12 The Next Space Race Regarding the technology to mine the Moon, the process has many simi- larities to mining on Earth—though it must be conducted in a vacuum and must cope with temperature extremes and the very sharp and fine Lunar dust (the Moon mining enterprise is estimated to reach $12 billion by 2040).57 The technology to mine an asteroid with almost no gravity at all is much different. One technique being pioneered by TransAstra is to capture an asteroid and “optically mine” it—concentrating sunlight to cause it to sputter apart and release volatile gases.58 The concept of space mining may sound like science fiction, but early space mining experiments will be happening as part of the United States’ Artemis program and the Chinese-Russian International Lunar Research Station. Some companies are postured to start a basic capability about 2025 and rapidly expand through a bootstrapping approach. With proper enabling policy, the United States should expect hundreds of metric tons of metals, oxidizers, glasses, water, and slag by about 2030. Missing at the moment are any production targets or public-private partnerships for a Lunar industrial facility at the South Pole. Meaningful contracts to pur- chase extracted commodities, or a robust space commodities exchange where commodities and futures can be traded, are also absent. Asteroid mining has the potential to scale quickly. The PRC has plans to capture a small asteroid and return it to Earth in the mid- to late 2030s. The small-satellite technology to survey asteroids is quite mature and has been demonstrated by governments. As mentioned previously, the U.S. com- pany TransAstra has developed an optical mining technology to pulverize an asteroid and extract its volatiles,59 as well as an “omnivore engine” to use a variety of volatile materials as reaction mass,60 and a “Sutter Tele- scope System” concept to find small asteroids.61 The first asteroids could be mined for propellant before 2030. The logistics force multiplier effect of using asteroid resources and commercial practices cannot be understated— it makes Mars and other ambitious deep space exploration programs afford- able by cutting the cost fourfold.62 Once the logistics force multiplier effect is established (i.e., “gas stations” in space), it allows the structural materials of the asteroid to be accessed efficiently. The mass return on investment (how big a spacecraft you must launch compared to the amount of material you procure) is quite staggering (28–70:1), and the scale of capital required for the first missions is well within what mining and petroleum industry companies currently pay, less than $3 billion, to develop projects with com- parable return on investment.63 Advancements in space-based solar power and nuclear power can serve as enabling technologies for vital activities including space mining. The speed at which the United States enables asteroid mining is less a question of technology than it is a question of the organization of capital and whether there are anchor customers. Encouragingly, the U.S. government is
Previous Page Next Page