Great Escape

We Need to Be Able to Escape Planet Earth

Why the space age depends on mining

Illustration: Jason Raish

TThere are untold riches’ worth of valuable metals in space. Consider the near-Earth asteroid 1986 DA, discovered 32 years ago. Radar observations indicated that this rock, two kilometers wide, contained 10 trillion kilograms of iron, 1 trillion kilograms of nickel, 100 million kilograms of platinum, and 10 million kilograms of gold. It should be no surprise that people are trying to figure out how to tap into space resources.

It might be more surprising that, for the most part, they plan to leave all that metal alone, at least for the time being. What they seek first is something we have literal oceans of here on Earth: water. Water can support human life in space, and it can be split into hydrogen and oxygen, which, when burned together, make a nice rocket fuel. Experts foresee gas stations in the sky for servicing satellites or taking people much farther out. Water has been called the commodity of space.

Many in the aerospace industry are building sleek rockets. Elon Musk founded SpaceX, and Jeff Bezos founded Blue Origin. But the space age will also require some very terrestrial engineering skills. You have to dig up all that water. And so Serkan Saydam, a mining engineer and professor at the University of New South Wales (UNSW Sydney) in Sydney, Australia, with decades of experience in mining, has opened a sideline in off-Earth mining. He’s worked with NASA and other labs around the world, developing economic and operational models for exploiting all those resources. Ultimately he sees colonies on other moons and planets. “Human beings, looking at history, Earth will not be enough for us,” Saydam says. “We will go beyond.”

How does an engineer turn his gaze from deep underground to far above it? Saydam studied mining engineering in Turkey, where he grew up, and made his way to diamond mines in South Africa before returning to academia in Australia. His focus has been improving the safety and productivity of underground mines. He has large projects supported by the mining industry to prevent the corrosion of steel bolts, a seemingly intractable problem. “If you say it’s impossible,” Saydam says, “it’s quite interesting.” (After nine years, his team discovered that the corrosion culprit was bacteria. Now they’re figuring out how to stop it.)

Saydam saw opportunities to bring advanced technologies into the mine: robots, virtual reality, wirelessly connected sensors. He wants it all available to everyone, cheaply. In 2008, he started the Future Mining Conference series. “I’m sort of a futurist, but looking at only mining,” Saydam says. In 2013, Andrew Dempster, director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (ACSER), suggested that since Saydam was into future mining, maybe space mining would appeal to him. Noting that space is empty, they started calling it “off-Earth” mining, and held a forum that gained a lot of attention. “To be honest, when I started this with Andrew, everyone laughed,” Saydam says in his Turkish accent and slightly broken English, which somehow makes you take him more seriously. “Still, when I talk about off-Earth mining, they first don’t believe. They change at the end of this conversation.”

The next year, they published a paper on the asteroid 1986 DA. They found that while not all that glitters is gold, not all that actually is 10 million kilograms of gold is a sparkling business opportunity. In their economic analysis, an investment in mining the asteroid for metals and bringing them to Earth would not pay off for 80 years—and might never pay off. (If you don’t need to bring the metals all the way back home, that’s another, more profitable story.) In any case, trying to land bucketloads of valuable metals would stir up all kinds of problems — legal, political, economic. How would they be taxed, and what happens when oversupply crashes the markets?

Saydam started visiting NASA, giving lectures and networking. Researchers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, told him they were interested in human colonies on Mars and wanted to utilize the resources on-site. “Space technologists prefer to say ‘in situ resource utilization’ rather than ‘mining,’” Saydam says. “But everyone knows that it means mining. Because you gotta dig.” The cost of shipping water and building materials to space is too high, so mining is the answer. “I basically explained [to] them how we do things.”

JPL wasn’t sure what tools it would require to mine. Scientists know that Mars’ soil, or “regolith,” contains water in its minerals that is released when heated. That can be done with a hollow heated drill, or the regolith can be dug up with shovels or a tunnel-boring machine and then transported to a plant in trucks or a conveyor belt. One of Saydam’s first projects with JPL was a computer model — the Water Extraction Mars Mining Model (WEM3) — which, using any of these methods, predicted how much equipment you’d need to supply a colony of any given size.

That work attracted the attention of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC), in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Researchers there were looking at possible landing spots for a Mars colony. Saydam and his team worked with NASA to develop a software model called the Mars Mining Operation Optimizer (M2O2). You import data on topography and the distribution of mineral resources, which in this case came from NASA’s Mars orbiters, and the software creates a map. Choose your mining equipment, place your colony, and M2O2 tells you what additional equipment you need and highlights hazards and uncertainties. It even lays conveyor belt tracks for you between a mine and a colony, rerouting around scientific points of interest if necessary. Sitting in Saydam’s office in Sydney, he pointed to sample images on his computer. It’s like a lunar version of the computer game SimCity, with chunkier graphics.

The off-Earth mining portion of Saydam’s lab has expanded, with students and collaborators working on diverse projects. The terrestrial mining work, often funded by industry, “pays the bills,” he says, but off-Earth mining “is my passion.” Projects include developing flight itineraries to asteroids, conjuring mining robots, evaluating environmental impact, and estimating available reserves in regolith. He plans to start figuring out how to anchor spacecrafts to asteroids.

Sophia Casanova, one of Saydam’s PhD students, is currently interning at JPL, studying water-ice deposits on Mars and looking for the best places to land humans. “There’s an increasing awareness that if we want to go to Mars or we want a long stay on the moon, we can’t do that without some form of mining,” she says. Casanova studied geology in college (with a bit of space science on the side) and worked in oil and gas exploration for five years before starting her PhD. She says the greatest difficulty in planning for Mars is the lack of information, since you can’t easily drill or pick up rocks to do surveys like you can on Earth. “So there’s a lot of science work that still needs to happen,” she says.

Australia created a space agency in May, and Saydam submitted grant proposals that would provide $20 million to $30 million in funding for off-Earth mining research over seven years. One question is what kind of new technology might be needed. For surveying resources, it’s too expensive to drill multiple holes, so they may need a new type of ground-penetrating radar or tomography. And conditions in space are different from those on Earth, with cold temperatures, dramatic temperature fluctuations, a vacuum, abrasive dust, and radiation. And operations will require a lot more automation or remote control. You won’t have astronauts working heavy drills. “It’s not gonna be like Armageddon movie,” Saydam says.

Laurent Sibille is a physicist and expert in space resources utilization at the Swamp Works laboratory at Kennedy who worked with Saydam on the model. He says that Saydam “advances some really novel approaches, both on the technology side and looking at the economics of mining in space, which is critical.”

Water is, of course, good for drinking, but it’s also good for burning. Apply electricity and water becomes the highly flammable hydrogen and oxygen, convenient substances when you want to propel things. Most of a rocket’s mass on launch is propellant. For rockets going to low-Earth orbit, it’s about 85 percent. The farther you go, the higher the percentage. For a trip to Mars, propellant mass would be about 98 percent. Wouldn’t it be nice to get to orbit, refuel, and then hit up your next destination? Even if you’re staying in the neighborhood of Earth, propellant is good to have. Many satellites require it, and when they use it up, they’re done. Orbiting hotels, telescopes, and factories for manufacturing things in weightlessness would also require it. Oh, and trash collectors to scoop up all the human-made space debris orbiting Earth, including the satellites that have already used up their fuel.

So, where will we get the water from: Mars, the moon, or asteroids? Scientists just discovered a lake of liquid water under the ice of Mars’ south pole, but Mars is pretty far away and has its own sizeable gravity well to launch from. We understand the moon better than the other options, and it’s close. A company called Moon Express is planning robotic expeditions to the moon to prospect for water. A company called Shackleton Energy plans to mine ice from the Shackleton crater at the lunar south pole. (It CEO, Dale Tietz, said Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed had planned to invest $18 billion but recently dropped out.) Saydam thinks asteroids would be easiest because they have less gravity. And they can be brought close to Earth. In 2001, NASA landed a probe on an asteroid; in 2014, the European Space Agency landed one on a comet. In 2020, NASA will collect a sample from an asteroid for return to Earth.

Planetary Resources, a startup with $50 million in venture funding, is betting on asteroids. Its first step will be to survey hundreds of asteroids using ground telescopes. Then the company will send a handful of spacecraft, launched in a single rocket, to the top contenders. Each will fire a probe into an asteroid, which will then analyze samples and transmit the results. Eventually the company will mine one or two, says Chris Lewicki, CEO of Planetary Resources. They’ll focus sunlight on it and use the vacuum of space to extract the water vapor, condensing it into basically a big ice cube that gets shipped back toward Earth. In 2015, the Planetary Resources launched the Arkyd-3 satellite to test some of its spaceflight technology. In January of this year, the company launched Arkyd-6 to further test its tech — navigation, communication, power — as well as an infrared imager that can detect water and hydrated minerals from space.

Due to the massive investments required, the chicken-and-egg problem of supply and demand is especially pronounced in off-Earth mining. Say you mine the water. Who’s ready to buy today? Say you launch rockets and satellites that need refueling. Who’s ready to fill them? United Launch Alliance has stepped in with some eggs. In 2016, the company, a partnership between Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Boeing Defense, Space, and Security, announced it would buy water delivered to low Earth orbit for $3 million per ton. It’s developing a new rocket stage called Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES) that burns liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen and can be refilled and reused.

Tietz, of Shackleton, foresees “a whole new economy.” If he ever sets up orbiting gas stations, he’d add food, equipment, and batteries. “People with satellites could come right to our provisioning station,” Tietz says. “Our Costco.” Enabling this nascent economy is the Space Act of 2015, a bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama that, in part, allows companies to keep whatever they mine from asteroids. In 2017, Luxembourg, a hotbed for space startups, passed similar legislation. Another enabler is the availability of cheap launches, thanks largely to the innovations of SpaceX. There’s now a zoo of space startups attracting private money. “This is new,” says Sibille, of Kennedy Space Center. “Because now you don’t have just a couple of space agencies with their own funding calling the shots. Now you have a lot of people who are interested and can come up with very different ideas.”

For example, Ryan Garvey, like Saydam, is a mining engineer who has turned his gaze skyward, but with a more commercial venture. While training at the Colorado School of Mines and doing research on mine collapses, rock failures, and earthquake forecasting, Garvey met a former NASA employee who got him into the moon, and he saw the potential of creating objects with lunar soil. Last year, Garvey founded Blueshift; its first product will be a 3D printer tuned especially for lunar regoliths. (It also works with other materials. The company’s first customers will be terrestrial clients who want cheap metal printing.) Garvey said he sees an army of printers creating parts for robots and other machinery. And if the material is used to print things in orbit, weightlessness allows for the construction of structures you could never launch. Bigger things, like giant rockets to other planets or more intricate structures, like delicate solar farms, that wouldn’t survive a rocket ride from Earth. But first you need the resources. “Many lessons in mining can be applied to space mining,” Garvey says.

You may wonder about the ultimate goal of all this off-Earth activity. Saydam says it’s about obtaining resources, just as it was for the great European explorers over the past thousand years (and presumably the non-European explorers for millennia before that). “The motivation is the same,” he says. “Human being not changed.” But resources to what end? To collect more resources, ad astra, ad infinitum?

Lewicki, of Planetary Resources, also likens the current space race to the European settlers. Just like them, people today seek adventure, new opportunity, maybe even freedom from religious persecution. “It might be people with nothing left to lose to get on that first ship to go to Mars,” he says. Then there’s the desire for an insurance policy, in case we destroy our home planet, or if something from outside does. In 1994, Lewicki set up one of the first webpages to share information on the newly discovered Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9. The world watched as it broke up and plunged into Jupiter, creating blemishes 10 times the size of Earth. Two months previously, no one had known about it, “and here it is unleashing obliterating forces that would destroy all life on planet Earth,” Lewicki says. “So that was a big wakeup call.” The discovery of asteroids went up exponentially after that.

“What I’m most excited about, and this gets a little bit ephemeral,” Lewicki adds, “is thinking about all of these wonderful, exciting, beautiful things that humanity has created over its history, and the sad idea of that being constrained to just the planet Earth and the number of people that the planet Earth can support.” When there’s theoretically nothing keeping us from spreading our beauty to other planets or even star systems, “There’s no reason,” Lewicki continues, “why anyone should have to worry about not having enough resources to raise their family or live a comfortable life or not have interesting things to do. Because when you think about the universe, the Earth’s resources are 24 decimal places to the right of the decimal point on what’s available to us. So, if we go out and get another small fraction of that in the solar system, I think that’s a bright future for everybody.”

In a cynical light, humans are a resource-hungry virus that can’t be happy with what we have and won’t stop until the universe is ours. In a more generous light, that’s pretty much the definition of life. It blossoms, it adapts, it consumes. It fills every nook and cranny it can, from steaming cracks in the ocean floor to the polar ice caps. Without it, the universe would be sterile.

And what we find and build in space can also help us back home. Sibille says that learning to manage resources off Earth could teach us ways to use resources more efficiently and more intelligently, preserving the planet we have. Garvey suggests we build sunshades in orbit to reverse global warming. And Saydam wants to apply space-age innovations to old-school mines.

“Once we establish the robots,” he says, “in the next 10, 15 years, mines will have less people. After 15, 20 years, mines will have no people.” Saydam doesn’t work in the mines, but he takes the safety of miners seriously. “If someone dies in Indonesia,” he says, “it’s also my responsibility.”

Saydam does what many futurists don’t: He stays grounded.

Science writer, fire dancer, guy on the Internet.

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