Do we need to expand our natural resource base through space exploration?
Posted by Alana Wilson on 5/2/2012 3:45:13 PM
While the concept of mining in space has been in science-fiction for decades, it now could be closer to reality. Planetary Resources, a private sector venture backed by wealthy investors – including James Cameron and Google’s Eric Schmidt and Larry Page – recently announced their plans to begin mining asteroids just outside Earth’s orbit, what are known as "Near-Earth Asteroids". Their plan is long term and will be done in phases. According to a statement released by the company, they first plan to launch earth-orbiting space telescopes to identify suitable mining targets.  Next, they plan to use ‘swarms’ of robotic probes that will visit prospective asteroids and eventually mine them. 
Economics of mining in space
The prospect of space mining, while intriguing, does raise some questions. These include technological feasibility, legality given the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, and potential environmental risks including increased space debris.[1-3]
Questions have also been raised about the financial viability of this operation. It is one thing to capture and mine an asteroid, but it is another to get the mined materials to market. Space minerals have been brought back to earth before, but at huge cost and in very small quantities. There is already expectation that some of the natural resources recovered, such as water, would not be brought back to earth. Instead, water would be separated into oxygen and hydrogen to enable large-scale solar exploration.
Financial viability must also consider the likely suppression of market prices from the introduction of new supplies. Basic economics would suggest that as supply increases, given constant demand, the price of a good would decrease. This effect may not be insignificant as a recent NASA study said that “an asteroid seven metres in diameter and weighing 500 tonnes could contain as much gold, platinum and rare earth metals – such as rhodium – as is mined on Earth in a single year.” 
Are we running out of minerals and metals on Earth?
Given the distance that Planetary Resources are willing to go to access metals and minerals, one might wonder if this reflects a lack of resources on earth. There are several reasons why space exploration may be a bit premature on this front, including (terrestrial) exploration, market dynamics, improving resource use and recycling, substitution, and innovation.
New reserves of minerals and metals are being discovered globally and Canadian companies lead much of this exploration. Canadian exploration spending was $2.6 billion in 2010, and expected to increase to $3.2 billion in 2011. [5, p.39] Worldwide exploration investment in 2010 totaled US$11.2 billion, up 50% from 2009. [5, p.40] In addition, new technologies are allowing new deposits to be discovered that could not previously be found with traditional methods.  Such exploration is needed since the geological potential of large parts of Earth remains unknown. Even in Nunavut, where known resources include diamonds and tungsten, nearly three-quarters is either unmapped or has inadequate geological maps. [5, p.42]
Even where scarcity of minerals exists, such as from a supply restriction or an increase in demand, market mechanisms will respond. This will normally lead to higher prices, reallocating supply to higher value uses, and creating incentives for new higher-cost sources to supply the market. While this may challenge some manufacturing and end-users in the short term, over the long-term these dynamics lead to new technologies, substitution, and innovation.
In addition to new discoveries, existing supplies of metals and minerals can be better used. In a recent PwC survey of leading global manufacturing companies, 75% identified improving resource efficiency as the single most effective response to scarcity, and 64% re-use.  Substitution between minerals can also overcome scarcity. Both of these approaches are already being taken by the auto industry in response to rare earth supply constraints, with Honda announcing that it will begin recycling rare earth metals from used car parts, and Toyota developing induction motors that don’t require rare earth magnets.
There is also significant potential for new mining innovations on earth to meet our resource needs. New innovations already being explored include:
- Solutions mining - brine and other solutions are injected and recovered from the earth instead of digging holes;
- Increased automation – tele-operated vehicles and autonomous trucks and shovels are already being used to reduce costs, improve safety and increase efficiencies;
- Bio-mining - using bacteria to mine, process, and remediate;
- Mining with plants – plants are naturally able to accumulate metals to clean up mine waste and tailings, with plants being harvested and burned to recover metals;
- Microbes – can potentially recover metals from contaminated waters, hydrothermal waters, and electronic waste and scraps.
Swarms of micro-machines and robots may also one day be used on earth to mine and process ore on site.  This could reduce the need to dig large holes, bring waste rock to the surface, and help move us towards more sustainable resource use on earth. These developments hold the promise of changing the face of mining and reducing its impact as we move towards an era of extra-terrestrial resource exploration.
Asteroid Mining Mission Revealed by Planetary Resources, Inc., Planetary Resources, 2012.
1 Arthur, C.,Google pair back plan to lasso asteroids and mine them fro precious metals, in The Guardian 2012, Guardian News.
2 Poeter, D. Planetary Resources Aims to Mine Asteroids for Water, Platinum. 2012 [cited 2012 April 25]; Available from:http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2403469,00.asp .
3 Kluger, J., Can James Cameron - or Anyone - Really Mine Asteroids?, in Time Science 2012.[cited 2012 April 26]; Available from: http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2112996,00.html.
4 McCrae, M.A. Asteroid miners explain just how they are going to do it. Mining.com, 2012.
5 The Mining Association of Canada, F&F 2011: FACT$ & FIGURE$ OF THE CANADIAN MINING INDUSTRY, 2011.
6 National Research Council, 2 Minerals and Materials Uses in the United States, in Minerals, Critical Minerals, and the U.S. Economy. 2008, The National Academies Press: Washington, DC.
7 PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Minerals and metals scarcity in manufacturing: the ticking timebomb, 2011.
8 Witkin, J., A Push to Make Motors With Fewer Rare Earths in New York Times, 2012.[cited 2012 April 26]; Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/automobiles/a-push-to-make-motors-with-fewer-rare-earths.html?pagewanted=all.
9 Dunbar, S. Part 6 - A Future of Mining. EduMine [Mining 101 Live Webcast Course] January 22, 2012.