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Given the approximate technology level of us Humans today.

Is there enough of each material needed by our modern civilization in Asteroids to make this economic? And would the materials be used for stuff in space or brought down to the surface?

Consider the following/take as given:

  1. No human is needed to directly supervise the mining process. Engineers came up with a set-and-forget mining facility, which just needs some commands from Home-Control from time to time.

  2. It is possible to bring the mining facility to any place in the solar-system. I'm interested in the process of shipping resources around, not setting up the system.

  3. Cargo-Vessels can be built in space, but only under direct supervision (Humans need to be around, the perfect space dock needs yet to be built), and it is not necessary that the vessel that transports the cargo to Earth also brings it down to Earth.

To summarize: Does it make sense to start harvesting asteroids in the next 100 years?

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The economics of mining in space are hotly contested, with some estimates claiming as much as US$20 trillion worth of precious and industrial metals in a single asteroid, while others point out that any efforts to extract these materials and bring them back to Earth en masse will necessarily flood the market and cause prices to crash, potentially (or probably, or even definitively, depending on who you ask) making the whole endeavor self-defeating. Frankly, if the experts can't even agree on whether or not it could be economically feasible to mine asteroids and bring the materials back to Earth, I doubt we'll be able to give a solid answer either way.

Where space mining could come into its own, however, is in space-based industry. Currently, according to NASA, it costs US\$10,000 per pound to put anything into space. While NASA's goal is to reduce that to around \$100 per pound by 2025, they don't yet have anything that could do that, and even if they do manage that let's put it into perspective: at that lower, post-2025 cost, it would cost over \$81.6 million to put the ISS into orbit, which while an impressive feat itself is quite limited in its scale, and much too small for anything even remotely considered "industrial".

Given such high overhead, it's really no surprise then that we really are not doing a whole lot out there. But if we can bring raw materials into orbit for cheaper, then suddenly the economics of space-based industry become a lot friendlier: It's a lot cheaper to move around in space than it is to fight against gravity and escape Earth's surface. Just look at the Apollo missions: Compare how big the Saturn V rocket was that had to get the CSM/LM into space, versus how small the CSM/LM were for getting all the way out to the moon, landing on it, getting back into lunar orbit (into a retrograde orbit at that (a consequence of the free-return trajectory Apollo took out to the moon), much more costly than prograde!), and then returning to Earth. Solid numbers: 1,000 times more mass required to go 2,000Km than needed to go almost 800,000Km!

So what would we do with space-based industry? While there are a few super-high-tech things that simply work better to manufacture in micro-gravity than here on Earth, for the most part anything made in space would suffer the same self-defeating diminishing returns if we try and manufacture it for the purpose of bringing it back to Earth. That doesn't mean it won't be done -- could be a good way for some manufacturers to get a leg up on their competition -- space-based industry would most likely exist to service space, not Earth. Which means we probably won't have it until we have a need for it, i.e. we won't have space-based industry until we're doing things in space that would benefit from it (living in space stations, extra-terrestrial colonization, space tourism, etc.); the Catch-22 is that we (probably) won't be doing things in space that would benefit from space-based industry until it's economically feasible to do without space-based industry, though granted even then space-based industry would probably be cheaper than flying things up from Earth.

If you really want to bring stuff down to Earth from space, you could always build cheap, single-use "dropship"-style pods in space and literally drop them down to Earth. The cost is fighting against gravity; using it as your version of a FedEx driver is actually quite cost-effective! Just beware of the fundamental law of economics: As you increase the supply of some product/material, unless you also increase the demand by the same proportion (unlikely), prices will necessarily drop, which will of course cut into any profits you might otherwise have gained.

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  • $\begingroup$ Good point about supply/demand feedback loops; according to The Economist, fracking is seeing some of that right now. $\endgroup$ – Smithers Dec 8 '14 at 20:34
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    $\begingroup$ But it's space gold! $\endgroup$ – J-Dizzle Dec 8 '14 at 23:09
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    $\begingroup$ Putting something into Earth orbit (like the ISS) is a whole different ballgame compared to hurling something off to an asteroid and back. (Let alone if you hurl a basically uncontrolled object onto a collision course with Earth. Can you say liability insurance?) As for Apollo, in all fairness, most of the fuel was burned off (and as a result most of the mass was rendered useless) by simply getting a few kilometers off the ground; the first stage lasted all of a few hundred seconds from main engine ignition as I recall. After that they were on cruise control thanks to gravity and inertia. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Dec 9 '14 at 8:12
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, not going to even answer. If space industry is economical, then space mining is economical. Although it should be noted that the asteroids might not be the place. IIRC, the martian moons have lower Delta-V for getting resources to Earth orbit and lots of other likely early places of industry. So asteroid mining might require industry in the actual asteroid belt or other places would be preferable sources of materials. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Dec 9 '14 at 10:42
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    $\begingroup$ I now have a vivid picture of FedEx hurtling packages through the upper atmosphere onto my doorstep, all charred and broken. $\endgroup$ – Marshall Tigerus Jun 28 '16 at 18:03
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Kromey's answer was a very good treatise on the unlikelihood of using asteroid mining to bring materials or products back to Earth. One quick-and-dirty method to get at the contents of a mineral-rich asteroid would be to redirect it to the planet where we wanted the minerals and just let it crash on its own. That might be a problem almost anywhere on Earth, but not on other planets/moons.

Suppose one day we have a permanent Mars colony, but Mars is lacking in certain heavy elements we take for granted in Earth manufacturing. Instead of sending regular care packages of these Earth-mined substances, we might redirect (for example) a nickel-rich asteroid to slam into Mars a few hundred/thousand miles away from any current human settlements and give the colonists a semi-artificial nickel mine. After a one-time care package full of mining and ore-refining equipment the Martians can get their own metal and build their own machines out of it.

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    $\begingroup$ Iron is a bad example. Mars is not short on iron, where do you think that lovely red color comes from? Nickel, maybe? That's abundant in certain asteroids, useful for industry, and according to Wikipedia, has been found on Mars "in trace amounts", so quite possibly much too scarce to easily fulfill the Mars colonists' needs. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Najmon Dec 9 '14 at 18:09
  • $\begingroup$ Of course the red planet doesn't want for Iron ¬_¬ Edited to correct that grievous oversight. $\endgroup$ – jamcowl Dec 10 '14 at 7:05
  • $\begingroup$ I wouldn't mind a large boulder of platnum coming along for the ride with an artificial mine idea. Could be a story in that. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Dec 10 '14 at 9:37
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Good answer in space stackexchange by @PearsonArtPhoto:

Most interesting part imho:

So, what does it take to make a space mining operation profitable? Manufacturing. If you can develop an autonomous set of manufacturing robots, then you might be able to make something work. There is a number often quoted of $2.6 billion to break even, but that depends on making these advanced robotics work. It could work, but I think only time will tell.

There is also a whole world of microgravity manufacturing possibilities which has barely been touched. It's far easier to make some things in microgravity, but we haven't really explored that space very much yet.

https://space.stackexchange.com/questions/633/what-resources-could-be-gained-from-asteroid-mining-that-would-be-worth-the-effo

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for taking time to find it, it good link to answers from experts $\endgroup$ – Peter M. - stands for Monica Dec 10 '14 at 15:46
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The major cost in moving freight around the Solar System is fighting the gravity wells of planets. Moving material from the asteroid belt to Earth orbit is relatively cheap in terms of fuel, if you have the technology. Dragging material from the Earth's surface is expensive, as is dragging it down to the surface.

If the idea is to bring the material to Earth's surface, the cost will probably be prohibitive. The advantage would come if you needed it in Earth orbit.

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    $\begingroup$ "If the idea is to bring the material to Earth's surface, the cost will probably be prohibitive". Ah, heat shields are pretty cheap, right? If earth didn't have an atmosphere, it would be expensive. Fighting the earth's gravity well is a one-way issue. $\endgroup$ – Steve Dec 9 '14 at 0:51
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure the risk of dropping meteor bombs on the planet to give us iron is a better answer than mining iron on the planet. Remember how we used to have to hunt for the space capsules with an aircraft carrier? $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Dec 9 '14 at 1:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Steve - yes heat shields are cheap on Earth, but also pretty useless. Shields became pretty expensive when you need to pay few hundred or thousands dollars per pound extra to put them to the orbit, so you can use them. Oldcat is 100% right, expensive part is moving materials up/down gravity well, and it will be prohibitively expensive for long time. Space elevator anyone? $\endgroup$ – Peter M. - stands for Monica Dec 10 '14 at 15:53
  • $\begingroup$ If you had that, then the need for asteroid hunting goes way down. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Dec 10 '14 at 18:30
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In general the primary benefit of mining asteroids in space would be for building things in space, such as space stations and ships. Once we can mine asteroids and process the raw materials into space ship pieces etc., it will dramatically reduce the cost of making a space station of a reasonable size, say one that is a couple Km across so it can turn and have decent gravity.

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It's an area of active research: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-25716103

Gold and related precious metals are particularly interesting. They have good value density, usefulness in space, and are iron-soluble so they tend to end up in planetary cores. On earth they are thinly distributed across the surface.

Iridium and rhodium are even rarer, and have industrial use.

Gold mining tends to be environmentally destructive; mines can leak mercury and arsenic into surrounding water tables. This isn't an issue in space, although you will need a good reagent reprocessing system as there's no additional water available. Nobody will really complain if you replace an asteroid with a toxic debris field.

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  • $\begingroup$ "Nobody will really complain if you replace an asteroid with a toxic debris field." -- I wouldn't bet on that. $\endgroup$ – riwalk Dec 9 '14 at 19:07
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"Down is easy", but I wonder if the delivery of astrogoods will become a source of pollution in itself? Imagine refined ore shaped into a capsule and use slag as an ablative heatshield. The slag burns off on the way down, so eventually they'll be wanting to keep various elements out of it, or push for more eco-friendly solutions like aeroglides or future tech like superconducting magnet skylanes.

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I think this is only a cost-effective solution under a few circumstances.

  1. The initial mining rig must be tiny, and used to build the rest of the mining apparatus.

    • You send up a small, cheap mission to construct the big monstrosity that will be the permanent mining operation. This cuts down on the real costs of shipping things from earth against gravity
    • You use the same manufacturing techniques to exponentially build more until you are mining as much as you can handle
    • You establish a shipyard near these supplies that can manufacture every component you need.
    • This whole thing is very tricky, and would require a good deal of human intervention to get set up. Manufacturing delicate components for spacecraft would be especially difficult as we haven't done this in low gravity and would have to have some very delicate refining processes. With enough research it should be doable.
  2. Phase 2 involves the building of your transport vessels. You build several of these, put them on an orbital trajectory that minimizes the need for fuel, and use gravity to drop packages of materials to earth/other colonies.

  3. The real value in all of this is the spaceyard. If you can build spacecraft without the need to fight against Earth's gravity, you've drastically reduces the cost of space missions. The hard part becomes getting the humans there, but you can build a deep space exploration vessel that isn't restricted by the weight of what can escape Earth.

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Make it economic:

Step 1: Set it up. The cost is really high, but presumably after you're set up the marginal cost of an extra tonne of ore is minimal.

Step 2: Flood the market with ultra-cheap ore. Making all terestial based mining go out of business (not even a bad idea given the polution effect of earth-based mines). You now have a monopoly.

Step 3: Rack up prices again to earn back your initial investment (plus a bit on the side of course).

(Repeat step 2 and 3 if anybody tries to re-open a mine. Do this a few times and people (companies) will get the message.)

For extra profit: Refuse to supply to anybody that might be working on setting up a similar space-based mining complex. This would be hard to do perfectly, but even done imperfectly, it would further increase the cost competition.

And as a special bonus: Use your relatively large presence in space to have "accidents" happen to anybody that does manage to get started on competition.

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    $\begingroup$ "presumably after you're set up the marginal cost of an extra tonne of ore is minimal." No; the marginal cost is anything but minimal. At least with anything resembling current technology, and even more so if you aren't doing in situ fuel production for both the mining operation itself as well as the shipping of material back to Earth. As e.g. Oldcat points out, fighting gravity is hard both ways, and just dropping heavy stuff onto the Earth might come with certain liability implications. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Dec 9 '14 at 14:10

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