Years ago, people believed space travel was impossible. But now that we’ve ‘been there, done that’, the next crazy idea is mining space for the resources that will save Earth’s ecosystem, our global economies, and enable our species to keep growing. But is success mining far flung planets within our reach, or will our money disappear into space?
Featured in this episode:
- Brad Tucker from the Australian National University.
- Mike Wall from Space.com. Check out his book: Out There - a Scientific guide to Alien Life, Antimatter, and Human Space Travel.
- Loren Grush from The Verge. Loren has a great video series called Spacecraft available at TheVerge.com.
Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder.
And our cover artwork is by Andrew Millist.
James Orsulack TedX: All of the resources that we’ve ever used as a civilisation have come from the same place. ..all of the energy, the fuels, minerals, metals, construction materials, the water, the air that you’re breathing right now. Every resource that we’ve ever used has come from the same place… Earth.
James Orsulack TedX: Now this actually presents a severe problem, because when we study biological history we very quickly see that anytime there’s a dominant series, in a finite ecosystem, consuming a limited amount of resources, that species will collapse. Now that collapse usually begins at 50 per cent…
James Orsulack TedX: Now here’s the scary part. There’s 7 Billion people on this planet, we are the dominant species, and we have converted 43 per cent of the available landmass on earth.
James Orsulack TedX: Now if we expand our view and we look out into space, we see that all the resources we hold of value here at home, energy, fuels, metals, water, are available in nearly infinite quantities in our solar system. What if there was a way we could use those resources to prevent a collapse of our civilisation.
KRIS: Welcome to Moonshot - the show exploring the worlds biggest ideas and the people making them happen. I’m Kristofor Lawson.
ANDREW: And I’m Andrew Moon.
KRIS: Now you’ve been listening to a TED-X talk given by James Orsulack at the start of 2018. In it, he makes the case for why we need to look to broader horizons for the resources that we need to survive as the human race.
James Orsulack TedX: We’ve proven again and again that we know how to destroy an environment - now it’s time for us to prove that we save it.
ANDREW: Having enough money to keep a roof over our heads, our families fed, and live a good life is one of the biggest stresses people face. But as James touched on, there’s something far more pressing coming. That’s the reality that mother nature’s bank account could not too far off be in the red - putting our problems on the backburner.
KRIS: Years ago, people believed space travel was impossible. But now that we’ve ‘been there, done that’, the next crazy idea is mining space for the resources that will save Earth’s ecosystem, our global economies, and enable our species to keep growing. But is success mining far flung planets within our reach, or will our money disappear into space?
ANDREW: All that and more is coming right up.
Brad Tucker: So we'll go over here, and this is the meteorite I was talking about.
Brad Tucker: Well, it's a cool showpiece, because you see it and it looks like this giant doorstop, which it is. But it's a good example of... These are what we're looking at, and in fact, this is kind of the one that fully inspired me, to be honest.
KRIS: This is Brad Tucker… he’s an astrophysicist at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia… and he really, really loves asteroids.
Brad Tucker: Here, this is the fragment of an asteroid that has landed on Earth. You can see, visually, what these things are. This isn't a dramatically out there, you know, they are magnetic chunks of metal, that's all they are. Why not take advantage of that?
KRIS: Brad is the founder of the Australian Asteroid Mining Mission - or A-2 M-2 - a project aiming to mine asteroids and then bring those resources back to earth.
Brad Tucker: And the cool thing about asteroid mining is there's potential that you can make sure that if you're reducing the use of our natural resources on Earth, that's helping how we're operating here on Earth. We're still improving everyday lives, we can ... If you have a whole bunch of extra nickel and lithium, you can reduce the cost of reusable batteries, that means energy storage is cheaper, that means we're reducing CO2 emissions.
Brad Tucker: Ultimately, the problem ... Not every problem, but a lot of the problems we have here is resource-driven. We need more resources, and we need them better, cleaner, and more efficient. And how do we do that? Looking off this Earth is not as dramatic as it seems.
ANDREW: When you think of a traditional mine - billions of dollars often get poured into finding the right location and then building the necessary infrastructure, all before the point of actually extracting anything from the ground. Generally the plan is to offset all those initial costs by mining enough resources to make the entire endeavor worthwhile.
KRIS: But when it comes to mining in space… we’re talking about going through that entire scoping, construction, mining, and exploration process outside of Earth's atmosphere. And those in the industry say this is actually the advantage of space mining - in that you can use those resources to further our exploration of the universe without having to waste time and money by sending them up in a rocket.
Loren Grush: Most companies when they talk about space mining is gathering resources from either the Moon or asteroids and perhaps when we usually think of mining you think of digging up precious metals and there is some element to that.
KRIS: This is Loren Grush - Loren is a Senior Science Reporter at The Verge and specifically is focused on all things space.
Loren Grush: Digging up minerals is on the agenda for some of these companies but the biggest component I would say is harvesting water from these different space rocks because water can be broken apart into its constituent parts and that could be used as rocket fuel to fuel future spacecraft.
KRIS: How important is this concept of space mining to the success of other projects like you know Elon sending people to Mars or ...NASA trying to like open up and commercialise the rest of space?
Loren Grush: Right. I think it's crucial and a lot of people I've talk to believe that as well because it just takes so much money and energy to get supplies into space so if we are able to utilise the resources that already in space, that saves us a lot of effort to get all of our supplies that we need to do more ambitious space missions like going to Mars or… creating vibrant commercial economy.
Loren Grush: We don't have to send everything up from Earth which is really difficult because we have a really big gravity well but if we can go to space, harvest the resources there and then bring them to where we need them in space, that will make things a lot easier and cheaper and less complex.
ANDREW: When we look at what it would take to build one of these mines there’s a very real problem that becomes evident… and that’s the cost of even getting to the point where we can mine anything at all.
ANDREW: It’s common knowledge that anything involving space is an expensive endeavour - we’ve talked about that on Moonshot before. So who will actually be able to dig up enough cash to make all of this a reality?
Mike Wall: Well, it's kinda tough to say just because it's a really volatile industry that's just now starting out, so there's a lot of dust that's in the air that we're not ... and we're not sure how it's all gonna settle.
ANDREW: This is Mike Wall - a Senior Writer at Space.com
Mike Wall: I mean, this is a brand new industry right? So, it's just really speculative at this point. But probably the most prominent one is actually Planetary Resources. That's the one that made the biggest splash when it was first announced four or five years ago, and it's got a lot of high profile backers, billionaire backers. And they, yeah, they've actually launched a couple of sort of trial spacecraft that are testing out instruments in Earth orbit.
Mike Wall: Like, I would have to say as far as the asteroid miners go, they're probably in the lead because they've actually sent spacecraft into orbit and are testing stuff out in space. They plan to actually launch spacecraft to asteroids to do like up close scouting of potentially good mining targets in the relatively near future. I mean, maybe the next couple of years or so. So, that's pretty exciting.
KRIS: Planetary Resources which was founded in 2010 - actually raised close to $50 million US dollars from the likes of billionaire Google co-founder Larry Page and also Eric Schmidt who served as Google’s CEO and then Chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet before stepping down early this year. The company was incredibly bullish on the idea of mining in space… but despite sending some probes into space - they’ve recently struggled to get more funding and actually put a bunch of their research equipment up for auction… although the auction was actually postponed at the last minute. I reached out to Planetary Resources for an interview way back in June - and we’ve been talking about trying to find a time to schedule something… but unfortunately despite indicating they would do an interview before our deadline, they didn’t actually respond with potential times or dates for the interview. But if they do decide to talk to us, we’ll bring that to you as a bonus episode.
ANDREW: In addition to Planetary Resources there’s also Deep Space Industries who shared the same grand vision of extracting resources from outside the Earth. We reached out to them for an interview but we were told they are now shifting their focus to helping private companies, government agencies, and academic institutions execute low-cost missions. Or in other words - they’re focusing on exploration rather than mining because it’s simply much easier to make money in that area at this point in time.
KRIS: Do you think the concept of creating a mine in space is just like too big and too expensive for one individual company to approach?
Loren Grush: Potentially, yeah. It's going to take a lot of startup costs like this is a very complex infrastructure that will ... that you need to get started and then once you perfected it, it will hopefully bring costs down but yeah, it's going to take a lot up front cost and I think that's just a lot for technology that no one's ever really done before.
KRIS: Now Brad Tucker told me that he has around 100 people working on his mining mission across Australia including astrophysicists, lawyers, economists, policy engineers, and flight technicians. And he’s planning to take an incremental approach to the entire mining process which he says will reduce the overall cost and complexity of the mission.
Brad Tucker: Yeah. Look, I mean ... And this is why I think we're taking bite sized chunks. That 10 years down the road when we're fully mining asteroids, yeah and it's a hundred million dollar mission to do it. But to build an instrument to map the asteroids, that's a couple million dollars. We actually already have that money in place to start developing it. We want to fly this part of the mission in two to three years. What that means then is that if we can do it and we can demonstrate it to mining companies on earth they become more investors, which gives us a larger pool of money. Then we can tackle the second part, is how do we move an asteroid?
KRIS: Yes - you heard that right. Brad actually wants to move an asteroid. Once they find the right one he wants to go and drag it closer to Earth with one great big magnet - and then they’ll mine it remotely with robots.
Brad Tucker: Now we're not gonna move a giant asteroid, but you can develop a prototype we believe for 10 million dollars to move a small asteroid. Then we demonstrate that technology works, and then we have a full mission that needs to become more than just a group here. We've always viewed this as hopefully this becomes a main Australian Space Agency mission. You're not gonna upset that $200 million dollars that's needed to build a prototype to steer an entire asteroid and start mining it in situ. You're gonna need to do it incrementally.
Brad Tucker: And again this is where I think things have gone wrong before, is you say it's a two, three, four hundred million dollar mission and let's just go build it. But, you've gotta demonstrate all these other things before that ends up being there. Then it ends up being that you have cost overrun, missions overruns. Astronomy has had a bad track record with some of these.
KRIS: Why not just bring the asteroids, the smaller ones, back to Earth, and mine them here?
Brad Tucker: That is one of the exact missions we're looking at, to a T. I say, "I want to bring an asteroid back," and they're like, everyone's, "That's crazy." It's not. It really is not that crazy, because, instead of all that cost of infrastructure in space, we just bring it back down. That is literally one of the mission profiles, and this is the thing, that we're really taking this. We're not saying, "This is the one way we have to do it. Let's look at all of the options. Let's work all the logistics, all of the technicalities through, all the demonstrations through with it, and figure out what is the best model." It might be, it will probably be multiple, and I do the example of, there's not one rocket, right? We have multiple types of rocket, depending on the purpose: New Zealand, with Rocket Lab, is small rockets for small satellites.
Brad Tucker: There's not one solution, because it's such a big problem. I think, in the future, this is what asteroid mining is, so why not try and bring some of this stuff back? I completely agree. You can literally land an asteroid, and you have the resources here, and then, you have the iron here, and whatever else it comes up with. Then you just process it like you normally do, so you would save a lot of money, of setting it up in space.
Brad Tucker: When I say, "I wanna start figuring out how to land some of these back down on Earth," people laugh at me. Or, not laugh, I think it's more of a super villain-type idea, but we have to be open about it. As crazy as some of this stuff seems, if we do not do due diligence and consider it, and map it out, we haven't done our job right.
KRIS: And we’ll have more of our story on space mining - right after this break.
KRIS: Welcome back to Moonshot - I’m Kristofor Lawson.
KRIS: And while we’ve been talking about the concept of space mining - a lot of our focus has actually been on Asteroids… and you could be forgiven for not exactly knowing what an asteroid is, or how they’re different to meteors.
The truth is you’ve probably experienced the concept of asteroids in popular culture - from news, to cartoons, video games… and even in movies.
[Meteor (1979) trailer -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uIykhG1DEvw ]
ANDREW: Now meteors are actually fragments of asteroids that enter the earth’s atmosphere and leave a streak of bright flame as they go - or what’s more commonly known as ‘shooting stars’.
ANDREW: If one of these fragments actually survives the trip to earth - it’s known as a meteorite. And while many of the meteors that enter our atmosphere are quite small - there are many examples of larger meteorites that have been discovered… the largest of which spans around 6.5 meters and weighs 66 tonnes!
KRIS: If we go back a few hundred years… scientists actually believed at one point that there might have been a planet between Mars and Jupiter….that later turned out to be an asteroid.
KRIS: Giuseppe Piazzi was the man who thought he was onto something. But what he found in 1801 was too small to be a planet... and instead, it turned out what he discovered was actually a large asteroid, which he called Ceres.
ANDREW: Asteroids can range in size from just a few meters or less in diameter - right through to Ceres which has a radius of four hundred and seventy three kilometres. and is the largest object in the asteroid belt which sits between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.
ANDREW: And there are millions of asteroids in the asteroid belt - which means they don’t get an awful lot of attention. But say like Brad you wanted to go into space and start a space mining operation… who technically owns the asteroids and the materials that you extract from them?
ANDREW: You’ve probably heard of the concept of International waters, and it turns out it’s a similar idea in space.
ANDREW: The Outer Space Treaty was signed in 1967 by Russia, the U.K., and the United states and stated that outer space would not belong to any individual country and that everyone should be allowed to explore it….
ANDREW: But those laws were written at a time when only a handful could afford to pursue space - and they haven’t really changed in the last 50 years. They also didn’t really cover the new wave of private companies that have set their sights on exploring the solar system.
KRIS: In 2015 - new legislation was introduced in America called the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act - giving clear guidelines to private U.S. space firms - affirming their right to keep and sell the resources that they mine in space.
Loren Grush: … you still can't own an entire asteroid but whatever you scrape off that asteroid, you can keep it and you can sell it.
Loren Grush: There's still some debate of what over ... whether or not that falls in line with the Outer Space Treaty and I'm sure there are other countries that might be a little incensed at that prospect, but that was a big step for the US to say we support this type of space industry and we'll back you up if you want to go out and collect something from space.
KRIS: Now we’ve been mining for centuries on our planet - everything from Lithium that goes in your phone battery… right through to Gold, copper, and even platinum all comes from mines we’ve built on Earth. But as our global population expands - the need for more supplies only grows.
[‘TEDx Talk: Chris Lewicki’ - “Things that we find rare and expensive here on Earth, are in practically infinite quantities in space. Within these asteroids are the very materials necessary to support the lives and livelihoods of future space travellers.
ANDREW: Many companies are actually hoping to mine for water and then use that supply for drinking and to create rocket fuel… but Brad and his team are specifically looking to mine valuable and rare substances that can be brought back to earth. So what is Brad hoping to start mining for in the first mission?
Brad Tucker: Early on, it looks like nickel. I mean, nickel, and this, again, it depends, interestingly, where the market is. But there's a lot of nickel. There's some lithium, but there's a lot of nickel in these asteroids, and so, even a small amount of, a small asteroid, will have a huge amount of nickel in it, which we know is quite important now.
Brad Tucker: I think we are looking towards the platinum, the gold, the rhodium, some of these more rare minerals, that are not running out, but just hard to find on Earth. There's interesting questions of, what do we do with the iron? There is just so much iron, but it is, there is no model that we can figure out so far, that it's worth bringing this iron back.
KRIS: Brad and his team are hoping that by carving up these asteroids in space - they’ll be able to extract enough value to make the whole endeavour worthwhile.
ANDREW: But the concept of mining the resources of space is not without contention… if companies decided to go after lunar resources - it raises the interesting question around the ethics of mining one of the most visible celestial objects.
KRIS: And Brad’s take on that issue of who owns what in space? He says that’s exactly why he’s focused on asteroids, and not mining other planets or even their moons.
KRIS: He says there’s just so many asteroids out there that they don’t hold any real meaning in our minds.
Brad Tucker: ..there are literally millions out there. And it's just when those numbers, that there's so many, when they say, "It's astronomical," there's just so many. We're just kind of like, "There's a lot."
Brad Tucker: It's not an infinite supply, but you can almost, at this point in time, treat it as an infinite supply. And it's naïve, I think, and almost wrong not to consider it as an option, right? You're not talking about just mining on the moon or Mars, you're talking about an infinite supply. And unlike the moon or Mars, no one cares about asteroids. That's the wrong way to say it, but there's a lot of ethical questions when we talk about mining stuff in space, especially dealing anything with the moon and Mars, and some of the other solar systems, or the other planetary systems, like Jupiter and Saturn. But asteroids have this thing where they're kind of nondescript, they're kind of nameless. There's still some ethical questions I think we need to ask, but they're just... there's not much point.
KRIS: Who owns asteroids?
Brad Tucker: No one, that's the thing! There's no one owner of it, and so the agreement has always been that ... It's, again, it's that peaceful exploration of space, and that's why this new negotiation of treaties and laws needs to happen, is I agree stuff on the moon and Mars is completely different. And I think we need a very big question about, "How do we tackle what we do on the moon and Mars in the future?"
Brad Tucker: But the asteroids are genuinely different. They have a different role, it's not like you would do anything that would affect any view of us here on Earth, there is very little things that you can do to an asteroid that would change how we view both ourselves and the world. Not the same with the Moon and Mars, but with asteroids, it is. I mean literally, every time you see that thing falling through the sky, it's part of an asteroid that's burned up, that you never knew about. Right? And this is where having these updates and treaties and stuff like that is an important part of this equation.
Mike Wall: There's some people that think it's no big deal, That like it's totally fine for a private company to go and like extract resources from an asteroid or from the moon and sell it.
KRIS: This is Mike Wall again.
Mike Wall: But, that's not actually forbidden by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which is sort of the law of the land in all this stuff. And like a few other people ... like I'd say, yeah, that's the sort of dominant mindset that most of these companies take, obviously, because they think they can do what they wanna do. And that's the mindset that like the United States is actually taking. I mean, Congress passed a law a couple years ago basically saying like this is fine. These companies can do this.
Mike Wall: But that's just one country, and obviously space is not just one country. There's countries all over the world who like have a keen interest in this and will be affected by this. So, there's some nations and some folks in other nations don't necessarily sign onto this and think that private companies don't have that right. And like will they challenge that in some court, like the International Court? How would this all play out? That's gonna be a really interesting aspect of this whole thing as we see some of these space resources actually being extracted and being sold. There could be like some objections from various nations around the world, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
Neil DeGrasse Tyson: “The first Trillionaire there’ll ever be, will be the person that mines asteroids for their natural resources. Just saying.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VhRnp2ZA22o
ANDREW: That’s astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson speaking with Popular Mechanics in 2015. And more recently in 2017 Business Insider said that Goldman Sachs had sent out a report saying they were bullish on the idea of space mining. Then, this year, US Senator Ted Cruz who is chair of the US Senate Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness - told Politico that the first trillionaire would be made in space - although he didn’t exactly know how.
KRIS: If Brad and his team can actually pull this whole space project off - they could all become incredibly wealthy - perhaps on a scale that we’ve never seen before. And unlike on earth - if you can figure out the process, the supplies in space are almost infinite.
Brad Tucker: Every time you see a meteor, the blue-green, that blue-green colour you see, is iron and nickel burning up. So every time you see one of those pebbles, you see evidence of iron in green. When you see yellow, you see sodium, when you see orange, you see some of the nickel and some of the oxygen. You see literally, with our own eyes, the fragments that are coming into the Earth, and know that there are these resources on that thing. And from sheer numbers alone, there's ... Everyday there's 200 tonnes worth of stuff that hit the Earth. Now most of it burns up, and most of this is fragments, but there's a lot of junk out there.
KRIS: Do you think people are just sort of like looking at those meteorites coming in, seeing the blue-green colour and thinking, "Oh, there's some dollar signs there."
Brad Tucker: I do now. I just hear cha-ching, cha-ching… no.