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Space-mining for platinum

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Goldman Sachs is bullish on space mining with "asteroid-grabbing spacecraft." In a 98-page note for clients seen by Business Insider, analyst Noah Poponak and his team argue that platinum mining in space is getting cheaper and easier, and the rewards are becoming greater as time goes by.

"While the psychological barrier to mining asteroids is high, the actual financial and technological barriers are far lower. Prospecting probes can likely be built for tens of millions of dollars each and Caltech has suggested an asteroid-grabbing spacecraft could cost $2.6bn," the report says.

$2.6 billion (£2 billion) sounds like a lot, but it is only about one-third the amount that has been invested in Uber, putting the price well within reach of today's VC funds. It is also a comparable to the setup cost for a regular earthbound mine. (This MIT paper estimates a new rare earth metal mine can cost up to $1 billion, from scratch.)

The price of spacecraft is plummeting, thanks to reusable rockets from Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin. It used to cost $35 million (£28 million) to send one person up on a Soyuz rocket. Today, Virgin Galactic hopes to get space tourists into space for something like $250,000 (£200,000), Goldman says.

Those economics make going into space more feasible. The rewards would be vast: just one asteroid might contain $50 billion (£40 billion) of platinum:

"Space mining could be more realistic than perceived. Water and platinum group metals that are abundant on asteroids are highly disruptive from a technological and economic standpoint. Water is easily converted into rocket fuel, and can even be used unaltered as a propellant. Ultimately being able to stockpile the fuel in LEO [low earth orbit] would be a game changer for how we access space. And platinum is platinum. According to a 2012 Reuters interview with Planetary Resources, a single asteroid the size of a football field could contain $25bn- $50bn worth of platinum."

There is just one problem: That same asteroid would instantly tank the entire platinum market: "Successful asteroid mining would likely crater the global price of platinum, with a single 500-meter-wide asteroid containing nearly 175X the global output, according to MIT's Mission 2016."

Nonetheless, Goldman is bullish. "We expect that systems could be built for less than that given trends in the cost of manufacturing spacecraft and improvements in technology. Given the capex of mining operations on Earth, we think that financing a space mission is not outside the realm of possibility."

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It may not be necessary to fire a billion-dollar spacecraft into orbit in order to find out the potential of mining asteroids. Instead, tiny spacecraft no bigger than a cereal box could be launched with the intention of intercepting potential mineral-bearing asteroids in order to see how likely it is they contain metals worth mining and returning to Earth, reported Mining.com.

Sound far-fetched? Possibly, but if the cost of asteroid mining exploration can be brought down to the millions from the billions, it could propel the yet-to-be-proven mining method closer into the realm of the probable. At least, that is the hope of a group of scientists who presented the concept at the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco.

Called MIDEA (Meteoroid Impact Detection for Exploration of Asteroids), the mission concept "would launch tiny robotic scouts to rendezvous with asteroids and then study the material that minuscule impactors blast off them," according to a post in Space.com. The results could reveal which space rocks make good mining targets.

The best part? The cereal box-sized "motherships" could be built for $10-20 million, a fraction of the cost of current asteroid-exploration spacecraft.

At the moment MIDEA is only conceptual, but it is receiving funding from NASA's Early Stage Innovations program. According to Space.com, construction is a ways off, with a space flight likely to be at least five to 10 years away.

For now, the eyes of asteroid-mining enthusiasts will be on OSIRIS-REx.
In September NASA's $1 billion spacecraft began a two-year journey to the asteroid Bennu, from which it will try gathering around 60 grams of dust, soil and rubble and return it to Earth.

Once OSIRIS-REx arrives at Bennu in 2018, it will spend a couple of years surveying the asteroid’s body using its five instruments — three spectrometers, a camera suite and a laser altimeter — to select a suitable site for sampling.

The craft will then carefully approach the celestial body — though it will never actually land on it — and extend a 3.3-metre arm that will fire nitrogen gas at the surface. This jet will break off samples to be collected and returned to Earth in 2023.

Geologists believe asteroids are packed with iron ore, nickel and precious metals at much higher concentrations than those found on Earth, making up a market valued in the trillions of dollars.

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