When he was asked to select a topic for his university thesis, Mitch Hunter-Scullion, a man with the kind of memorable name worthy of a series of popular techno-thrillers, decided to write about asteroid mining. The dream of extracting valuable resources from space rocks was one that had long fascinated him. And, besides, no-one else on his course had thought of writing about the same idea.
When, a little under a year later, he graduated with a degree in International Relations and History from the U.K.’s Liverpool Hope University, Hunter-Scullion was hooked. He knew what he wanted to do with his life. The only problem was that no companies in the U.K. were actively working on asteroid mining. As far as he could tell, barely any companies in Europe were, either. So he started one and, because he was first, he had the pick of any name he wanted. He called his company The Asteroid Mining Corporation and named himself its 20-year-old CEO.
Just a few years later, The Asteroid Mining Corporation may not quite live up to the grandiose billing of its name, but it’s getting closer. By default, the U.K.’s biggest and most visible asteroid mining enterprise, it has eight full-time employees, with specializations ranging from astrogeology to astrodynamics. Now it’s gearing up to launch a prospecting satellite that will help seek out economically viable asteroids for future mining.
If he can pull it off, he’ll be part of a new generation of space entrepreneurs. And while there are plenty of things that can go wrong, there’s a whole lot of opportunity too.
The answer to all our problems?
The idea of mining asteroids for crucial or desirable materials is nothing new — at least, not in science fiction. Legendary authors in the field such as Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein used space mining as a plot device as far back as the 1940s and ‘50s. In The Rolling Stones, Heinlein — best known for his novels Starship Troopers and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress — imagined galactic prospectors seeking out valuable space rocks from which they could extract materials.
Like robotics and artificial intelligence, asteroid mining is a field which, in recent years, has made a sudden lane switch from pure sci-fi to something more rooted in reality. This has arisen with a new boom in space industries, much of it led by private companies with a vested interest in profits, rather than the giant public sector missions of the past. In addition to the Asteroid Mining Corporation, other companies in this area include Deep Space Resources, Planetary Industries (backed by Alphabet’s Larry Page), and more.
“The Earth is a big place, but our resources are finite,” Hunter-Scullion said. “As our population is ever-growing, there’s going to become a pressure point. We can already see that when it comes to certain materials. As we reach peak mineral, they will become more expensive as it becomes more challenging and environmentally damaging to access them. We’re already mining in the Arctic and under the sea, doing some horrendous damage to this planet. Right now there’s only one planet in the universe that we know can sustain life in the solar system. However, there’s another way to get these same materials. They are available in asteroids in much higher concentrations than they are on Earth.”
Thanks to movies like Armageddon, most people associate asteroids with mass destruction. But there is a reason to view them as possible salvation, too. Metallic asteroids are extremely rich in metals. A staggering 80% of these asteroids are composed of iron, while the remaining 20% is a mixture of nickel, iridium, palladium, platinum, gold, magnesium, and other assorted precious metals, including osmium, ruthenium, and rhodium. “Across all the platinum mines on Earth, we only mine 200 tons of platinum each year,” Hunter-Scullion continued. “A single asteroid could contain thousands of times more platinum. It’s economically justifiable to start exploring them.”
Other asteroids are thought to contain rare substances like helium-3, a gas found in minuscule amounts on Earth, but which could prove to be the key ingredient to nuclear fission. This could provide us with a clean source of sustainable energy with no waste products or radiation. Still, others contain so-called “volatiles,” including water. The latter could be split into its hydrogen and oxygen components to create propellants for space missions. Such propellants could then be utilized by other spacecraft, essentially turning volatile-heavy asteroids into galactic filling stations.
To get us started on tapping these precious resources, the Asteroid Mining Corporation plans to launch a prospecting satellite. “We’re now gearing up to the manufacturing stage of Asteroid Prospecting Satellite 1,” Hunter-Scullion said. “We hope to launch it in the first or second quarter of 2021. That will involve a five-year mission duration in low Earth orbit looking at asteroids. The goal is to categorize and catalog what we can see. That will give us a much deeper understanding of asteroids, which could pave the groundwork for exploration licenses to explore any economically viable candidates for mining.”
Provided that all goes ahead, ASP-1 will be used to conduct a spectral survey of 5,000 near-Earth asteroids to identify which are the most viable candidates for mining. To monetize the mission, Hunter-Scullion says that the company will sell the data to interested parties. “It’s like being a low-cost airline. It’s about finding ways to minimize cost and maximize returns. We’re focused on getting toward profit generation at the very earliest stages,” he said.
The asteroid rush
“APS-1 is the starting pistol for the ‘asteroid rush,’” the Asteroid Mining Corporation notes on the “Missions” page of its website. “With a clear understanding of the most lucrative asteroids in Earth’s immediate sphere of influence, there will be a global rush to claim these objects.”
Hearing Hunter-Scullion’s story, it’s impossible not to be reminded of another, not-dissimilar event in history. In May 1848, a storekeeper in Sutter’s Creek, CA, discovered gold dust in a river in San Francisco. His cry of “Gold! Gold! Gold from American River!” was widely reported around the United States, and, by 1849, the California Gold Rush was well underway. In under two years, San Francisco’s non-native population expanded from 800 to 100,000, thanks to the influx of prospecting miners referred to as “49ers.”
Some of these prospectors struck it rich, hoovering up sizable chunks of the 750,000 pounds of gold mined during the California Gold Rush. Many also benefited in other ways from the new economic possibilities posed by thousands of people arriving in search of their fortunes. Of course, many others uprooted their lives and wound up achieving nothing. Such is the way of a gold rush.
The next gold rush — or, as Hunter-Scullion phrases it, the “asteroid rush” — will prove more difficult. The California Gold Rush required very little capital from would-be gold diggers. The same cannot be said for asteroid mining. Thanks to decreasing component costs, a CubeSat satellite launch like ASP-1 can now be achieved for as little as $40,000. But the physical mining part is going to be far, far more costly, and carries considerable risk.
Hunter-Scullion may have been among the relatively early movers, but being first doesn’t always mean being the one who reaps the rewards. Both Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources recently changed hands; they’ve struggled to raise money on their own and have shifted to exploring other, more immediately viable types of business. DSI was bought by Bradford Space, owned by a U.S. investment group, while Planetary was snapped up by a blockchain company called ConsenSys.
Today, we’re just starting to see the bigger players move in. In February, Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft successfully landed on the asteroid Ryugu, and later fired a projectile at it in order to throw up matter to be collected. These samples will eventually return to Earth, where they can be analyzed. NASA has also taken steps toward asteroid mining by offering funding to the California-based TransAstra Corporation, which could make strides in the field of asteroid mining. A recent report from Data Bridge Market Research has also suggested that the global space mining market is likely to rise from well under $1 billion today to $3.28 billion by 2026. “This growth can be attributed to the high number of space missions currently taking place and the upcoming space missions too,” the firm writes.
The next step
Right now, we’re still at the early stages of the asteroid rush; the stages at which a university graduate can start up the U.K.’s leading asteroid mining company because no-one else has yet thought to do it. A few early names have seemingly run into hurdles, and others now appear to be gearing up to make their move.
In the U.S., the Colorado School of Mines teaches a course in space resources, including asteroid mining. Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs has advised clients that asteroid mining is more possible than many might think. “The psychological barrier to mining asteroids is high, the actual financial and technological barriers are far lower,” it noted in one report.
But there’s still plenty to be decided, including the thorny legal question of who owns space and who has the right to particularly economically viable asteroid candidates. There’s also the issue of how to transport mined products back to Earth, and what this would mean for the valuation of our existing precious metals and other materials. “One of the ideas that’s been proposed would be to capture an asteroid and then put it into lunar orbit so that it was more immediately accessible,” Hunter-Scullion said. “All of a sudden, instead of being accessible just once a year for perhaps a month, it would be accessible 24/7.”
Should we be cautious about the path forward? Sure. But it’s also hard not to reflect that many of these same doubts would have been raised in 1955, following the successful launch of Sputnik, if someone was to suggest that humans would soon land on the Moon. That would end up happening less than a decade-and-a-half later. What’s Hunter-Scullion’s estimate for how long it will take for space mining to become a real thing? He thinks for a second. “I think it’s 10, maybe 15 years to get to the point of a mature asteroid mining industry.”
Skeptics take note: Don’t say he didn’t warn you.