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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  1. Anonymous Coward
    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.

    1. Andrew Moore Silver badge

      Re: An Adventure...

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

    2. Thorne

      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

      1. JeffyPooh Silver badge
        Pint

        Re: An Adventure...

        Platinum spaceships for all then?

        1. Alan Brown Silver badge

          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.

  2. Trollslayer Silver badge
    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?

    1. BillG Silver badge
      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?)"

  3. GottaBeKidding

    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.

    1. AListair 6

      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.

    2. Ian Michael Gumby Silver badge
      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.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        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.

        1. Ian Michael Gumby Silver badge
          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...

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            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.

  4. AndrewG

    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.

  5. The Man Who Fell To Earth Silver badge
    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.

    1. AListair 6

      Re: robots

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

    2. Nuno

      Re: robots

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

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: robots

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

        1. The Axe
          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.

          1. Evil Auditor Silver badge

            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.

          2. Anonymous Coward
            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.

            1. Mikel
              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.

              1. Eugene Crosser
                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.

            2. h4rm0ny
              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.

    3. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: robots

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

      1. tojb

        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.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          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

        2. Anonymous Coward
          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

    4. Ian Michael Gumby Silver badge
      Terminator

      Re: robots

      But they do need a source of energy ...

      Plus what happens when they wake up?

    5. Thorne

      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

    6. YetAnotherBob
      Thumb Up

      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.

  6. AListair 6

    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.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      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.

      1. Graham Dawson

        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.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          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.

          1. This post has been deleted by its author

          2. Graham Dawson

            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.

            1. John H Woods Silver badge

              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.

              1. Graham Dawson

                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.

                1. Peter Mc Aulay

                  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.

          3. Ian Michael Gumby Silver badge

            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?

            1. Anonymous Coward
              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.

            2. Tom 13

              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.

              1. Thorne

                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.

            3. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              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.

          4. Anonymous Coward
            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.

            1. JeffyPooh Silver badge
              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. :-)

          5. Alan Brown Silver badge

            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)

      2. Agarax
        Thumb Down

        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”.

  7. AndrueC Silver badge
    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.

  8. frank ly Silver badge

    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.

    1. Zimmer

      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...

    2. AndrueC Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: They need to be careful out there

      Punishment for mining into a jettisoned can?

      :)

  9. SkippyBing Silver badge

    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?

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
      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.

    2. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge
      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.

      1. Dani Eder
        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.

        1. bdefrogg

          Re: But there is no concept of private property.

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

    3. Anonymous Coward
      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.

      1. hplasm Silver badge
        Pirate

        Re: But there is no concept of private property.

        Thus: SPACE PIRATES!!

        Yarr! *beep*

    4. Anonymous Coward
      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.

      1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
        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!

    5. dssf

      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.

    6. Voland's right hand Silver badge

      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.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        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.

    7. Ian Michael Gumby Silver badge
      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

      1. Tom 13

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

        Dickson. He wrote some of my favorites.

  10. Dave Bell
    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.

    1. Rob 5

      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.

      1. DougS Silver badge

        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.

        1. catprog

          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.

        2. JeffyPooh Silver badge
          Pint

          Re: How much for how much?

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

  11. El Presidente

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

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Elsewhere?

      Yes. It's called 'reality'.

  12. Graham Marsden
    Coat

    This isn't going to work...

    ... until someone invents the Cobra Mk III.

    Right on, Commander!

    1. Philipsz
      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."

  13. Panicnow

    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?

  14. ptmmac
    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.

    1. SkippyBing Silver badge

      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?

    2. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
      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...

  15. Anonymous Coward
    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.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      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...

  16. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    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.

  17. elawyn

    Is there a market?

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

    1. PhilBuk
      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.

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Is it ...

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

  19. Geoffrey Swenson

    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.

  20. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    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!

  21. Chris Thomas Alpha
    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.

    1. ~mico
      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.

      1. Daniel Evans

        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!

        1. Daniel Evans

          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).

    2. Omgwtfbbqtime Silver badge
      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.....

    3. Epobirs

      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.

      1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
        Trollface

        Re: the "gravity" of the situation

        GAIA now getting pear-shaped.

        The horror!

  22. Joe__S

    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.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
      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.

  23. Ryan 7
    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.

    1. Voland's right hand Silver badge
      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).

      1. Richard 12 Silver badge

        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.

  24. Doug Bostrom

    So it's kind of like a recession, or depression: by tacit consensus to remain enslaved to notions of economics that have lost their roots in the physical world we all agree to be miserable. It's a sad day when the physics hand we're dealt has nothing to do with our quality of life.

    1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

      A Whole New Ball Game ..... to Win Win With or Lose At

      So it's kind of like a recession, or depression: by tacit consensus to remain enslaved to notions of economics that have lost their roots in the physical world we all agree to be miserable. It's a sad day when the physics hand we're dealt has nothing to do with our quality of life. ..... Doug Bostrom Posted Saturday 24th November 2012 22:26 GMT

      Not all are enslaved to notions of economics that have lost their roots in the physical world we all agree to be miserable.

      Some are otherly minded and would be surprisingly active and interested in generating pleasure with addictively attractive content.

      There is certainly no recession or depression in that area of expertise, Doug Bostrom

    2. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
      FAIL

      > to remain enslaved to notions of economics that have lost their roots in the physical world

      Like what?

  25. Sam 15

    Leave it UN! He ain't worth it.

    "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."

    The UN should stick to local politics and leave the neighbours alone.

    TANSTAAFL - There ain't no such thing as a free Launch - at least, not from the bottom of Earth's gravity well.

    1. Omgwtfbbqtime Silver badge
      Coat

      Re: Leave it UN! He ain't worth it.

      Be more worried about the UN Envoy Corps.......

      <--Thats not my sleeve!

  26. Epobirs

    This was all discussed decades ago.

    The writer references several authors but doesn't seem to remember the stories very well. I'm not seeing anything in this piece that wasn't covered back in the 70s. The idiotic UN treaty will turn to dust the moment someone stakes a claim and has the means on site to defend it. The cost of trying to wage piracy rather than just finding your rock to work is such that only a fool would fight over any claim.

  27. Steve Graham
    Unhappy

    OSIRIS-REx, planned for launch in 2016, is currently budgeted at a round billion dollars, and is to sample and return to Earth as much asteroid material as it can collect, up to a maximum of 2 kilos. Target asteroid 1999 RQ36 is a soft, crumbly carbonaceous lump, about half a kilometre long, so collecting a sample of surface material ought to be feasible. Although the rendezvous is in 2019, the return capsule won’t arrive back on Earth until 2023.

    Planetary Resources say that they will be able to create robotic spacecraft at a tenth of NASA’s pork-barrel prices, and maybe I can believe that. But even a mere hundred million dollars for a small, crumbly lump of space gunk seems expensive if it’s not the scientific content you’re interested in, seven years later.

  28. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So, when will they change their name to Fireball Enterprises?

  29. panzerboy
    Facepalm

    Probably the most telling example of Planetary Resources plans is that WATER is the first listed item on their asteroid composition web page. Water, in earth orbit is worth a lot more right now than platinum is at the bottom of the gravity well. The platinum group metals are really just a deal sweetener. Hopefully they will crash the price of platinum so that fuel cells can be a made at consumer friendly prices. Platinum catalysts are also useful in electrolytic conversion of water to hydrogen. Cheap platinum could be just the boost the hydrogen economy needs.

  30. senna

    Agenda 21

    It adds up if you rig the market by shutting down mining activities in response to the United Nations Agenda 21 policy on sustainability.Look it up it's all there.

  31. Nially

    Ludicrous

    It's codswollop of course. An asteroid will hit us before we get ever to 'mine asteroids'.

  32. Nially

    I suspect they're fully aware it's a pipe dream. The reason they put these stories out there is to acclimatise the masses to the increased presence of asteroids, comets and their offspring in our corner of space.

  33. Mikel
    Pint

    It's their money

    Whenever these objections about Planetary Resources come up I feel it's important to remind the author: it's their money. They don't tell you how to spend your money. Some of the richest guys on the planet are behind this thing, and they're not in it for giggles. As long as they don't ask you for your money, let them do what they will.

    It's not like they just spent 11 billion retirement fund investor dollars on Autonomy, 8 billion on Skype, or two billion dollars a year maintaining their web presence like some fools have been up to.

  34. Robert Brockway
    Linux

    Laws in space

    Others have make some excellent responses to the article (new uses of the raw materials, materials could be used in space, etc). I didn't want to comment further there but I did want to make a point about the claim of ownership.

    It is quite reasonable to conclude that once property rights in space become relevant, laws will appear to deal with them. A good example right here on Earth is the islands of Svalbard. Svalbard was not claimed by any state when citizens of various countries started exploiting its natural resources. Before long it becme clear that laws were needed on these islands in the interests of good order. The great powers gathered and agreed on a treaty to govern Svalbard. The country who was physically closest to Svalbard (Norway) would gain sovereignty and their laws would apply, but citizens of any signatory state would be allowed to live and work there to exploit the resources available on the islands. This treaty has operated well and been respecred by all signatory nations for nearly a century. The modern world is repleat with examples of laws and treaties being applied once there was a need. It is reasonable to assume that this would be the case with commercial space exploration & mining also.

  35. Anonymous Coward
    FAIL

    Fiat Currncies are Doomed.

    And the rich people realize it. Why do you think that these folks, all of them wealthy, have dreamed up what appears to be a harebrained scheme? They are in it for the money, not the romance.

    I do realize that there are all sorts of fancy arguments being made against commodity based currencies, but our fiat currencies simply are not working. Any time an entity can make its own currency out of vacuum, then that entity will be very well off until everyone catches on to its game. Our governments have been caught doing just that. They are making their money from a vacuum. They are not even going to the trouble of printing it. Someone somewhere sits down in front of a keyboard and issues bank so-an-so x-billions of euros-pounds-dollars or place-your-favoriie-valuta here, and, suddenly, said bank so-and-so is x-billions of valuta better off with no more trouble than that.

    It has to end sooner or later. The world cannot continue with fiat currencies. There is one nation that understands this better than most--Germany. Check out what happened in Germany between WWI and WWII. Their experience with inflation has frightened them no end--and they are still very frightened of it today. Why do you think Angela Merkel is being so tough with Greece? She is not doing it just to be mean or German. Merkel has reason for her stance.

    Now, why did I bring this up? Because gold and the so-called PGM's can do a lot to help us straighten out our currency problems. Sure, a sudden influx of them will cause inflation for a little while, but that comes to an end after a while, just as it did with Spain in the sixteenth century. The author has mistakenly assumed that these metals only matter to industry and base his article on that blythe assumption. I maintain that it is a very bad assumption. I was around prior to 1972 and Nixon taking the United States off of the gold standard. I remember all to well what happened next.

    Fortunately or unfortunately, depending upon how one looks at this subject, Nixon and Kissinger made a deal with the Saudi's in 1972 so that the only currency that oil could be bought with was the US dollar. That meant that the US dollar was indrectly backed by crude oil. Now that nasty game is rapidly coming to a close. The Saudi's dislike parting with their oil for increasingly worthless US dollars.

    Money as we have known it is about to end, make no mistake about it. The bad news screams loudly in most headlines you read now-a-days. Whither Greece? Whither Ireland? What about Iceland? What is about to happen to Italy and France? The same tthing that is already happening to the US dollar. The euro and the US dollar are both goling the way of the dodo. Gold is about to make a comeback that will be the biggest comeback of all time. Perhaps this time we will have learned our lesson. Warren Buffet is just a man, not really an oracle.

    1. foxyshadis

      Re: Fiat Currncies are Doomed.

      The effect of dumping ten times as much gold on the market as currently exists on all of earth would be exactly the same as any country printing up ten times as much currency. The ability to mine precious metals off-planet while using them as currency would effectively make the metal a fiat itself, controlled by whatever governments or private companies control the mining and distribution. It would be no different from using diamonds as a currency, when DeBeers and the Russians can release as many or as few on the market any year as they want.

      You fail, sir. No points are awarded for your attempt to fit an ideology into a completely game-breaking change.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Stop

        Re: Fiat Currncies are Doomed.

        We are not here discussing an ideology, but plain fact. It is you who have allowed ideology to sway your thinking. The amount of fiat currency we are dealing with could easily swallow ten times the current terrestrial production of gold and never look back.

  36. Stephen 10

    Foamed metals for example

    http://www.nasa.gov/centers/marshall/news/background/facts/foam.html

    First read about them in the 80s, they're still on the table.

    Oh and as far as sovereignty goes, you establish an asteroid in orbit with sufficient solar power and a decent range of available elements and you're good to go as a nation state with the added advantage of being up-hill from everyone else - think kinetic weapons, lasers and probably nukes. Being at the top of the gravity well is like being king of the castle of super steroids.

  37. Tom Cooke

    Hannefin Metals

    I for one welcome our new Motie overlords!

  38. Charlie 5

    A lot of this will become reserve & deposit fodder

    Mining anything of any use at all in space will generate income whether it gets sent back to earth, consumed at source or turned into bars and boosted into a lagrange orbit.

    The mere fact of its existence will create a market around it. Reserves of precious metals underpin a lot of economic activity and confidence in other economic activity.

    I can buy a barrel of oil (or an ounce of gold) on the stock market that either currently exists (in a variety of states - crude, refined or secondary products) or has yet to be extracted from the ground. I can then sell it on without every having taken deliver or seen the product. I can even sell it on before it has been drilled.

    Likewise I may decide to top up my pension by buying a few ounces of space gold that is orbiting the Earth as part of a larger refined deposit of space gold. Or decide to buy a share in a surveyed asteroid that is scheduled to be refined.

    Space gold will have a value which is determined by the market. It may even have a special category as space gold on the basis that it may never actually be landed on Earth. Ever.

    Chances are that there will be massive import tariffs on space gold or space platinum or space anything for the exact purpose of preventing Earthside markets from being smashed to pieces by supply surplus.

    It would make sense to keep all that stuff up there to be traded (initially as derivatives) and eventually used in situ.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: A lot of this will become reserve & deposit fodder

      I agree with you on most of this stuff, but I seriously doubt that any attempt at isolating terrestrial markets from space markets will have any success over the long haul. Where ever people go, they tend to trade. The more valuable the commodity, the harder it is for govenrments to place limits on the trade in it.

      1. Charlie 5

        Re: A lot of this will become reserve & deposit fodder

        Over the long haul you are absolutely right but short term it makes sense to discourage anyone from landing a market-shifting quantity of a rare metal. For all the reasons in the original article it wont necessarily be in the interest of the miner to land it all in one go even if they were allowed to.

        I think you might struggle to get an insurance policy on your re-entry vehicle if it holds more gold than the Russian national reserve.

        The terrestrial market will be isolated anyway by natural factors or rather the barriers to trade between space and Earth have a naturally isolating effect.

        As the market and technology mature then the import tarrifs will be less useful and harder to enforce.

        Ultimately I think it should all be about assets being refined for use in space while encouraging finance from Earth until the market matures.

  39. Steve Hosgood
    Headmaster

    Yet again - science story in bizarre mishmash of units

    "An increase in supply of as little as 250,000 ounces - seven metric tons - will drive the price down by a quarter."

    Look - if you're writing an article about mining, please lay off with the "ounces" eh? Presumably you mean troy ounces anyway? While you're at it (and this may be pedantic), there is no such thing as a "metric ton". Well - maybe in the USA, but not anywhere else. It's called a "tonne" over here.

    Later in the same article

    "...asked if the markets are large enough to support the mining costs - yes, especially if we are able to bring back so much that the price goes from $1,500/ounce to $15/ounce."

    Any chance we can have that in units that make sense please? Like "...price goes from $48000/kg to $480/kg" (assuming you meant troy ounces)?

    Or, since it's a mining article that started with tonnes, maybe you ought to stick with that and have "...price goes from $48million/tonne to $480thousand/tonne"?

    Is it too much to ask for a poll on extending the policy on metric-only articles to cover everything El. Reg covers (apart from beer)?

    1. Mayhem

      Re: Yet again - science story in bizarre mishmash of units

      You fool, the register never uses consistent units!

      If it helps, we should be talking costs around the $11500/Jub mark dropping to a mere $0.11/kiloJub

    2. foxyshadis
      Paris Hilton

      Re: Yet again - science story in bizarre mishmash of units

      Metals are traded on troy ounces and pounds. That shouldn't be hard to grasp, and if it offends you, then the whole talk about markets is not for you at all.

      1. Steve Hosgood
        Unhappy

        Re: Yet again - science story in bizarre mishmash of units

        Hey - foxyshadis: no need to be rude! Obviously I can "grasp" that precious metals *may* be traded in troy ounces (though some markets operate in grams and kg). The point was supposed to be that in an article talking about mining asteroids, and mentioning tonnes of material, it's hard work dealing with prices given in an almost unrelated set of units like troy ounces. Even if those are the units that some markets use, price per tonne or price per kg are the obvious ones to quote in an article like this.

        (*) Price per jub might be funnier, but until the International Convention of the Jub have standardised that unit of mass relative to the Planck Constant and Avogadro's number, it's all a bit moot!

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Yet again - science story in bizarre mishmash of units

      As I write this, gold is selling for something like 43 euros per gram or, if you prefer to use a larger unit, 43000 euros per kilogram. Platinum is selling for somewhat less at about 40 euros per gram.

  40. BCS

    Use it instead of aluminium

    If you can mine many tonnes of platinum, why not use it in space instead of other metals. It has better Young's, shear and bulk modulus than aluminium, lower thermal conductivity and lower thermal expansion too. And it's very unreactive too, which is useful.

    Why not use it to make tanks for storing the water mined on other asteroids? It might need a bit of work to figure out how to use it, but hey, that's part of the challenge.

    The only reason for not using it for engineering down here is because it's rare. Up there? Maybe not.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Use it instead of aluminium

      Platinum is hard to find any and everywhere you look for it. The atomic weight of aluminium is so close to 27 that it is not worht fussing about. The atomic weight of platinum is 195, which means that platinum is roughly seven times more massive than aluminum. So, if you have a situation wherein you are wont to store something and move it, aluminum is still your best material. Platinum should be reserved for the more corrosoive substances, like flourine gas.

      1. BCS

        Re: Use it instead of aluminium

        Oh, aluminium is preferable for anything you need to move but if you've got an asteroid with lots of platinum and little aluminium then it can be used as a structural metal instead of Al. That was rather my point.

  41. Henry Wertz 1 Gold badge

    Rare Earth metals?

    I wonder how this works out for other rare earth metals. I've read about how for indium, neodymium, niobium, etc. are in short supply to the point that researchers are already looking into how to make LCDs work without them. I honestly don't know, but the supply of these is much tighter than platinum, and yet they are not recycled like platinum (the quantity that goes into an LCD for instance is small but it is not recycled anywhere as far as I know.)

    Also, somewhat off topic... re the article quote: "(why, says Mr Apple, “how nice to see you here Mr Samsung!”)", really it's more like "(why, says Mr Apple, "that's a nice phone you already have there on the market Mr. Samsung, I suppose I'll claim I made it first and sue you")." Keep in mind Samsung had a phone on the market BEFORE the iphone that had the features Apple claimed were copied from the iphone; they just managed to persuade the judge to disallow that evidence from being presented.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Rare Earth metals?

      Rare earht metals are not especially rare; they are extremely difficult to separate and refine. The only reason that there is a shortage of them at this time is because China got into the business of producing these misnamed "rare" earth metals, and then decided to curb output once they had driven all the other refiners out of the market. The reason China curbed output is because they realized that they were doing great harm to their environmennt with their cheap and sloppy refiining practices. It is not the scarcety of the rare earths that is the problem here, it is the chemical processes necessary to produce them. Western producers were trapped between market forces and environmental regulations. I am guessing that they will do what every other self-respecting capitalist cocern does whenever it is in a bind and turn to the sundry western governments with their hands out for subisidies and special treatment under the law. In fairness, there is little else they can do.

      I suspect , for starters at least, that most of these types of materials will be exported from Earth. Only if suitable deposits of them are found in space will that flow be reversed., and then only because less environmental damage will ensue from their production in the vast reaches of space will make their production cheaper.

      While Apple is clearly in for a bruising and a sail trimming, Samsung is an outright monopoly in South Korea. I canna see any good guys in tha particular donneybrook.

  42. JeffyPooh Silver badge
    Pint

    Big rail-gun to fling raw alumin(i)um slugs into LEO

    Just fire aluminum/aluminium slugs into a more-or-less common orbit by means of a big rail gun powered by energy stored up during the off-peak hours. Result is vast quantities of a very useful metal in orbit at very low cost. It'll need a wee feisty shuttle craft to gather them up and keep them organized in a big net. Machining the raw metal into comfortable space ships is not included. That's a common next step for any metal-to-LEO approach.

    Metal to orbit - problem solved.

    PS: Don't forget to clear out the air traffic...

  43. bugalugs
    Go

    Spaaaace dream

    As a sci-fi lover and IT retiree it pains that a study (PDF here) of South African platinum mines out of Monash University reveals a best energy/coolant performance of 175.1 GJ/kgpgm at one location and 269.3 m^3H20/kgpgm at another location ( PDF page 11 ). So, ~27 barrels of oil or ~48 Mwh and perhaps 80 overweight indian elephants of water to produce a 1 kg piglet of platinum, terrestially.

    Whatever these chaps plan to do with whatever they believe they can find, serious innovation in remote / autonomous waterless micro-gravity mining, concentrating, smelting, refining, milling, machining, by-product processing, waste disposal and transportation appears needful. Other challenges might include the inverse square law as applied to solar panels at the orbital distance of the asteroid belt, the limits of political tolerance vis-a-vis the project milestone of hoicking major atomic reactors into departure orbit and the impact on the rocket -fume / breathable-atmosphere ratio that despatching the necessary foundation plant might have.

    Nice dream, tho...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Go

      Re: Spaaaace dream

      Yep! That's the dream all right. Water is needed for cooling more than it is for propellent and human consumption. CNC machining uses lots of water for cooling and the carrying away of chips and filings. Smelting uses a great deal of water for three things; as a reagent ; as a coolent and as separation medium. Even if we do it all with computer and tele-operated machines, water will be very much in demand. I am betting, by the way, that when it _is_ done, it will be done with machines. Human occupation of space is easier than the human occupation of the deep oceans, but it is only slightly less expensive thanks to what it costs to put a human in space.

  44. Hanni Ali

    Economics

    The single overriding factor to consider (for use on earth - let's ignore space for now) is the cost of acquisition. On Earth we have experienced a high inflationary rate in the mining industry over the past 5 years, Gold at best is on the order of $550 an ounce. If the cost and stability of supply (very important given many mines are in unstable countries) for mining operations in space can hit that price point or at least hit market equivalence (some publicly traded companies currently have costs in excess of $1000) then there is an argument for investment.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Go

      Re: Economics

      Check out what just happened to Nautilus Minerals. They were in the middle of a project to mine the bottom of the Bismark Sea. Gold and copper deposits there are so rich that it is hard to believe, but their partner, Papua New Guinea, refused to pay for their half of the undersea equipment. The green-meanies have accused them of messing up the water, even though they have yet to put a damned thing into the ocean. There is a nearby underwater volcano responisble for the cloudy water, but try telling an ill-educated Papuin that after he or she has already been frightened ot his/her wits by a slavering environmentalist.

      Nautilus Minerals is going through a hard earned disintengration phase that might well drag on for a decade. There was a lot of money and engineering effort tied up in that concept, but it will come to naught. There are only so many places left on Earth to mine. The only other options are to go above the Earth's atmosphere, or die. LIfe without any further mining will become absolutely impossible. Growth? Fugiddaboutit!

      1. Hanni Ali

        Re: Economics

        Excellent example of the sort of issue one simply wouldn't have to deal with in Space. I would also highlight that through the use of robotics or even teleoperated mining equipment in space a company could avoid the sort of labour issues (strikes) South African mining operations have experienced throughout 2012. Mining still provides opportunity for application of high tech solutions in what remains an often low tech 'shovelling dirt' approach.

  45. Dodgy Geezer Silver badge
    Alert

    Actually, this article only gives half of teh economic story..

    What the article says is true, I have no doubt. But the bit that is missing is the expected rise in population.

    Given the figures, you probably couldn't market the platinum today. But, according to Julian Simon, the human race is getting larger and richer ALL the time. This is what funds technological advance.

    Today, few people would buy expensive platinum jewelery. In 50 years time, a substantial proportion of the middle class would be using it to hang on Christmas trees. At some point during this process, asteroid mining will become viable...

  46. the Jim bloke Silver badge

    drawback to platinum as a cash cow

    few years back, before the GFC, the mining company I worked for was taken over by Norilsk Nickel .. big russian mining company. According to their welcome-to-the-family presentation, as well as being one of the largest nickel producers in the world, they were also the top producer of platinum.. purely as a byproduct from their nickel mines. At the time they were using the profits from the platinum to cover the production costs of the nickel, but you can see how easy it would be for them to crash the price of platinum if they felt threatened.

    From an investment point of view, there is no point spending money on something if it costs more to produce than people will pay for it.

    Personally, the sooner we get our arses off this mudball the better, and I do wish them luck

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