Asteroid Mining "Gas Stations" Could Start Trillion-Dollar Market

Asteroid Mining "Gas Stations" Could Start Trillion-Dollar Market

According to Planetary Resources' Chris Lewicki, an influx of relatively cheap fuel from asteroids could be what finally jump-starts space exploration.

We here at The Escapist's Science & Tech newsroom are pretty big fans of space travel, although we've got a long way to go yet. Even before one thinks about setting up biodomes on other worlds, you need to address pulling together the appropriate resources and funding, not to mention shaking off any lingering public apathy. Chris Lewicki of Planetary Resources, however, believes that most of the above problems will be solved once humanity establishes asteroid mining facilities. According to Lewicki, not only would this jump-start a new age of space travel using scattered fueling stations, it would kick off a trillion-dollar fuel market that would support the entire space economy.

"Have you ever wondered why the space economy hasn't seen exponential growth with Moore's Law like we have witnessed with high-tech industries here on Earth?" Lewicki writes. "The catalyst for rapid expansion into every frontier in history has been access to cheap, local resources. And in space, access to rocket fuel is currently neither cheap, nor local.

"But on asteroids, abundant quantities of hydrogen and oxygen can be used to create rocket fuel, the same stuff used by the Space Shuttle. This allows companies like Vivisat fuel spacetugs that will be used to keep satellites in their Geostationary slots, or fuel up your spacecraft before zooming off to Mars. The possibilities are endless!"

The concept of asteroid harvesting isn't new, and many astrophysicists suspect it will be a necessary part of space travel one day. Ideally, space-based "gas stations" could be located at key junctions (say, in orbit) allowing ships to fuel up before heading to another planetary body. But where NASA addresses scientific pursuits, Planetary Resources' focus largely seems directed at commercial applications, using low-cost robotic spacecraft to gather rare metals and increase Earth's GDP.

As much as I'd love for space travel to be an idealized Star Trek-like pursuit where money doesn't matter, Lewicki raises a fair point. Historically, most efforts to colonize distant lands required some kind of economic incentive, especially if said lands were hostile to human life. That's not to say Planetary Resources' plan is perfect; Professor Henry Hertzfeld of George Washington University notes that it's unclear who the customers of this industry would be, and that's kind of important when trillions of dollars are on the line. On top of that, until we figure out whether asteroids can be treated as private property, their ownership remains a legal grey area.

Do you think asteroid mining and financial incentives will be what pushes humanity into the stars? Or do you think, as we discussed in our latest Science & Tech podcast, we'll explore space because just because it's there?

Source: Planetary Resources, via Mining.com

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This is good. The only possible way we will convince people to invest more into space ventures is to tell them that it could lead the way to vast riches and completely new industries.

You think people supported the steam train for its scientific benefits?

Did anyone else see that they were using Kerbal Space Program at 5:36? Anyway harvesting near earth asteroids is in theory an excellent idea the issue comes from micrometeor impacts and possible collisions mostly but we should be able to rig up autonomous systems on them without much problem.

Now if it weren't for those pesky UN treaty's we could be mining the moon too...

Hmm. You need a lot of energy to convert water into hydrogen and oxygen fuel. Worse for forms other than water, like silicates. And then, you'll basically have to fuel by flyby, because it's hard enough to get there, but even harder to start and stop. Still, there's no fundamental reason why this couldn't work, which puts it way ahead of that warp drive ship design.

vallorn:
Did anyone else see that they were using Kerbal Space Program at 5:36? Anyway harvesting near earth asteroids is in theory an excellent idea the issue comes from micrometeor impacts and possible collisions mostly but we should be able to rig up autonomous systems on them without much problem.

Now if it weren't for those pesky UN treaty's we could be mining the moon too...

The moon isn't all that big and since it had no organic life on it ever, there would be very little reason to mine it except for precious minerals. Also due to its vicinity to Earth and the effect tides have on our environment, the risk of irreparable damage to the moon by decreasing its mass and/or literally ripping it apart through current less-than-safe mining methods would be entirely too great. Near-earth asteroids are much more viable. Using the moon as a refuel station, maybe dropping one on Phobos as well, could be possible as jump points to the asteroid belt so that we might rely on objects that would stay in our solar system and not shoot off to the oort cloud never to be seen again.

Pyrian:
Hmm. You need a lot of energy to convert water into hydrogen and oxygen fuel. Worse for forms other than water, like silicates. And then, you'll basically have to fuel by flyby, because it's hard enough to get there, but even harder to start and stop. Still, there's no fundamental reason why this couldn't work, which puts it way ahead of that warp drive ship design.

since asteroids are moving and not just stuck in space, asteroids stations themselves are flybying.
as far as energy goes, you can burn a lot of stuff for energy in space, and you wont even make bad polution (well you would but who in space cares)

Pyrian:
Hmm. You need a lot of energy to convert water into hydrogen and oxygen fuel. Worse for forms other than water, like silicates. And then, you'll basically have to fuel by flyby, because it's hard enough to get there, but even harder to start and stop. Still, there's no fundamental reason why this couldn't work, which puts it way ahead of that warp drive ship design.

Solar panels tend to work pretty well in space. Could generate the power need through that? I know that that is pretty much how they keep (kept?) one of the mars rovers running. By day-> solar energy that is also used to create hydrogen and oxygen from water stored inside. By night this hydrogen/oxygen was used as an energy source. But I'm not sure if this is doable for large scale production. Also, asteroids tend to be pretty far from the sun so... again not sure.

Give companies ownership of asteroids so they can make trillions without government supervision? Eve anyone?

Pyrian:
Hmm. You need a lot of energy to convert water into hydrogen and oxygen fuel. Worse for forms other than water, like silicates. And then, you'll basically have to fuel by flyby, because it's hard enough to get there, but even harder to start and stop. Still, there's no fundamental reason why this couldn't work, which puts it way ahead of that warp drive ship design.

Strazdas:
since asteroids are moving and not just stuck in space, asteroids stations themselves are flybying.

Yes, they're "moving" (well, they're in freefall, which is either moving or not moving depending on your frame of reference), no, they're not flybying. At all. In fact, their own movement is as likely to be part of the delta-v problem as part of the solution. See, sure, they're moving, but they're almost certainly not going where you want to go.

Strazdas:
as far as energy goes, you can burn a lot of stuff for energy in space, and you wont even make bad polution (well you would but who in space cares)

Uh, no. You can't literally burn anything in space except insofar as you provide oxygen and probably fuel, which is exactly what we're trying to extract from these asteroids in the first place. You can't use the fuel and oxygen you're extracting to fuel further extraction, because the process requires more energy than you get out of it.

You can use nuclear power without worrying as much about shielding, so that's an option.

iseko:
Solar panels tend to work pretty well in space. Could generate the power need through that?

Yes! A likely option, in fact. Unfortunately, while the amount of power is all but unlimited, the rate tends to be slow. So, it would take a long time, or require particularly epic solar collection.

iseko:
Also, asteroids tend to be pretty far from the sun so...

There are near-Earth asteroids - quite a few, really. Though, they're likely to have rather less ice than bodies further out.

iseko:
Give companies ownership of asteroids so they can make trillions without government supervision? Eve anyone?

We all know that's never caused problems. ;)

 

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