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Asteroid Mining Is Our Best Hope for Colonizing Mars (vice.com)
48 points by rbanffy 9 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 52 comments

Eh.. right off the bat, you have to doubt "analysis" that comes from an article that doesn't know the difference between the Falcon Heavy and ITS.

But then it gets really stupid. The idea that you'd transport water from asteroids to the surface of Mars is bananas. Mars has enough surface water already. The reason asteroid ice is valuable isn't because it's water, it's because it's not on the surface of a planet. To fly around the solar system you need rocket fuel in space, and launching it off planets is really expensive. Landing asteroid water on a planet that already has water destroys 99% of its market value.

Also the idea that water ice is only useful if you're going to Mars misunderstands why water ice on asteroids is useful in the first place; as fuel for flying around the Solar System more cheaply (or with more mass) than you could if you had to launch all your fuel from Earth. That's useful no matter where you're going.

Anyway, I'm not going to debunk this whole article, but it was basically written by a very uniformed person. Basically the only thing they got right was recognizing that launch costs (not engineering ability per se) is the primary barrier to further space exploration.

its not hard to imagine mars needing more water due to increased human activity. i mean earth is mostly water, and it still has a market value.

It could be useful when going from the 10 million people on Mars to the 10 billion people on Mars stage. However, at that point 'colonization' is already a solved problem.

honestly I dont think there is enough (easily accessible) water for 10 million people.


"The caps are an average of 2 miles (3 kilometers) thick and, if completely melted, could cover the Martian surface with about 18 feet (5.6 meters) of water."

So, there is actually plenty of water for arbitrarily large colonies. However, I assume people would want large lakes for various reasons.

Highly recommended video on Colonizing Mars by Isaac Arthur https://youtu.be/kmFOBoy2MZ8

Equally amazing Asteriod Mining by Mr. Arthur https://youtu.be/3-3DjxhGaUg

Headline: asteroid mining is our best hope for colonizing Mars.

Body text: after people start colonizing Mars, asteroid miners can sell them water.

It looks like circular hope to me. Hope that asteroidal water will be useful to people on Mars. And hope that there will be people on Mars who will pay for asteroidal water.

But how to keep water on Mars? The way I understand Mars can't keep an atmosphere because it lacks a magnetic field and probably lost a lot of water this way.

Also, the water doesn't need to be exposed to the Martian atmosphere - it can be stored in tanks until needed. Farms wouldn't be in open air anyway.

At a later point, it may prove feasible to reduce the incidence of solar winds using one or more deflectors at the Sun-Mars L1 point. A cool idea would be to slow down instead of deflecting so the particles would land on Mars and become part of the atmosphere instead of blowing it away.

But this is way past the science-fiction line for now.

A way to protect the atmosphere of Mars with a magnetic field has been suggested https://phys.org/news/2017-03-nasa-magnetic-shield-mars-atmo...

mars has an atmosphere even now. the processes stripping it off work on geological (or longer) timescales. if you can import (or free) enough water to make a difference in the first place, then keeping up with the losses should be pretty easy.

Also, giving Mars an artificial magnetic field to stop the stripping isn't easy but it's a lot easier than importing that much water.

throw a bunch of big wet heavy ice rocks on the surface (before we decide to set up base there) and you'll have a good kick start to an atmosphere.

Also, sounds fun...

I'd assume we'd do it the same way we do it on the space station, except on a larger scale. We tightly control water consumption and what leaves the life support systems.

I had to look pretty closely at that "asteroid miner" concept image to assure myself it wasn't just a ship from Kerbal Space Program. :)

This is just stupid. The value of water in space mined from asteroids comes from it not being on a planet. Compressing water is just stupid and water weighs a lot and thus is very expensive to get to orbit. On a planet like Mars which has water ice available transporting water ice from space is just stupid.

This is assuming we can even get a person to mars, which has not been demonstrated as feasible. Let alone a whole community. It would be better to colonize the moon, but equally pointless IMO. It’s a massive waste of resources which could go towards making earth better, where we’re all stuck anyway.

Honestly I think getting someone to Mars and back at this point is an engineering problem in that:

1. Humans can live in space for extended periods (eg the ISS);

2. We have the capability to land something on Mars and take off again, rendezvouzing with an orbiting spacecraft. We did this on the Moon;

3. We have the capability of getting enough fuel and payload into orbit and then sending that to Mars and back. Now this part is tricky because every pound of payload you need has a knock on effect in terms of more fuel needed plus more fuel to carry that fuel. This I think is actually the trickiest part but largely comes down to a function of launch costs.

That all being said, it looks like it'll cost hundreds of billions of dollars and be an active mission for ~2 years. Is it worth it? That's a reasonable question to ask given how many unmanned probes we could send for that same money and what the value is of sending a meat bag to another world.

Now colonization is a whole other beast. My definition of colonization is that the colony is self-sufficient. For this, IMHO we simply don't have the technology. Far from it. Too much of what we rely on is provided "free" by the Earth. Air, water, plants and animals. Resource extraction is ludicrously cheap compared to anything in space or on another world.

But think about the daily things you need: clothes, food, computers, shelter, transport. There's a complex web of dependencies on any one of these things such that a good portion of the world is needed and a pretty significant number of people are required.

Also, does Mars even make sense? It has almost zero atmosphere. I've read that Mercury may in fact make much more sense. For one it'll solve the energy problem (solar on Mercury, anyone?).

Not that living on Mercury is without problems of course.

> This is assuming we can even get a person to mars, which has not been demonstrated as feasible. Let alone a whole community.

Landing per se shouldn't be impossible. We landed people on the Moon a long time ago. Recent advances in magnetic shell aerocapture are really exciting and make landing on Mars more feasible. The real question is whether we can learn how to do it in an economic and sustainable way; unlike Apollo.

> It would be better to colonize the moon

I agree with this. Going straight for Mars seems unwise. We should expand slowly out into the Solar System, step by organic step. Even better than the Moon would be Low Earth Orbit. A colony in LEO would have same-day access to Earth in either direction, and would benefit from being inside Earth's magnetic field, which would allow the designers to cut the mass needed for shielding significantly. Big savings.

A LEO colony would be close enough to Earth that people on Earth could teleoperate robots in the colony in real time with minimal lag, allowing it to circumvent the bootstrap question of "Where do people live while it's being built?"

A LEO colony would also have to built using bulk physical resources from the Moon or the Near Earth Asteroids, building up our manufacturing base there, and serving as a "shore leave" destination for people working further up in Geosyncrhonous Orbit or elsewhere Cis-Lunar space.

Once we have a basic torus capable of holding, say, 10,000 people, it could serve as a staging area for venturing deeper into the Solar System, such as Mars. But personally even then, I wouldn't advocate for Mars. After all that work of moving humanity out of a deep gravity well, why climb into a new one? Space is where all the solar energy is, and all the resources of the asteroid belt and the moons are (gravitationally speaking) close at hand.

> It’s a massive waste of resources which could go towards making earth better, where we’re all stuck anyway.

Now here's where I disagree with you.

1. In no way did colonizing Australia or North America prevent England from improving the homeland. You can do both! Heck, Elon Musk is already doing both. The whole point of Tesla/Solar City is to move humanity off fossil fuels.

2. Space colonization can be part of the solution. Imagine industrial processes that have very polluting intermediate steps; they could be done on the Moon where you don't have water or air to worry about polluting. Earth could be cleaned up by exporting those industries to space. The Moon could also serve as a much better repository of high-level nuclear waste than Yucca Mountain.

And of course in the very long term, the Solar System has the energy and material resources to support a human population 10,000x bigger than Earth does. As much solar energy as Earth receives, space receives a lot more. As much iron and PGM and carbon and water as Earth has, space has more. Europa alone is estimated to have 2x as much water as Earth. And so those resources can support more people who have more ideas who solve the very problems you want solved.

The difference is that, despite being a long trip, sailing to Australia and South Africa and the USA was fairly routine, and did not involve enormous costs, both in material and to the environment (how much CO2 does lifting a person to orbit release to the atmosphere?) How much did it cost to put a trifling amount of men on the moon?

In colonial times for example it was common for a woman to go home to Europe to give birth. Will that really be feasible in mars or the moon?

SpaceX is already 10x cheaper than the Space Shuttle. Reusable rockets will be another 10x or more cheaper. Access to space will be cheap and routine.

A more or less self sufficient LEO colony could also become the primary means of travel between Earth and Mars. Put some engines on it (using asteroid water for propellant) and slowly kick it into interplanetary space on an Aldrin Cycler orbit. After that it provides nearly free travel between the planets. Still needs some high-G taxis to jump between the station and the surface as it flies by but that is unavoidable.

One of the main benefits of a LEO colony is you can design it with 1/10th or less of the shielding mass of deep space colony, because it's shielded from radiation by Earth's magnetic field. Such a design would not be able to keep people healthy beyond LEO.

A LEO colony would be a staging point for colonists and ships, but not a ship itself.

You'd have to add shielding to it too. The whole point is that a single large shielded Cycler makes a lot more sense than smaller ships.

My alma mater, the Colorado School of Mines, has had a department focused on this for over a decade, the center for space resources: http://spaceresources.mines.edu/index.htm

Flow of events: See article in Feedly -> ooh that looks interesting -> click it -> See the link is vice.com -> oh :-( -> notice lots of chatter from fellow HN readers -> things improve immensely!

Please HN dont change :-D

Asteroid mining would be necessary for colonizing Mars.

Getting into Mars is technological problem. Colonizing Mars is more economical and sociological problem than technological problem.

Everyday living in high-tech place where everything is safety critical (like in a nuclear submarine or ISS) is extremely expensive. Productivity would have to be beyond everything that has ever existed for that becoming possibility.

If Elon Musk can crack Mars colonization economy, he has also invented something that can be used to drop F-35 fighter, nuclear submarine and aircraft carrier maintenance costs to level where they are negligible.

There is always counterarguments that are based on post-scarcity economy. I accept that argument. But we get faster into Mars if we first develop post-scarcity economy here on earth first. Then those who want to leave just move there. Those who want to go Mars now are thinking it wrong.

I think there’s a bit of tail wagging the dog involved, in a good way.

You are correct, mining asteroids would be necessary for colonizing Mars. But mining asteroids would also bring Earth much closer to post-scarcity (maybe even as necessary!).

So if building a private beach on Mars for Musk and Richard Branson and Taylor Swift is what it takes to get an asteroid mining economy rolling, then cool, that's a plan…

As others have pointed out, asteroid mining does very little to Earth. In a large scale it's only for use in space.

Most rare-earth minerals are not really that rare. Mining them on earth will be more cost effective. If we need larger quantities than can be found on surface deep sea mining is still more cost effective than asteroid mining.

Why colonise Mars at all once you're mining asteroids?

Build colonies in free space instead and avoid the time and hassle of terraforming.

Gravity, Atmosphere, Aesthetics (for population expansion), research... all sorts of reasons.

But yes, once you've gotten reliable mining operations the pressure will be less. But the novelty will always be in high demand.

why not just drill down once we get there and put a roof on the hole?

They are talking about mining for water not precious metals, which there may not be enough of on Mars to sustain the colonies.

But I think you are right about what they colonies will look like. Subterranean for the most part with some farming glass domes on the surface.

What advantage does living in the Martian underground have compared to living in a free flying space colony somewhere in the asteroid belt?

With the latter arrangement you have lots of minable resources at hand, only a small delta-v away from you. Ik you are ok with long delivery times, transporting them around doesn't cost you much energy.

Whereas on Mars, everything is much more energy-intensive, both mining raw materials and moving them through your industrial processing chain.

Space-based manufacturing is still an alien concept to us and while it comes with its own challenges, the vacuum and zero-gravity of space offers a lot of advantages too:


I agree overall, but living in a hole on Mars does offer at least somewhat better shielding against radiation, and people are strangely fondly of gravity, too... (not that you couldn't tackle those both in your hollowed-out asteroid).

i'm sure mining including refining would be easier to do on mars.

Ok, I just read that link. they need to make a space forge that'll fit on a falcon 9.

Yep, but how about colonizing Antarctica first? It's way easier.

There are dozens of research bases in Antarctica. Establishing a research base on Earth isn't comparable to an off-world research base anyway, if you're looking to study said remote world or establish a lifeline for humanity in case the Earth is devastated.

If you mean "colonize" in the sense of "go exploit local resources to create an economic engine which justifies independent existence", then Antarctica is actually a much harder sell.

If you mean "have a presence", we already do.

This is a rather lazy critique that doesn't acknowledge any of the actual motivations of those looking to expand the reach of humanity to Mars (and beyond).

Asteroid mining for use on Earth is pretty silly. Take the example in the article, Platinum. According to Wikipedia, platinum is 0.005 ppm of the earth's crust, which is 2.3 x 10^22 kg. So there's about 1.1 x 10^14 kg of Platinum on earth, and we mine 200,000 kg per year. We're not going to run out any time soon.

But as the article implies, mining asteroids for use in space makes a heck of a lot of sense. That's a very different market.

The risk isn't "running out", it's that the cost of extraction becomes prohibitive. As a rule of thumb, asteroids are generally much richer with heavy metals than the Earth's crust because heavy things sink on Earth but they have no where to go on asteroids. These metals persist in small quantities in the crust mostly when they are bound to light elements. So the density and types of ores on asteroids are completely different, vastly changing extraction costs.

Whether the benefits of asteroid composition outweigh the costs of space mining is complicated and time-/tech-dependent, and cannot be guessed by just noting that in principle there are sufficient atoms in the Earth's crust.

"the cost of extraction becomes prohibitive"

You're implying that the cost of extraction is going up. It's not, it's going down quite steadily because it's tech-limited, not resource limited.

I'm not implying that at all. Everything is on a supply and demand curve, and the claim is that the extraction price increases, not with time, but with amount extracted at a fixed time. So the question is if we hit a point where the 1st ton of asteroid platinum is cheaper than the millionth ton of terrestrial platinum.

There is no actual evidence that the extraction price of precious metals will increase with the amount extracted at a fixed time. This is entirely speculative, and it seems more likely that extraction prices will decline as extraction technology improves faster than demand increases.

I'd assume any ppm needs to be corrected by an "economically accessible" factor much <1. After all, we're not running the entire crust through a separator and ending up with piles of its different constituents.

"we're not running the entire crust through a separator and ending up with piles of its different constituents."

We're basically already doing that for copper.

The lowest mine reserve copper grade I see reported for any of these big copper projects is 0.25%, for Morenci:


That's 2500 ppm Cu, significantly higher than the crustal average of 50-100 ppm. If resource concentration isn't important, why don't miners just locate for low-cost infrastructure and extract copper from whatever rocks are close at hand? You could certainly save costs on workers/power/water/transport over going way off into the Andes or the Atacama Desert to extract ore.

Likewise, if resource quality doesn't matter to platinum production, why not do the same for the platinum group metals? Just locate your multi-metal production complex wherever power and labor are cheap. If resource quality is unimportant, China should be a bigger platinum producer than the US or Canada.

As far as I can tell, the only element ever commercially mined from ores of sub-ppm grade was radium. It was also by far the costliest substance ever produced by mining operations. (Some sub-ppm element concentrations may be exploitable when those elements are secondary, as with iridium as a byproduct of primary copper/nickel production.)

We're closing in on only a single order of magnitude difference between the concentration of copper in a copper mine and the concentration of copper in random crust. Considering that you used to be able to find pure copper deposits, I think your data supports my point.

Yes, but why tear up our planet to get at its metals and minerals? Better to move mining and heavy industry into space, and avoid the environmental damage to Earth.

Building and launching the number of rockets necessary for large scale asteroid mining would also cause severe environmental damage. It's not clear whether this would be a net win or not.

Not if the rockets are reusable and the fuel has zero net-carbon footprint.

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