We may be reaching a convergence of technologies that will soon create a space industry straight out of Sci-Fi books.
Building the Space Marketplace:
Let’s begin by defining the Space Marketplace. For the purposes of this article, we’ll state that the Space Marketplace refers to the collective market established as humans build a presence in orbit and beyond. This market will include various reasons for a manned space presence (exploration, research and for-profit ventures such as mining, satellite maintenance and tourism), the transportation of workers and materials to orbit and beyond and will also include meeting the living and job-related needs of those workers.
Mining Materials In Space:
When you mine something on Earth, you do so because you know there is a market for the materials you are mining. The same must be true for Asteroid/Moon mining. So what kind of customer base is present or could be quickly created to create a market for materials mined from an Asteroid or the Moon?
Don’t think that just because the Moon is closer that it will necessarily get mined before asteroids. There is a huge cost in getting raw materials up front Planet Earth to the moon. And It is likely that resistance from the scientific community will hold up mining the moon for at least the first decade or so. During that time, raw materials from an asteroid would be very valuable to a growing moon colony. So even though the Moon is a much closer (normally) and much bigger target for mining, we may see a lot more activity from Asteroid mining that Moon Mining in the near future.
Chris Lewicki, President of space mining firm Planetary Resources, recently said that it currently costs nearly $2 Billion per year to launch enough water (approximately six tons per person) to sustain the six astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS). How hard would it be to find interested companies if NASA offered a 10 year contract at $1.5 Billion per year to any company that could demonstrate the consistant ability to provide water to the Space Station?
And that water would have more value than just meeting the biological needs of the ISS crew. Hydrogen and Oxygen separated from the water could supply other spacecraft with necessary fuel and water for their crews. Build enough of a market and you’ll have a manned orbital fuel station. The company hauling mined water from an asteroid would be an obvious customer.
Another customer could be the crews and vehicles of orbital power stations. Bothe US Military and the Japanese government have expressed near-term plans for creating orbital power stations. The US Military wants to be able to beam energy to anywhere they set up a mobile base of operations. And Japan, with their limited island real estate, sees orbital power stations as a clean method of supplying their power needs without using valuable land.
Another possible customer would be the company or companies that are paid to remove the millions of pieces of orbital debris that currently endanger our satelites, ISS, etc. This problem will only get worse as we increase the use of space so there will definitely be one or more companies that get multi-billion dollar contracts for removing that danger. Whether the vehicles used to intercept that debris are autonomous/teleoperated or manned, they will need maintenance, fuel, etc.
One very interesting possible addition to the Space Marketplace could be customers that buy Bigelow space modules to create their own private space station for either tourism or research. It is also likely that any resources which were extracted from either the Moon or asteroids would need some sort of refining and manufacturing facility. It seems likely that it would be best to have both Moon-mined resources (obviously) and asteroid-mined resources processed and turned into usable materials from a Moon facility. This is because you could much more easily construct and maintain a much larger facility on the Moon that you could in orbit. Eventually, large orbital manufacturing facilities would be better for handling asteroid -mined resources but I believe the more immediately possible scenario is a lunar facility.
As a final note on potential customers in the Space Marketplace, there is the possibility that other nations might go it alone on their own space stations. Assuming we are going to at some point allow more cooperation with the Chinese space efforts, they too could become a customer when they set up their proposed space station.
I think those represent the possible target markets in the near future for buying materials harvested from Asteroids or the Moon. There is the possibility that a manned Mars might be able to use materials harvested from an Asteroid. And the Moon itself would be eventually the largest customer but only for those materials harvested from the Moon.
Helium-3 – The need for this material is one of the factors that will determine how fast Moon mining becomes a reality. If Helion Energy, a start-up company trying to achieve commercial Magneto-Inertial Fusion, is successful and maintains their timeline, then we could see companies clamoring for transportation to and living facilities for mining Helium-3 in less than 10 years. If they are not and we have to wait the perpetual “30 years from now” that seems to be the norm when asked when the big government fusion projects will become viable, then this will be a question for a later generation.
Aside from Helium-3 and water, there are other abundant materials that could be mined on the Moon. Magnesium, Aluminum, Platinum, Silicon, Iron and Titanium could all be mined from the Moon. And since it takes 20 times less energy to launch a given mass from the surface of the Moon to Earth orbit versus lauhing that same mass from Earth’s surface to Earth orbit, there is a large financial incetive to establishing Moon mining operations soon.
Building a Business Case for Space Mining
So once you’ve established that there is a market for mining materials in space, what’s the next step to getting a business to actually do so? Before you start breaking out business plans and contacting investors, you should probably make sure you have a legal basis for where you plan on doing business and that you will actually have the legal ownership rights of whatever it is you mine. Some of those questions may have recently been answered when the US government said it would give the FAA the power to use its existing licensing structure to authorize lunar mining operations. There are still some international law issues to work out regarding previously signed space treaties but this recent decision should give businesses the comfort level they need to begin building a case for setting up shop on the Moon.
Space Market Service Providers:
We’ve looked at some of the potential customers in the Space Market. Now let’s look at who might be the actual service providers to that market. One easy way to see who the potential players are is to take a look at who currently has or is trying to get the ISS cargo supply contracts. That gives us names like SpaceX, Orbital ATK, SpaceDev, Boeing, etc that we know are likely to be providing services in the Space Marketplace. But what about companies that don’t even exist yet that could provide services we haven’t seen yet because the market hasn’t matured enough yet to need them? What about a company that services the large constellations of satellites proposed by OneWeb and SpaceX? Or how about a company that decides to buy a few Bigelow BA 2100 modules and put them together to produce an orbital hydroponic garden to supply food to space station and Moon workers?
Technology Convergence: A large variety of technologies are coming together at the same time to create an opportunity for space industry development. There are the major advances …but there are also small ones that might seem like not much until you add them all together. Things like a new artificial leaf that can use photosynthesis to produce oxygen just like a real leaf but without needing all the dirt, water, etc. to make it work. Many different advances in space propulsion, Solar cell efficiency, materials science, laser communications, 3-D Printing, etc are all maturing and will make what is currently impossible a reality in the not-too-distant future.
AUTHOR: Ed Ruth
The Power of Helium-3: http://www.larouchepub.com/other/2014/4132helium3.html
Legal Ownership of Space Assets: http://www.space.com/26644-moon-asteroids-resources-space-law.html
Can Congress Grant Ownership of Space Assets: http://io9.com/can-congress-grant-private-companies-the-right-to-mine-1621149768
Next Lunar Steps:
Mining Asteroids and the New Space Economy: http://online.wsj.com/articles/dean-larson-mining-asteroids-and-exploiting-the-new-space-economy-1408662987
Artificial Leaf Produces Oxygen: http://www.allvoices.com/article/17576224
The companies vying to turn asteroids into filling stations: