Asteroid Mining the big question

We have seen a lot of news recently regarding mining asteroids to provide resources which could open up a trillion dollar industry in the future. However during all this talk the one question that doesn’t seem to have been answered is how do we get the resources back to Earth to use. During a conversation on Twitter today someone asked just this question so we decided to do some research.

There are several ways to look at this, we will explore each of them in this article.  For this article I will be using SpaceX vehicles as the basis of costs vs benefits as their price structure is publicly available.

1) Return to Earth

While this would seem to be the most logic solution it isn’t quite as easy as it seems.  First we need to have a way to bring the resource back to Earth, there are very few options out there today to return cargo to Earth, China’s Shenzhou, Russia’s Soyuz and SpaceX’s Dragon are the only vehicles that are currently in use today, Russia’s Progress vehicle is also capable of returning cargo but isn’t used in that configuration today.  In the future Boeing’s CST-100, Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser and NASA’s Orion vehicles will also have this capability.

Unfortunately the capacity of these vehicles is very limited making returning anything from orbit difficult, for example Dragon is currently limited 6,614 lbs.  In addition these vehicles all need to be launched into orbit so that they can be loaded with the cargo to be returned.

Launch Cost: $133m
Return Cargo Value @ 6,614 lbs*: Gold – $136m, Platinum – $151m

* These numbers are based on 8/31/2014 prices and also assume that the material being returned has been processed and therefore the total weight is the metal.

Based on this it would seem that a very small profit could be made for each launch, however this doesn’t take into account any of the costs of the actual mining operations. It is also clear from these numbers that we would only be able to make a profit if the material being returned was worth a lot of money per ounce. Anything less than $1200 per ounce would result in a loss under this approach.

This approach also doesn’t take into account that in the ideal scenario the outbound Dragon would be loaded with supplies that would be used by the mining operation therefore the cost of $133m would be offset making the profit larger per mission. With the introduction of the Falcon Heavy rocket expected next year there is no reason why larger Dragon vehicles can’t be constructed that would increase the return cargo capacity and while the total cost for the Falcon Heavy and Rocket would increase so would the cargo carried to the complex and what could be returned.

2) Return to Earth Orbiting Platforms

The second approach we will look at is returning materials to an Earth Orbiting Platform, this would be useful for materials that can be used in space, for example Water and Oxygen. By storing these in orbit the total amount of these launched on a mission could be reduced, the vehicle would then rendezvous with the platform to transfer additional supplies.

It is difficult to determine the cost of this approach as we would need to consider the following:-

a) Cost of a platform to store the materials?
b) Cost of vehicles to transport materials from asteroid to platform?

This approach would not be that useful for the other materials as they would still need to be returned to Earth before they could be used.

3) In-Space Manufacturing

We believe that the third option is the most exciting, In-Space Manufacturing would allow construction of different items depending on the capabilities of the manufacturing station. Longer term this could even be used to construct vehicles that would be used to return materials to Earth that have been mined, this would significantly reduce the costs and therefore increase the profits.

Any In-Space Manufacturing would need to utilize a mixture of 3D Printing with Robotics to allow the development of different size items as well as being able to develop the electronics etc that would be used to control the items.

As with Option 2 above it is difficult to know how much this approach would cost, we would need to consider the following:-

a) Does the platform need to support human crew members?
b) What size items would need to be constructed, this will determine the size of the platform?
c) Cost of platform to product items?
b) Cost of vehicles to transport materials from asteroid to platform?

With this approach the largest range of materials would be utilized, as we can see almost on a monthly basis the items that can be produced via 3D Printing and Robotics is improve rapidly.


At the end of the day we believe that all three of these approaches will be needed to fully utilize the resources that would be available from asteroid mining.

While this article gives some options to answer our question we are sure there are others that we haven’t yet thought of. If you have any suggestions please add a comment to this post we would love to involve you in the conversation.