Off-Earth mining: The challenge of turning asteroids into “gas stations in space”

Some of the technologies required to mine in space already exist. Steve Carter, vice president of product alignment at Dassault Systèmes GEOVIA assesses the risks and rewards for those who boldly venture.


Some asteroids contain water, in the form of ice, other frozen gases and metals. If mined, the raw materials on these asteroids could provide the air, water, fuel and other consumables required to support permanent settlements in space.

Asteroids could become ‘gas stations in space’ where, according to Rick Tumlinson, of Deep Space Industries, whose company plans to analyse then mine asteroids, “you can get air and propellants”.

Carrying water into space is hugely expensive and requires large rockets that consume vast amounts of fuel. Using the resources already in space overcomes those lifting problems, at least for consumables and other raw materials, and would allow people to travel further at lower cost.

Another space exploration company, Planetary Resources, lists Richard Branson and Google’s Larry Page as investors. Its co-founder Eric Anderson estimates that some platinum-rich asteroids just 500m across could contain more than the entire known reserves of platinum group metals here on Earth.

Meanwhile, Wall Street research firm Bernstein notes that a big asteroid called 16 Psyche, in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and measuring some 200km across, may contain 17 million billion tonnes of nickel-iron – enough to satisfy mankind’s current demand for millions of years.

The analysis of asteroids that have fallen to Earth has shown that they contain iron, rhodium, iridium, rhenium, osmium, ruthenium, palladium, germanium and gold as well as platinum. Many of these are in purer forms than occur on earth.

This supports the theories that copious amounts of these metals exist in asteroids, they just have to be found and mined, in space.

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Making off-Earth mining a reality

Mining and living in space like the movie Avatar (2009) or The Jetsons TV series (1962-1988) seem like real possibilities with the availability of water, fuel and high value elements.

However, there is a lot of technology that still needs to be developed before off-Earth mining becomes a reality.

While it is highly unlikely that we will see mining on the moon in ours, or our children’s lifetime, many people have been speculating on what is possible with mining on asteroids.

Mining will be required to provide raw materials to support permanent settlement on other planets or moons. However, until we have people based long term on other planets or moons, there is no case for it.

The step that will precede this is asteroid mining, as this will support the permanent settlement of space, and because it’s a lower cost proposition than lifting everything from Earth.

There are 1,500 known asteroids within relatively easy reach of the Earth. And, although yet to be proven, there is an expectation that minerals in asteroids are evenly distributed, making them easier to detect and extract. Further, it has been estimated that a single water-rich asteroid 500m wide could contain 40Mt of water – providing a valuable resource to space travellers.

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Jobs in space

Once resources are secured, manufacturing in zero gravity conditions offers the promise of new technologies, while finding raw materials ‘locally’ would save the thousands of dollars per kilogram in production costs compared to lifting them out of Earth’s gravity.

Fabricating transportation vehicles and their fuel in space offers many advantages to mankind. The reality is that this is still a long way off, but there are important things happening today on Earth that are precursors to asteroid mining.

Some things will be similar, exploration and resource modelling in particular, because asteroids have to be found and assessed prior to mining. This is likely to employ very different techniques though, perhaps using high-powered lasers to heat small parts of an asteroid to analyse the emitted light spectrum in order to assess its composition.

The act of mining itself is likely to be different through making use of remotely operated and fully autonomous robots. This is where current activities by large miners – Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton for example – to develop this type of mining equipment, are likely to be of benefit.

Although it’s likely that some people will still need to be in space, the use of robotics will go a long way to mitigating the associated risks.

The cost of asteroid mining will also drive companies to use much more sophisticated techniques for exploration and mining than are currently in use.

For example, Dassault Systèmes 3DEXPERIENCE technology has been used across a wide range of industries – automotive, aerospace, industrial equipment and mining – to improve the quality of designs and the efficiency of processes. There is every reason to believe that it will help with mining in space.

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Advancing the asteroid mining industry

Mining touches the whole of human activity, and has throughout history been correlated with human advancement.

Setting up colonies to mine on other planets is not just a matter of technology, but also of will; in 1900 man could not fly, but by 1969 we were on the moon. The will focussed the technology and the mission was accomplished.

The technology exists, or could be developed to get to space, develop transport and robotics, map model and analyse asteroids, determine their content and release their value, and companies such as Planetary Resources are currently recruiting engineers.

The risks, hazards and rewards are new, different and unknown. Not unlike those that faced the Wright brothers in 1903.


Images courtesy of Dassault Systèmes.


Robot takes first steps towards building artificial lifeforms

A robot equipped with sophisticated AI has successfully simulated the creation of artificial lifeforms, in a key first step towards the eventual goal of creating true artificial life.

The robot, which was developed by scientists at the University of Glasgow, was able to model the creation of artificial lifeforms using unstable oil-in-water droplets. These droplets effectively played the role of living cells, demonstrating the potential of future research to develop living cells based on building blocks that cannot be found in nature.

Significantly, the robot also successfully predicted their properties before they were created, even though this could not be achieved using conventional physical models.

The robot, which was designed by Glasgow University’s Regius Chair of Chemistry, Professor Lee Cronin, is driven by machine learning and the principles of evolution.

It has been developed to autonomously create oil-in-water droplets with a host of different chemical makeups and then use image recognition to assess their behaviour.

Using this information, the robot was able to engineer droplets to have different properties­. Those which were found to be desirable could then be recreated at any time, using a specific digital code.

“This work is exciting as it shows that we are able to use machine learning and a novel robotic platform to understand the system in ways that cannot be done using conventional laboratory methods, including the discovery of ‘swarm’ like group behaviour of the droplets, akin to flocking birds,” said Cronin.

“Achieving lifelike behaviours such as this are important in our mission to make new lifeforms, and these droplets may be considered ‘protocells’ – simplified models of living cells.”

One of the oil droplets created by the robot

The research, which is published today in the journal PNAS, is one of several research projects being undertaken by Cronin and his team within the field of artificial lifeforms.

While the overarching goal is moving towards the creation of lifeforms using new and unprecedented building blocks, the research may also have more immediate potential applications.

The team believes that their work could also have applications in several practical areas, including the development of new methods for drug delivery or even innovative materials with functional properties.

Mac spyware stole millions of user images

A criminal case brought against a man from Ohio, US has shed more light on a piece of Mac malware, dubbed Fruitfly, that was used to surreptitiously turn on cameras and microphones, take and download screenshots, log keystrokes, and steal tax and medical records, photographs, internet searches, and bank transactions from users.

Source: Ars Technica

Drone swarm attack strikes Russian military bases

Russia's Ministry of Defence claims its forces in Syria were attacked a week ago by a swarm of home-made drones. According to Russia's MoD Russian forces at the Khmeimim air base and Tartus naval facility "successfully warded off a terrorist attack with massive application of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)"

Source: Science Alert

Las Vegas strip club employs robot strippers

A Las Vegas strip club has flown in robot strippers from London to 'perform' at the club during CES. Sapphire Las Vegas strip club managing partner Peter Feinstein said that he employed the robots because the demographics of CES have changed and the traditional female strippers aren’t enough to lure a crowd to the club anymore.

Source: Daily Beast

GM to make driverless cars without steering wheels or pedals by 2019

General Motors has announced it plans to mass-produce self-driving cars without traditional controls like steering wheels and pedals by 2019. “It’s a pretty exciting moment in the history of the path to wide scale [autonomous vehicle] deployment and having the first production car with no driver controls,” GM President Dan Ammann told The Verge.

Source: The Verge

Russia-linked hackers "Fancy Bears" target the IOC

Following Russia's ban from the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics, the Russia-linked hacking group "Fancy Bears" has published a set of apparently stolen emails, which purportedly belong to officials from the International Olympic Committee, the United States Olympic Committee, and third-party groups associated with the organisations.

Source: Wired

Scientists discover ice cliffs on Mars

Using images provided by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, scientists have described how steep cliffs, up to 100 meters tall, made of what appears to be nearly pure ice indicate that large deposits of ice may also be located in nearby underground deposits. The discovery has been described as “very exciting” for potential human bases.

Source: Science Mag