Ten Years Hence lecture explores possible trillion-dollar asteroid mining industry
Gabby Beechert | Monday, April 4, 2022
University of Hawai’i astronomy professor Robert Jedicke discussed his involvement in the burgeoning asteroid mining industry during the fifth installment of the Ten Years Hence “Life Beyond Earth” lecture series Friday morning.
“What we want to do is get water from the moon or from asteroids, use the water to fuel the spacecraft which we then sell to customers,” Jedicke said.
Jedicke said he has been working with asteroids and comets for over 30 years. However, he wasn’t introduced to the asteroid mining industry until about 10 years ago.
The idea of asteroid mining was jump-started by a company called United Launch Alliance. Interested in the space industry, the company said they would pay $10,000 per liter of water, as long as that liter of water was in high-earth orbit, Jedicke said.
Now, Jedicke works with the Trans Astronautica Corporation, a “vertically integrated asteroid mining technology development company.” The company’s goal is to participate in the space industry, but Jedicke’s work with them specifically relates to mining asteroids for water.
But why is there such an interest in mining for water? Water is highly abundant in our solar system. Not only is there water on the moon and Mars, but Ceres — the largest known asteroid in the solar system — has more water than Earth, Jedicke said.
Water also has many uses. Jedicke said it can serve as fuel, a radiation shield for spacecraft and a resource for human consumption and agriculture.
But, this does not mean that Jedicke and his colleagues can pick a random asteroid and start mining. There are specific criteria — location, velocity, size and classification — that optimize the mining process.
Out of the 1 million asteroids larger than half a mile in the asteroid belt, about 1,000 of these are mining candidates, Jedicke said.
The asteroids of interest are the C-type asteroids that are about five to 30 meters in diameter. Jedicke said C-type asteroids have the highest concentration of water, about 15%. Although these asteroids exist primarily in the outer portion of the asteroid belt, Jupiter’s gravity forces some of these asteroids within 130 million miles of Earth. This qualifies them as near-Earth objects (NEOs), meaning they are much easier to mine.
Once the mining is complete, the water will not be brought back to earth. The extra mass of the water on the rocket would make it more difficult to return to Earth, Jedicke said.
The water would instead be transported to a lunar gateway. This gateway would act as a gas station for water.
“If we’re up there, we’re actually using the water in space. That means we no longer have to come back down to Earth surfaces and leave again,” Jedicke said. “We can start our missions in space and go to other asteroids, we can go to other planets, we can go to outer space stations.”
All of these considerations would be done with the help of the Sutter Ultra Systems. There will be three systems, each with its own telescope that forms a triangulation system for identifying asteroid candidates as the systems orbit around the sun. Because the systems are in orbit before an asteroid is identified, Jedicke said he hopes the mining system can be launched soon after the asteroid’s discovery.
“We think it takes us about 14 days to characterize the asteroid well enough that we can actually decide that this is a viable mining target,” Jedicke said. “We go to the target, we spend maybe 90 to 180 days mining the target and extracting the water. Then we return to the Earth-Moon system, and we deliver water to customers in cislunar space and make a lot of money.”
Jedicke said that current calculations estimate that they would be running two missions per year, and those two missions would return a total of 100 tons of water. Although Jedicke did acknowledge that “the uncertainty is 100 percent,” the oil rigs and exploration ships operating today were thought to be crazy 50 years ago. So, it is important to have an open mind about the potential of asteroid mining.