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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They need to be careful out there

The last time I tried mining asteroids, I was jumped by suicide gankers on my way to a space station. It's a widespread problem.

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Re: They need to be careful out there

I always seemed to manage to not be able to scoop up the ore once the mining laser had cut it... spent a lot of time maneuvering the Cobra , by which time....along came the bad guys...

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Thumb Up

Re: They need to be careful out there

Punishment for mining into a jettisoned can?

:)

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But there is no concept of private property.

This bit got me thinking, the UN says there's no private property in space. But once you're in space, do you care what the UN says? Long term if Elon Musk sets up his Mars colony, what power does the UN have over them? Surely they only have power if a) you want to come back to Earth or b) they develop a space military to enforce their rules.

I admit in the short term point a holds true, but for how long?

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Devil

Re: But there is no concept of private property.

If there is ever anything except robot fleets owned by Switzerland-registered but tightly regulated Sociétés Anonymes out there, there is bound to be confrontation.

And these companies need nukes. For propulsion and mining. Greens and State Players will be SPASTIC.

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Black Helicopters

Re: But there is no concept of private property.

True. The comment

> the plucky biz has no legal method of exclusion

also effectively means that there is no illegal method. Cue the mercenaries with big guns, winner takes all.

Sadly what this probably means is that the Satellite TV rights to the coverage will be worth more than the mined metal.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: But there is no concept of private property.

I would have *thought* that anything you took from the earth into space remained property in the same way that a ship on the high seas does and, if you bring stuff back from space, it is hard to see that anybody on earth has a better claim to it than you do.

But, ultimately, it depends on the law and the judgement of whatever court has jurisdiction (if any.) The UN doesn't need any power to *not* create and enforce rules. If there is no law to create property rights in space, then any 'ownership' is merely imaginary and cannot be enforced.

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Pirate

Re: But there is no concept of private property.

Thus: SPACE PIRATES!!

Yarr! *beep*

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Anonymous Coward

Re: But there is no concept of private property.

Just make sure you give Putin his cut. He'll watch your back with SC vetoes.

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Flame

Re: But there is no concept of private property.

Don't forget the Kzinti Lesson (Larry Niven's Known Space series): Every reaction engine is a weapon. Someone wants to mine your asteroid without permission? Point a rocket thruster at them at close range.

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Re: But there is no concept of private property.

But, national tax authorities claim global tax power over their subje, umm residents and citizens.

Raise hands if you think nation/corporate-funded space mining will go untaxed, unregulated, npatented, non-nationalized.

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Re: But there is no concept of private property.

Or just toss your empty beer keg at them (at appropriate velocity).

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Re: But there is no concept of private property.

You may not care what UN says, but that has a shiny forecast of ending up with UN dragoons, TANSTAAFL and rocks being lobbed at the Cheyenne Mountain.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: But there is no concept of private property.

You might also run into a PR problem if your company waited until competitors left the Earth's gravity well and killed them all. Just because it would be legal doesn't mean it would be practical.

Not to mention that, as far as people are concerned, it's not open season just because you don't happen to be in your home country (and / or planet). If I (as an American) flew to an asteroid, shot a competitor in cold blood, and went back home, Uncle Sam would have just as much of a problem with me as if I'd gunned him down at the Exxon station on the west side.

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Facepalm

Re: But there is no concept of private property.

> Just make sure you give Putin his cut. He'll watch your back with SC vetoes.

Implying the Russians wouldn't be the first to whup orbital ass with everyone except the Chinese.

While America is gearing up to defend TERRISTS FROM SPACE! TRHOWING ROCKS!

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Boffin

Re: But there is no concept of private property.

Read Heinlein, Niven, and Gibson. Asimov too for that matter.

I also forgot the author of the Dorsai stories too

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Re: I also forgot the author of the Dorsai stories too

Dickson. He wrote some of my favorites.

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FAIL

How much for how much?

How much of an average nickel-iron asteroid would have to be processed to get one ounce of high-value metal?

The back of this here envelope suggests the PGMs would be a by-product of making structural metal alloys. You don't run a business for the by-products, but they can be nice to have.

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Re: How much for how much?

"The back of this here envelope suggests the PGMs would be a by-product of making structural metal alloys. You don't run a business for the by-products, but they can be nice to have."

That's a very good point. By way of an earth-bound analogy, copper refiners like Asarco currently make a tidy extra profit off Gold and Silver. Those metals are present in such small quantities that it wouldn't be worth processing the ore just for them alone, but when they fall out of the copper refining process they're almost free money.

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Re: How much for how much?

This was my first thought as well. Anytime I read about mining asteroids for anything rare like platinum, gold, uranium, etc. I wonder how it could possibly be profitable even if the price was to remain stable (which it wouldn't) Sure, you can shift through tons of rock to find a gram of something you want on Earth, but everything will be exponentially more difficult in space.

There's also the question of energy. It takes a lot of energy to dig up a lot of stuff you don't want to get out the bit of stuff you do. Solar energy is weaker in the asteroid belt, and solar panels are likely to be a problem - I suspect there are probably a lot of very tiny asteroids the size of pebbles and below in the belt resulting from 4 billion years of rocks banging around against each other. I doubt panels would last long enough to be feasible. Even if there aren't any rocks around your asteroid when you set up shop, what the heck are you going to do with all the stuff you dig up that you don't want? There's hardly any gravity, so you can't just pile it up next to your hole like on Earth. It may end up being the stuff that destroys your solar panels.

A RTG like on Curiousity might work, but doesn't produce a whole lot of power so it seems like it would be awful slow going for actual mining. A real nuclear reactor would be the best alternative, but good luck as a private enterprise launching a nuclear reactor into space against the objections of a majority of the planet who would see it as risky or leading to the eventual weaponization of space. NASA merely launching the occasional RTG gets people up in arms, even the ones smart enough to realize that having it crash back to Earth would not be all that big of a deal.

I think it's great someone is trying this, and if they can overcome all these problems and make a profit bringing whatever back then they deserve to be billionaires. I look forward to their first exploratory mission, to see what they find when they get there and learn how many of my objections are over or under stated.

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Re: How much for how much?

Yes their is a lot of very tiny asteroids. however their is also a lot more space to distribute them in.

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Pint

Re: How much for how much?

If they can find a process that requires a hard vacuum, they're good to go.

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Another hypothetical article which would indicate that Timmy really is elsewhere :)

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Anonymous Coward

Elsewhere?

Yes. It's called 'reality'.

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Coat

This isn't going to work...

... until someone invents the Cobra Mk III.

Right on, Commander!

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Happy

Re: This isn't going to work...

That or to quote another video game that is even more fitting here: "That is all, Material Defender. Prepare for descent."

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Could you do the same analysis on the costs if the project?

Assuming the objective is profit, (not my preferred metric), one has to do the sums on the cost of production as well as value of product. Space costs keep coming down, having an economic reason for R&D could accelerate this.

In-space micro-gravity vacuum processing is likely to allow novel alloys to be produced

And of course the value of the material with all that potential energy. ... Space bombs anyone?

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Go

More optimistic pragmatism?

Would it be possible for the governments to support this by buying up excess quantities of these metals? The government could stretch the demand curve to keep the mining profitable in the near term while the drop in prices is driving demand in the longer term. Politically there is a lot of support for at least the fig leaf of metals support in monetary policy. It is not hard to imagine a few new rooms in Fort Knox full of thousands of tons of precious metals. In the more middle term the supply of steel to build Space infrastructure like habitats would be of enormous value. A large enough habitat could supply its own food and water through recycling and farming. The real question is what other resources such as power generation and climate control could be added if the colonization of space continued over the next 25 to 50 years. Lots of manufacturing would still happen on the earth for the near term. The government would gain income through the growth in economic opportunities brought about by these new markets, and materials. The eventual drop in metal value would not hurt the governments as it builds a stronger tax base.

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Re: More optimistic pragmatism?

Just to confirm, you want the government to use my money to prop up a company run by people who don't understand why their plan won't make a profit? If so how about throwing some at SkippyBing Enterprises, Assayers of Inter- stellar Precious Metals?

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Stop

Re: More optimistic pragmatism?

> It is not hard to imagine a few new rooms in Fort Knox full of thousands of tons of precious metal

Currently it is even less hard to imagine a few new rooms in Fort Knox full of the negative energy created by ~ 130 trillion of debt.

> The government would gain income through the growth in economic opportunities brought about by these new markets, and materials. The eventual drop in metal value would not hurt the governments as it builds a stronger tax base.

There was story by Neal Stephenson in which the question is asked why the airlocks are rotable balls, not doors. The answer was that it is hard to stop rotable balls from rotation in case someone of the higher-ups decides to vent the atmosphere of the station into space. Don't know why this came to mind now...

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Anonymous Coward

Space Metals Analogous to North Sea Oil.

I suppose if you were to describe to a 1900's Texan how crude oil would be drilled out from under the ocean bed in inhospitable conditions at massive expense he'd say it wasn't economically viable either.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Space Metals Analogous to North Sea Oil.

And if you were 30 years old at the time and sunk a few million into the idea, you'd still die disappointed in 1950...

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Holmes would have said... Elementary, Dear Watson?

Whenever Life is a Great Game what better place to have an adventure with business. What pleasures tempt and can confound big business bosses? Supply that Nectar for Pots of Honey.

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Is there a market?

I'll happily buy their first 50 tonnes of platinum, delivered Earthside at $30 per tonne!

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Alert

Re: Is there a market?

Be careful what you wish for...

The default delivery mode is 'Bulk Express' .

(Disclaimer: A few tons may be lost to vapourisation).

Phil.

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Anonymous Coward

Is it ...

Christmas already or just a Friday that coincides with pay day?

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The way to make this profitable is to get the scale of the mining effort right. They need to bring enough valuable stuff back to pay the bills, but not so much that the price goes thru the floor. If they overdo this competitors will step in to increase the supply and lower the price.

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I'm not at all sure it's the precious metals we should be aiming for

Save perhaps those with immediately useful mechanical properties. Given that you'd have to likely shift several tonnes of iron and mud to get a few kilos of anything expensive, find a use for iron. Hint: lots of free energy out there, when you can make a solar mirror klicks across without serious problems... iron + carbon + hot = steel. Feel free to make aerogels and get low-mass strength. Or make big bubbles of iron, full of vacuum, and float them down by letting the air in as required.

If the economies of scale work out, it's probably better in terms of the earth's environment to land refined iron directly and keep all the slag and waste heat out of the way.

But get people out there - we have too many basques in one exit here; there's iron in the asteroid belt, some volatiles and water; lots of water floating around Saturn, solid ground with a reasonable amount of gravity on Mars, Ceres, Vesta, and a few of the gas giant's moons. The place is full of prime real estate and we can't bloody well get there!

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Go

the "gravity" of the situation

has anybody realised what taking thousands of tonnes of materials onto the planet would do for the mass of the planet? we rotate around the sun because we have the mass we do, if we start making the planet heavier in a sizable fashion, it might have effects we could not want.

also, why mine everything and drag it back to earth, why not build things in space with it and require less materials to be blasted up to space on rockets. I'm sure there are tonnes of carbon and iron on those asteroids, sounds like the perfect place to fabricate building materials for habitable space stations, etc.

then of course being in space, you'd need less heavy boosters to drag materials from the planet into space in the first place.

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Boffin

Re: the "gravity" of the situation

If all the asteroid belt were to land on Earth, it would change Earth mass by over... 0.1%? Calm down, breathe deep and don't worry just yet.

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Re: the "gravity" of the situation

Planet mass is almost entirely negligible in almost all applications of Kepler's laws, definitely so in the solar system (the barycentre of the SS is within the Sun itself, so assuming that the Sun is stationary is a pretty good approximation).

Seeing as the Earth's mass is 1 part in 10^6 of the Sun's, the Sun contains 99.86% of the entire mass in the solar system, and the vast majority of that remainder is in Jupiter (which orbits pretty happily), slurping up a few extra asteroids will have an approximate effect of "nothing".

~mico - it's actually about 0.05%, so assuming you guessed, you weren't far off!

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Re: the "gravity" of the situation

First sentence should probably read "the orbital period-distance equation", not "Kepler's laws" (it's technically the 3rd law).

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Boffin

Re: the "gravity" of the situation

Mass of planet earth - 6x10^24 kg approx.

so 6x10^21 tonnes

so a few thousand or even million tonnes are not going ot be noticeable.

The instant conversion of kinetic energy into heat on impact may be noticeable though.....

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Re: the "gravity" of the situation

The planet takes on many tons of new material every day. Those shooting stars you see at night are masses entering the atmosphere. Most of them just become more atmosphere as they aren't big enough to make it to the ground. Astrophysics majors have devoted great amounts of time trying to find if the planet is slowly getting more massive in a discernible way or if the bits of atmosphere that wander off constantly makes it all even out. This is hugely important for figuring out the likelihood of finding other planets that have the conditions we evolved in and thus might also have something like us living there.

Most of the stuff getting caught in the Earth's gravity well daily isn't big enough to produce an effect you'd catch looking up at night, but it adds up to a considerable amount that would make you very unhappy, briefly, if you had it all in one place and headed toward your house. But it's spread out over a really immense area. Imagine a light rain that leaves just enough moisture to be visible on all the sidewalks for a mile around your home. Then imagine that thin bit of moisture gathered up in one square meter of sidewalk. Splash. The amount of water didn't change but how it is distributed can be the difference between a cool mist and drowning.

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Trollface

Re: the "gravity" of the situation

GAIA now getting pear-shaped.

The horror!

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Time

Your assuming that this is an on going business. They could simply do this as a one of venture, bring back a couple of tons of platinum and sell it over a period of time in order to not destabilize the market. It's that same idea that the oil companies use, limit supply in order to keep the price of the commodity high.

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Big Brother

Re: Time

> It's that same idea that the oil companies use, limit supply

Someone hasn't heard about that Iranian and Lybian oil that disappeared from the market.

Yup, oil companies.

Sure.

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Boffin

Is there any Titanium up there?

I can see the Aircraft, Rolling Stock, and Automobile industries switching all construction over to Titanium given enough of a supply - which would keep prices at a decent level even with gigatonnes of the stuff.

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Devil

Re: Is there any Titanium up there?

There is plenty of titanium down here too.

Titanium is not rare, just a total pain in the arse to refine and work with same as Aluminum used to be before we discovered how to get it electrolytically.

If memory (from my chemistry days serves me right) you have to clorinate Ti02 into TiCl4 first (ugly and expensive as making Cl2 out of salt takes lots of energy), then purify that by distillation, then reduce TiCl4 into Titanium foam using Sodium (again ugly and expensive and costly). The Titanium you get from that has to be smelted into usable form with Sodium removed (I forgot how that one was done but that was painful too). The thing people forget is that the reason for a lot of Titanium properties as a material is not Titanium, but the thin coating of TiO2 which it forms immediately in contact with air (or any oxidizer). You cannot smelt or weld Titanium in a normal atmosphere - it will oxidize. You have to do it under Argon - once again lots of money, especially for smelting.

Most of these processes are not realistic in space. Clorine, Sodium are expensive (due to energy required) but abundant on Earth. Up there - not so much.

So even if we find a couple of rocks with a usable TiO2 content up there we need to figure out a whole new way of getting Ti out of them. If we do so, we might as well do that on earth - TiO2 is not rare (and not expensive either).

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Re: Is there any Titanium up there?

Up there it may not be as TiO2, as there's no free oxygen in space it might even be as free metal.

Is Ti able to strip the oxygen from H2O etc at the low temperatures found in space?

I don't know enough chemistry to guess the most likely compounds in a rocky asteroid, and the summaries I remember only listed the elements.

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