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.


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.


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.


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.

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World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has died at the age of 76. When Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease aged 22, doctors predicted he would live just a few more years. But in the ensuing 54 years he married, kept working and inspired millions of people around the world. In his last few years, Hawking was outspoken of the subject of AI, and Factor got the chance to hear him speak on the subject at Web Summit 2017…

Stephen Hawking was often described as being a vocal critic of AI. Headlines were filled with predictions of doom by from scientist, but the reality was more complex.

Hawking was not convinced that AI was to become the harbinger of the end of humanity, but instead was balanced about its risks and rewards, and at a compelling talk broadcast at Web Summit, he outlined his perspectives and what the tech world can do to ensure the end results are positive.

Stephen Hawking on the potential challenges and opportunities of AI

Beginning with the potential of artificial intelligence, Hawking highlighted the potential level of sophistication that the technology could reach.

“There are many challenges and opportunities facing us at this moment, and I believe that one of the biggest of these is the advent and impact of AI for humanity,” said Hawking in the talk. “As most of you may know, I am on record as saying that I believe there is no real difference between what can be achieved by a biological brain and what can be achieved by a computer.

“Of course, there is unlimited potential for what the human mind can learn and develop. So if my reasoning is correct, it also follows that computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence and exceed it.”

Moving onto the potential impact, he began with an optimistic tone, identifying the technology as a possible tool for health, the environment and beyond.

“We cannot predict what we might achieve when our own minds are amplified by AI. Perhaps with the tools of this new technological revolution, we will be able to undo some of the damage done to the natural world by the last one: industrialisation,” he said.

“We will aim to finally eradicate disease and poverty; every aspect of our lives will be transformed.”

However, he also acknowledged the negatives of the technology, from warfare to economic destruction.

“In short, success in creating effective AI could be the biggest event in the history of our civilisation, or the worst. We just don’t know. So we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and sidelined or conceivably destroyed by it,” he said.

“Unless we learn how to prepare for – and avoid – the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilisation. It brings dangers like powerful autonomous weapons or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy.

“Already we have concerns that clever machines will be increasingly capable of undertaking work currently done by humans, and swiftly destroy millions of jobs. AI could develop a will of its own, a will that is in conflict with ours and which could destroy us.

“In short, the rise of powerful AI will be either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity.”

In the vanguard of AI development

In 2014, Hawking and several other scientists and experts called for increased levels of research to be undertaken in the field of AI, which he acknowledged has begun to happen.

“I am very glad that someone was listening to me,” he said.

However, he argued that there is there is much to be done if we are to ensure the technology doesn’t pose a significant threat.

“To control AI and make it work for us and eliminate – as far as possible – its very real dangers, we need to employ best practice and effective management in all areas of its development,” he said. “That goes without saying, of course, that this is what every sector of the economy should incorporate into its ethos and vision, but with artificial intelligence this is vital.”

Addressing a thousands-strong crowd of tech-savvy attendees at the event, he urged them to think beyond the immediate business potential of the technology.

“Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit”

“Everyone here today is in the vanguard of AI development. We are the scientists. We develop an idea. But you are also the influencers: you need to make it work. Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit,” he said. “Our AI systems must do what we want them to do, for the benefit of humanity.”

In particular he raised the importance of working across different fields.

“Interdisciplinary research can be a way forward, ranging from economics and law to computer security, formal methods and, of course, various branches of AI itself,” he said.

“Such considerations motivated the American Association for Artificial Intelligence Presidential Panel on Long-Term AI Futures, which up until recently had focused largely on techniques that are neutral with respect to purpose.”

He also gave the example of calls at the start of 2017 by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) the introduction of liability rules around AI and robotics.

“MEPs called for more comprehensive robot rules in a new draft report concerning the rules on robotics, and citing the development of AI as one of the most prominent technological trends of our century,” he summarised.

“The report calls for a set of core fundamental values, an urgent regulation on the recent developments to govern the use and creation of robots and AI. [It] acknowledges the possibility that within the space of a few decades, AI could surpass human intellectual capacity and challenge the human-robot relationship.

“Finally, the report calls for the creation of a European agency for robotics and AI that can provide technical, ethical and regulatory expertise. If MEPs vote in favour of legislation, the report will go to the European Commission, which will decide what legislative steps it will take.”

Creating artificial intelligence for the world

No one can say for certain whether AI will truly be a force for positive or negative change, but – despite the headlines – Hawking was positive about the future.

“I am an optimist and I believe that we can create AI for the world that can work in harmony with us. We simply need to be aware of the dangers, identify them, employ the best possible practice and management and prepare for its consequences well in advance,” he said. “Perhaps some of you listening today will already have solutions or answers to the many questions AI poses.”

You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big

However, he stressed that everyone has a part to play in ensuring AI is ultimately a benefit to humanity.

“We all have a role to play in making sure that we, and the next generation, have not just the opportunity but the determination to engage fully with the study of science at an early level, so that we can go on to fulfill our potential and create a better world for the whole human race,” he said.

“We need to take learning beyond a theoretical discussion of how AI should be, and take action to make sure we plan for how it can be. You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big.

“We stand on the threshold of a brave new world. It is an exciting – if precarious – place to be and you are the pioneers. I wish you well.”