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back to article Asteroid miners hunt for platinum, leave all common sense in glovebox

Isn't it exciting that Planetary Resources is going to jet off and mine the asteroids? This is every teenage sci-fi geek's dream, that everything we imbibed from Verne through Heinlein to Pournelle is going to come true! But there's always someone, isn't there, someone like me, ready to spoil the party. The bit that I cannot …

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Anonymous Coward

An Adventure...

Is the best description really. It's not a profit driven experience really. If you want to make a profit out of it, then minus the cost of fuel, and do the same thing on terra firma for more profit.

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Re: An Adventure...

yeah, I think we need to get Gil the Arm on this one.

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Re: An Adventure...

Realisticly, the real value of minerals mined in space is in space. If you can build space stations and space ships in space, it's far cheaper than using rockets to get earthbound materials into space.

The average cost getting materials into space is $22K per kilo. If your building materials were already in space, space travel would be much cheaper

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Pint

Re: An Adventure...

Platinum spaceships for all then?

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Re: An Adventure...

I seem to recall that ALF had a platinum toilet and gold plumbing in his spacecraft. He was also bemused as to why earthlings regarded these metals as so valuable.

Life may well imitate art in the end.

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Unhappy

I wish you were wrong

But it would take at least a decade for demand to change to match supply, who will dump enough enough money in to support that?

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Unhappy

Re: I wish you were wrong

But it would take at least a decade for demand to change to match supply, who will dump enough enough money in to support that?

The same wonderful gullible folks that dumped money into supporting Solyndra - The Obama Administration! "Sure, yeah, it's not economical right now, but if you can give us $8Billion we can eventually find a way. (Psst - hey, did you get our campaign contribution?)"

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Uhm... No.

There's two sides to the supply / demand curves, as you have said. However, you are making the assumption that everything has to come back to the marble for it to be useful / paid for. Once you have mining outside of the big suck, the cheapest place to use whatever you are mining is not here, it's on low-gravity moons etc. Sci-fi? Yes. But at the moment, there are very finite limits to the resources available here, not to mention the environmental cost of mining / processing it all. In space, no-one cares about your big amorphous blob of toxic by-product, since it can sit and wait for someone to find a use for it - without being eaten by various biological / environmental processes.

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Re: Uhm... No.

It's an interesting point, what would nasa pay for a large ball of floating ice and carbon in a nice earth orbit... on the way to mars perhaps.

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Boffin

Re: Uhm... No.

I agree with your comments, however, lets add a few things to it...

1) you can always take your waste and push it in to the sun, or put it on to a trajectory to another planet. (No life, no harm no foul. Especially planets like Jupiter...

2) with some of these metals, if you drop their price, you end up with a greater chance to to more research. Think about it. How much research can you do when your base materials cost thousands of dollars to start with. You had better know the probable outcome before you start.

3) Reusable tech.

If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball.... :-)

Maybe that's a poor analogy, but if you create the tech to mine asteroids for metals, you can also use it to mine for things like water that you will need. Not to mention, you will need to mine an iron/nickel asteroid for shelter if you want to have a population of people in space. (Add Niven to your reading list.)

The point is that the new technology to mine an asteroid is going to be key for our future.

4) flow down of patents. Unlike software patents, real hardware means real patents. While the ultimate goal is in mining in space,, think of all of the baby steps and technology advances it will take to get there. Want proof? Look back to the US space program... (The us govt would have no debt had they been able to capitalize on everything that came out of NASA. Oh wait, we did tax the carp out of those companies ... :-(. )

5) the demand curve is not inelastic. More raw material may cause a dip in the short term, however it will bounce back because as price drops, it will be used in more products. Not to mention that the first place some of these materials will be used is in space itself.

Think of it this way. They are mining the materials for space first, earth second.

6) what makes you think that they will dump all of the refined metal on the market all at once?

Can you say DeBeers?

I really have to rate this a thumbs down. Had the author read more Niven, he would have written a better article.

The boffin's head because while I have a degree in Engineering, I could probably have earned a masters in English Lit specializing in Sci-Fi.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Uhm... No.

1) Push waste into sun - this is far harder than it seems. You actually have to take an awful lot of energy off an object in order for it to "fall into" the Sun. Otherwise it will just find itself a suitable orbit.

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Boffin

Re: Uhm... No.

@AC...

That was sort of taken from a different Sci-Fi story where a sales guy accidentally gets put in to suspended animation while getting his teeth fixed at a dentist office. I want to say it was called Marching Morons or something where the really smart people who ran everything had menial task jobs while the bulk of the population were mental midgets. The solution was to build lots of space craft and send them in to the sun. Its a short story. And it looks like part of the premise was made in to a movie staring Luke Wilson (Idiotacry? or something like that)

The point was that you could get rid of the waste by products...

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Re: Uhm... No.

And it turned out in _Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy_ that just such a thing is what got the Earth populated with all the mediocraties.

Loved Douglas Adams. Bless him, where ever he is.

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The moneys probably in the markets that don't exist yet.

I tend to agree that the numbers don't add up the way Planetary Resources would like

Where I think the money is, is having all those shiny resources at the top of the gravity well, particularly volatiles like Hydrogen or water-ice. No-one in their right mind wants to spend US$2000 per pound hauling fuel up to Low Earth Orbit and Planetary could probably deliver it for a tenth of that just based on Delta-V costs. Likewise mineral resources already in orbit could be delivered far cheaper than boosting them up into Orbit on top of an Ariadne or Dragon.

Given current circumstances what is probably going to happen is they will potentially use any volatiles to defray costs of later missions and de-orbit the minerals (and I'm going to love to see the greenpeace protest over that one) and try to sell them for funding. Probably not a sustainable model

What should be happening is development of an orbital infrastructure to use those resources either by other private operators or governments to make a big step towards self sufficiency. Bad news is something like Planetary should by rights come along after theres some infrastructure there, which would require a larger space commitment or usage like moonbases, orbital hotels and refueling stations etc.

Instead we've got government funded organisations (NASA) d**king around with unworkable pork for the aerospace industry and occasionally tossing a probe out somewhere interesting for scientific information.

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Gimp

robots

If anyone with a brain were to seriously take a stab at asteroid mining, they'd do it with robots. As the Mars rovers have shown, you can do pretty sophisticated stuff via robots. And they don't need food, air, sleep or water.

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Re: robots

and it's even cooler... can we give them laser beams

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Re: robots

So, for a moment, you really thought they would be doing it with people? really?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: robots

Well that is what the article was inferring, Nunu, as part of the reasoning for why it wasn't feasible.

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Re: robots

So one day we could have a little line of robot miners, being truncheoned by a baton charge of robotic police?

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Alien

Inferring

I thought it was inferring that no matter how you mine the asteroids (humans or robots or aliens) it's not feasible because of the economics of dumping tonnes of extra metal onto the open market. The only way they can make their scheme work is to keep schtum and bring the metals on to the market in very small quantities. They have to keep quiet so that no one knows that there is an effectively infinite supply just out of reach 'cause the moment anyone knows that the price will drop like a stone.

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Re: Inferring

Keeping schtum won't work. The market for these rare metals is rather small, the participants are known. If you dump small quantities that no one recognises your vast supplies and the price remains stable you'll never going to make the profit you're after and the revenue you actually need to cover your costs.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Inferring

Planetary Resources should forget about platinum. They should seriously consider mining icey asteroids and setting up a station in planetary orbit to turn this into fuel. I imagine NASA and Roscosmos would like to cut their launch costs on interplanetary missions by only lifting off with the fuel required to get into orbit. They could then pay for access to Planetary Resources' orbital fuel dump.

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Go

Orbital fuel dump

This is actually what they're about as they themselves have said. The metals thing is just a byproduct. LH2/LO2 FOB LEO is quite the valuable product and the addressable market may one day be in the kilotons. Other materials on orbit may also have good value. Bringing an object down from orbit considerably depreciates it.

When NASA's Dawn mission gets to Ceres it will definitely discover an essentially unlimited water resource. There's good potential for Xenon ice as well at the poles, which would be outstanding. The capture and processing of near-earth asteroids for fuel to accelerate the robotic recovery and exploitation of this resource is essential.

Who would have thunk it? Our 21st century spacecraft will be primarily steam powered. Sorta.

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Go

Re: Orbital fuel dump

Hear hear!

for the space economy to make any sense at all, we'll need propellent produced outside of the Earth's gravitational well. Lots and lots and lots of propellent. Everything else will be just marginal costs/benefits.

That is, assuming no wormholes or warp drive is invented soon.

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Terminator

Re: robots

But they do need a source of energy ...

Plus what happens when they wake up?

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Headmaster

Re: Inferring

Okay. Can't stand this any longer. The word you are all looking for is implying. The article itself is not going to infer anything from anyone unless you think the article is somehow sentient.

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Re: robots

The African miners you are referring to weren't just baton-charged. They were shot. On full auto. Dozens of them are dead now. Have some respect.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: robots

when we had there there are plenty of examples of incidents involing miners and the police (and army, thanks Mr. Churchill) without having to look overseas

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Re: robots

"If anyone with a brain were to seriously take a stab at asteroid mining, they'd do it with robots. As the Mars rovers have shown, you can do pretty sophisticated stuff via robots. And they don't need food, air, sleep or water."

As the Mars rovers show, robots are not the answer unless you can automate them entirely. When it takes 15 minutes back and forth to communicate, it isn't really practicle for remote drivers

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Anonymous Coward

Re: robots

Would those be the African miners who marched with machetes in the belief that they were invulnerable to bullets because their Witch Doctor said his potion made them so? Yes, a 'belief' truly worthy of 'respect.'.

http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/world/africa/article3514789.ece

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Re: robots

That's how mining is already done right here on Earth. Machines do the digging and the transporting. People just do the driving. Why would an asteroid mine be any different?

The problem for you is the speed of light delay. That's the real reason to send people there. It's to lose the lag.

Right now, it takes Opportunity around an hour to move a fraction of a meter because of the speed of light delay time. You don't want to have that on a space mining mission, where your cost is on the order of $4 Million per hour.

The Authors problem is that he thinks that Platinum is the only thing that will be sent back. It's a much bigger list than that. Platinum, sure, also rhodium, anntiomny and such, but the list includes silver and gold too, perhaps even copper. Steel and aluminum will be essentially by products, but they will be used in the containers for shipping back.

Very high cost to get there, very low cost to get back. That is the basic paradigm for Space Industry. Send very little, and get back as much as you can.

Anybody need 10^9 tonnes of iron? I know where you can get it.

What pays for this will probably turn out to be something different than we think. Sure, the Platinum will be nice, but, there is so much other stuff there to take. They WILL find ways to make money off of this. If, that is they can ever get together the $500 Million US Dollars it takes to send out the first one.

The Author was concerned about trespassers on the asteroid. That's not a concern. Orbital ballistics will protect them. There are after all other targets that are available at different times. Since the first thing a miner will have to do is to build a smelter plant, any competitors will probably want to use the existing smelter. It's just less expensive and quicker. Competitors who pay you are not really rivals.

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This is assuming the products are the same

I mean I don't know what proportion of platium is used in jewelery. but 'platinum certified from space' isn't the same product as 'boring old platinum'... start sprogging out star shaped jewelery for the arabs and billionaires, then down to just the regular rich folk.... it isn't stupid to think the material price would be doubled.

If they can make a new market for it (and its hard not to see that the publicity would be huge) then they will have a pretty unbreakable monopoly on that new differentiated product.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: This is assuming the products are the same

You're right that markets would change, but not in the way you're imagining. The classic example is aluminium. Everyone knows the classic story of aluminium once being so valuable that Napoleon had an aluminium dinner service, and indeed the Washington Monument is capped with aluminium because at the time it was one of the most expensive metals in the world. The key thing to bear in mind is that expense is only one component of value. The value of the market for aluminium now, when aluminium is so cheap we make disposable drinks containers out of it, is several orders of magnitude larger than when it was when the metal was a precious metal with a cost beyond that of gold.

If one can produce a metal, particularly metals we know to be useful like Platinum and Rhodium, in sufficient quantities, the nature of the market will change and its value will grow, and the simple fact is space production is the only way to make that happen, leaving asteroid-mining bods in a very strong position.

Further, in this case, there's significant value to being the first to build permanent production infrastructure in space. Yes it'll cost an ungodly amount of money, but even the ability to produce water in space is worth a good $2000 per kilogram (assuming Falcon Heavy's promises come to fruition), and that water can also, handily, be turned into rocket fuel.

So, yeah, the numbers don't really add up now, but there's no way of telling how the numbers will change in ten years time once they've actually done this.

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Re: This is assuming the products are the same

A lot of these arguments are also applicable to earlier "novel" infrastructure projects. Uranium mining in Australia, for instance. Or oil in saudi arabia. The market for oil was growing but constrained when the saudi fields were exploited and there was a certain worry that it would cause a price crash that would make the whole endeavour pointless.

After a short lag the demand rose to consume the supply. If we're able to source large quantities of what are currently relatively rare materials from space, they will be used. The price might bounce around a bit before it settles down but the market will expand once the supply is there and new uses for the materials are found.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: This is assuming the products are the same

"If we're able to source large quantities of what are currently relatively rare materials from space, they will be used."

Not necessarily - yeah, it's easy to remember the risks taken by petroleum or uranium pioneers.... they were successful. We just don't remember the guys who spent half a billion figuring out how to mine / make vast quantities of Material N only to find out nobody bloody well wanted any of it.

Put another way, AFAIK, gold isn't terribly useful for much other than corrosion-resistant contacts and jewelry. Bring in a quadrillion tons of gold per year and people aren't suddenly going to find ways to use it - it's just not that damn useful. It would almost immediately stop being useful as a currency hedge or as ornamentation (not exclusive = not pretty; why do you think DeBeers locked down the diamond markets?) so you'd be stuck trying to convince people that they need to gold-plate 10000 times as many connectors. It's not going to matter how cheap it is; people just won't care after some point.

The same goes for something like, say, light bulbs. It'd be nice to have really cheap light bulbs. But if you found a way to make a thousand light bulbs for a penny, you wouldn't suddenly find a market for a hundred thousand times as many light bulbs. Even if electricity were free, people wouldn't suddenly say, "Hey! I can have every surface in my house covered with light bulbs! This is awesome!". The world just flat out needs only so many light bulbs.

Just because you can get Item / Substance N to people cheaply doesn't mean they're going to want it - no matter how long you wait.

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Re: This is assuming the products are the same

Think outside the box then. Gold and copper reach price and supply parity. Now, you'll find that gold would be used in place of copper for a lot of jobs, because it doesn't corrode or oxidise and is somewhat more ductile, thus less likely to break in stressful installations.

Tin used to be a precious metal. Now it's used to make cans. The point is that an increase in supply allows the market to experiment with new uses for a material. And yes, there may be something that people don't want to use, but I'd be surprised if any raw materials - particularly metals - would fall under that category.

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Re: This is assuming the products are the same

Sorry I had to down vote you...

Just out of curiosity... Why did they wrap the lunar lander in gold foil?

Which is a better conductor of electricity? Gold or copper?

Just food for thought?

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Re: This is assuming the products are the same

Tin is still quite expensive. That is why 'tin' foil and 'tin' cans are not made of tin.

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Re: This is assuming the products are the same

Oh fine, if you want to get picky about it, they're tin-plated steel, the point is that it would have been unthinkable to use tin for that in the not so distant past. Once it was used as jewellery, now it's used to prevent corrosion in disposable cans.

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Re: This is assuming the products are the same

"So, yeah, the numbers don't really add up now, but there's no way of telling how the numbers will change in ten years time once they've actually done this."

The point the author was making is that they can't finance themselves for 10 years at a loss. “the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay liquid”.

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Anonymous Coward

@ Ian Michael Gumby

Gold is a better conductor of electricity than copper. IIRC it was chosen for its properties in terms of radiation absorption as the foil isn't used for any transmission of power or signals.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: This is assuming the products are the same

"Not necessarily"

In this case it is necessarily. I'm not talking speculatively about new, possible, as-yet-unknown applications. I'm talking about current real world applications currently limited only by the cost of the material. Every modern car has a big ol' chunk of Platinum and Palladium stuck on its exhaust pipe to scrub emissions, for example. The metals you're likely to get from asteroids are metals we know for a fact have incredible industrial applications, and even some medical ones for good measure. Another metal from the same group of rare-as-hen's-teeth on earth metals is Rhodium, for example, which has unparalleled corrosion resistance, and even goes into making fibreglass. These metals have awesome properties; they're catalysts, corrosion resistant, useful in alloying, thermally resistant, the list goes on but it is a list strongly limited by the extreme cost of these metals.

It's a simple matter of applying high school physics to understand that we will never be able to mine these metals in sufficient quantity to make them truly industrially useful; when molten all the metals from this group sink through Iron, leading to mere traces of them being left on the Earth's crust. It's suggested that the vast majority of the deposits found to date were put there after the Earth hardened by asteroid impacts. So, if we want more of them, we're going to have to go to the source.

And just for good measure, there might still be useful, as-yet-unknown applications. There was some interesting research in the 80s into the use of Platinum group metals as superconductors. That's a potential application that could never be exploited when limited to just earth-based mining.

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Re: Which is a better conductor of electricity? Gold or copper?

Having once watched professionals in the field of electricity argue almost exactly that question (only they were arguing aluminum with lead as a lubricant vs gold) of which made the better connector, you'd be surprised. In a pure science context it is gold. But in real world engineering there are other factors which intrude and make them roughly equivalent in viability for commercial applications.

But you're right on your bigger point that if gold were cheaper, people would consider engineering applications that are currently out of reach because of the cost. Even more so for platinum, etc.

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Pint

Re: This is assuming the products are the same

"...Every modern car has a big ol' chunk of Platinum and Palladium stuck on its exhaust pipe to scrub emissions..."

By "big ol' chunk" you mean "a few grams plated onto a ceramic honeycomb", then yes exactly. :-)

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Re: This is assuming the products are the same

It was not actually gold, it was aluminum. It was gold colored because an extralayer of plastic film was laid over the aluminum.

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Re: Which is a better conductor of electricity? Gold or copper?

"But you're right on your bigger point that if gold were cheaper, people would consider engineering applications that are currently out of reach because of the cost. Even more so for platinum, etc."

If gold was dirt cheap, it would be easy to use it as corrosion protection instead of hot dip gal. Platinum has a million and one uses and is only limited by cost and avalibility. Radioactive materials on earth came from asteroids making nuclear energy cheaper.

Most of the material you produce in space could be used in space but valuble finished materials could be landed.

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Re: This is assuming the products are the same

FWIW Gold is one of the best heat conductors around and one of the things it can be made into (if cheap enough) is cooking utensils.

Nat Goegraphic had a story ~25 years ago about gold in which the author tried out a 22 carat frying pan for a couple of months. He didn't want to give it back to the US gold reserve when the trial was over and it had lot more to do with the evenness of its cooking than the value of the metal.

Platinum has similar uses which aren't practical right now due to cost. At half the price it'd be useful in a lot of industrial processes. At 1%, it could be used in a lot more.

The story of aluminium is highly relevant.

Even so, the single largest resource out in orbit is iron, for the same reason it's common on the planet - the difference is that the stuff in space hasn't been oxidised. Space Navy, anyone? (Can ion thrusters use iron? It's probably the most common substance in the universe, after Hydrogen and Helium)

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Re: This is assuming the products are the same

I think the point is that that not so distant past is distant enough for a commerical enterprise to collapse while waiting for the market to change.

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Go

Solution: Keep them in space. Use them to build communities in space.

That should keep prices on Earth stable and creates a new market.

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