Listen to this article
Mineral extraction is going to be crucial for the survival of colonies on Mars or the moon, dreamt up and financed by the likes of entrepreneurs Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.
But such is the prohibitive fuel economy of space travel that it is unclear when, if ever, bringing resources such as iron and platinum back to Earth will be commercially viable.
Angel Abbud-Madrid, director of the Centre for Space Resources at the Colorado School of Mines, says it would make sense only when things on Earth “become economically not affordable”.
“Now it’s a race to the funding,” says Meagan Crawford, who runs Brand Delta-V, a space marketing consultancy.
A number of companies are carving out a reputation of being among the industry leaders:
ispace, a Japanese company founded in 2013, specialises in robotic rovers weighing just 4kg, whose dainty proportions make them relatively cheap to deliver into space.
The company has a staff of 40 people and managed the operations of Hakuto, one of five finalists in Google’s Lunar Xprize competition. It raised $10m of funding by selling advertising on the side of its rover.
Kyle Acierno, managing director of ispace Europe, is betting that the moon will be mined before asteroids and that ispace’s rovers will be used to prospect for resources on parts of the moon that have yet to be physically explored.
It will be a decade or so before any minerals are extracted from an asteroid, acknowledges Chris Lewicki, chief executive of Planetary Resources.
The former Nasa engineer remains optimistic, however. “We’re entering a phase of the industrial development of the economy [in which] space becomes a place where we can do business.”
Planetary Resources is generating, for now, revenue on Earth. Mr Lewicki says the company is using its technology to provide services to traditional mining businesses. He declined to share the company’s valuation.
The founding investors of Planetary Resources include Larry Page, chief executive of Google’s parent company, Alphabet; Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet; and Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group.
Mr Lewicki’s company, which has its headquarters in Washington state, aims to begin mining in space, recreating a traditional industry in the least traditional of locations.
In a sector fraught with expensive failures and uncertainty, commercial space leaders such as Mr Lewicki take the long term view, but he is matter-of-fact: space is not so much an industry as just another place, he says, “like Europe, like the ocean”.
Deep Space Industries
Peter Stibrany, chief business developer at Deep Space Industries, says company focus is on lowering the cost of deep space exploration. Today, a mission costs $500m to $1bn. Mr Stibrany’s hope is to reduce it “by a factor of 20 times or better” to make asteroid exploration possible.
Mr Stibrany says it could take as “little as three to five years” for private companies to demonstrate the ability to prospect on asteroids. To make money before space mining starts, Deep Space Industries manufactures satellites for start-ups which use them for Earth communications and observation. Deep Space Industries says the company’s worth is “in line with other similar-sized companies in the space industry”.
Space flight companies are also developing the capacity to propel spacecraft using hydrogen extracted from water, providing a more immediate set of customers for miners than the long-imagined astronaut colonies of the future.
Space miners are unlikely to be human. Several smaller companies are producing robotic prospectors and explorers to dig the final frontier.
“Space mining is a long game,” says Andrew Bowyer, co-founder and director of Luxembourg-based Kleos Space. “In my personal opinion, it’s probably a good 15 years off revenue.”
Kleos is working on precision robotics that will allow for the manufacture of tools and replacement parts in space — helping future miners avoid a costly delivery from Earth.
When it comes to revenue today, Kleos has streams including the deployment of satellite antennas. “We can’t just rely on Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk to pay for everything,” says Mr Bowyer. “We have to justify ourselves as we’re going along.”
OffWorld, led by space industry veteran Jim Keravala, is a Los Angeles-based robotics company. It is at the prototype stage of its artificially intelligent industrial modular robot systems that are designed to operate autonomously.
After his previous space project, Shackleton Energy, failed to secure sufficient investment to pursue large-scale lunar water extraction, Mr Keravala decided to focus on robotics, which also has customers on Earth.
As for beyond our planet’s confines, Mr Keravala indicates that his vision is to have robots “basically build civilisation” remotely.