3-D printing of buildings on the Moon, using lunar soil as the raw material. Hotels, perhaps? And what about the Mars One initiative, which proposes to kickstart the colonisation of Mars using modified SpaceX Dragon capsules, with funding from global reality TV? The mind boggles.

By these exotic standards, the robotic mining of asteroids looks almost pedestrian. It’s my guess that at least some of the ideas being touted by today’s off-planet resource visionaries will have come to fruition by 2050. Fuel depots in space, perhaps, circumventing the problem of tanking up a Mars lander with enough fuel to get off the planet’s surface and back into an Earthward orbit.

No doubt some readers of this article will be hale and hearty still at mid-century, and may themselves become participants in the off-planet economy. If so, I hope you will do well out of it – and will remember where you first read about it.

The full story can be found in Australian Geographic #115.