- The commercialisation of space exploration is garnering widespread support, including from governments. But investors remain wary about the economics behind it.
- Asteroid prospecting, much like prospecting on Earth, aims to identify the potential resources within these celestial bodies.
- Australia is well positioned to capitalise on this venture and benefit from its commercial and societal potential.
Last September, the Australian Government announced its intention to launch a national space agency. The announcement, in response to a recent review of Australia’s space capabilities, seeks to tap into a global space industry valued at over A$420 billion a year according to a recent report by The Space Foundation.1
The push for a national space agency follows recent momentum surrounding the ‘Space 2.0’ movement; lower financial and regulatory barriers to entry are resulting in the commercialisation of space exploration.
This momentum has been further propelled by the Australian Government’s 2018-19 budget announcement to deliver A$41 million over four years to kick-start the sector, which includes funding to establish the space agency along with various grants to fuel international space investment.2
While Space 2.0 has generated widespread public support, many investors remain cautious of the economics underpinning costly spacecraft launches and whether our opportunities in space truly outweigh the technical and financial risks. Overcoming investor uncertainty remains one of the greatest challenges for Space 2.0 startups getting off the ground.
Among the new commercial endeavours set to attract attention in Australia is asteroid prospecting. In essence, asteroid prospecting aims to identify minerals on an asteroid and estimate the possible mineral deposit size to facilitate future mining activities. It’s a lot like mining on Earth – only, it’s in space.
Crucially, asteroid prospecting helps to deliver the certainty necessary to launch the industry of mining celestial bodies. The idea of mining in space is undeniably awesome by itself, but its impact on the space economy may go well beyond what initially comes to mind.
The narrative surrounding space mining has conventionally revolved around tapping into rare and ultra-valuable resources that are potentially contained within asteroids. The estimated economic value tied to some asteroids is almost incomprehensible. For example, in 2023, a NASA probe will journey to a 200-kilometre-wide asteroid that holds an estimated US$10,000 quadrillion worth of iron ore.3
Asteroid mining may also enable us to reduce the costs and operational inefficiencies that has historically limited space exploration. Asteroids offer a relative abundance of water and other important elements for fuelling and facilitating space exploration, including organic carbon, sulphur, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other ferrous metals.
Water, for example, can be transformed into hydrogen and oxygen on the International Space Station, to create air for astronauts to breathe. It can also be used as a spacecraft propellant in the form of a superheated vapour. The beauty of this is that it enables space operations to be sustained ‘on-site’, which reduces the need to do much of the heavy lifting on Earth. This in turns works towards reducing the astronomical costs associated with exploration and increasing its commercial sustainability.
Asteroid mining may also allow us to dramatically reduce the costs of spacecraft launches. So far, humans have launched somewhere around 13,000 tonnes of ‘payload’ into orbit. Every tonne of payload launched requires at least 10 tonnes of fuel and rocket structure, meaning that at least 130,000 tonnes of fuel and rocket structure has been used to escape Earth’s gravity and lift the payloads to orbit.
For many, this economic equation fails to add up – something that has been a commercial inhibitor for small-scale space ventures. While there are some items that need to be launched from Earth (including astronauts and precision-engineered spacecraft systems), much of what is currently launched is bulky and consumable, such as water and fuel. If these resources are able to be efficiently produced outside of the Earth’s gravity well, they can be transported in space with propulsion units at a fraction of the size and far less complexity than what is required today.
of collecting data
There are many challenges impeding asteroid mining today, particularly around the extraction, concentration and refinement of ore in a space environment in order to transform it into useful materials. Researchers at universities are attempting to solve these challenges, however, most of the technical challenges for prospecting itself have been solved, with remote sensing technology from space well-developed for Earth-based mining and many robotic technologies under demonstration by space agencies on asteroids.
The largest issue is in deploying and collecting data in space. Before we’re able to begin commercialising asteroid mining, it’s crucial to understand exactly how much of a certain mineral exists on a particular asteroid and how difficult it would be to extract and refine it. There is still very little information about most asteroids – certainly not enough to send a mining mission.
Prospecting is the first and necessary step to towards understanding the economic potential of an asteroid. This requires a radically different model to space agency-sponsored exploration missions, which generally sees large budgets spent on one-shot missions that require heavily-engineered systems to prevent failure. Without the certainty required to fund investment, mining in space will likely remain the dream of starry-eyed entrepreneurs.
As a world leader in using satellite data to locate mineral deposits, Australia is in a fantastic position to capitalise on this opportunity. Australian scientists have long been involved in meteorites and robotic missions to asteroids and we are already taking steps to develop our capabilities in data collection for objects in space. With Australian universities and government well on board – the time for industry to accelerate is now.
This article was co-authored with William Crowe, CEO of High Earth Orbit (HEO) Robotics, a Sydney-based startup using innovative approaches to space resources (particularly asteroids) to advance space exploration.