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School of Mines Wants to Launch the First Space Mining Program (wired.com)
110 points by ajoy on Nov 30, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 49 comments



The courses are being offered online--it's a shame grad classes are too expensive to just take for fun! Looks like $6,800 or so to take one of the two they're offering next semester, or about $12,700 for both. The Masters degree would end up costing you about $58.7k plus $1,000/semester in fees. It's a hard sell for something that still looks relatively far in the future, but I suppose if space mining is truly is your dream career, it's great that this program exists.


It seems that most distance/online masters programs are money mills- there's an expectation that ones employer will pick up the tab.


Excluding organic materials like oil/coal/etc the global economy does not spend a lot of resources on mining. Further, we have vast excess supply's of most of what we do mine making space based mining problematic. Sure, it sounds good but we need to be in space for some other reasons before mining becomes practical.


We're great at mining but bad at putting things in space. The main virtue of mining things in space is that the materials are already in space, sparing the vast expense of launching them up there.

I guess I partially agree that having other things we want to do in space is prerequisite, but imagine the kinds of things we could do and build if we had unlimited raw materials already in orbit, or on the moon. Remember, mining water is a big part of this, not just what we tend to imagine with earth mining.


We are not great at mining.

Fun fact: the manufacturing industry has been able to obtain machine utilization at nearly 100%. Mining is in the 40% range.


We’re not great at environmentally friendly mining. Mountain top removal mining, open pit mining and strip mining are brute force tactics that demonstrate a capacity for efficiency, but remain controversial because of their destructive qualities.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surface_mining

No one will care about using destructive tactics on an asteroid, freeing everyone’s hand to not be gentle. On the other hand, much of what gets mined in space will need to stay in space. After all, what would happen, if three times the mass of planet earth were mined into managable resources? To add as much to earth’s surface would augment orbit and rotation for starters. Even bringing such mass near earth would wreak havoc on ocean tides.


> The total mass of the asteroid belt is approximately 4% that of the Moon, or 22% that of Pluto, and roughly twice that of Pluto's moon Charon (whose diameter is 1200 km).

(Wikipedia)

It will take a long time before we have mined enough mass to worry about things like tides.


What's the utilization in the construction industry? I think that'd be a more fair analog for mining.


Oh, it's much, much, much worse than mining. Construction is famously the least-improved, in productivity terms, of all industries: https://www.economist.com/news/business/21726714-american-bu...


Fascinating, this is a well-formed argument. To be frank, it's borderline the best argument for space development that I have ever heard. There are many things that we do well on Earth, but there are some industries where the arc of progress has stalled. In a broad, long-term, theoretical sense we all understand that Earth has limited mineral resources, but this is a weak argument. We are not near the depletion limits of this planet for the resources that we need the most - at least nowhere close enough to justify the poor mass economies of space activities.

Space might be the only place we can make heavy industries start to behave similar to software.


I wish that article included Japan in its analysis. Its construction industry is supposedly quite efficient, but I would have liked to seen the hard numbers.


Can you define what you mean by not spending a lot of resources on Mining?

A significant part of the world’s GDP is in mining and mining and its subsidiary industries (manufacturing for example could not exist without mining) contributes something like 60-70% of the world’s GDP.

We do not have vast excess supply. There are likely many deposits left to be found but it’s widely accepted that the easy resources have been found and we must go deeper to find more. Exploration over the last couple of years has not been invested in and the trove of known resources has been dwindling.

Mining space is impractical due to costs (there are a lot of cost savings to still be had on Earth).

Source: I work for one of the world’s largest suppliers of mining equipment and am heavily involved in the mining market in Canada and peripherally the rest of the world for hard rock mining.


Linking mining to manufacturing is meaningless. You can manufacture with recicled material. Outside of radioactive material we don't destroy anything else just transform it. Sure, marble for example has nice aesthetics, but we can't get marble from the asteroid belt just basic elements which don't disappear.


You could mine in space to build more spaceships! Or structures. Either way it’s wicked expensive to get things off the planet, like $25k/kg expensive. So as long as you can reliably mine/refine/manufacture in space, you could probably build things like space stations and colonies at a fraction of the price of building them on Earth and blasting them into space.


IIRC there are a lot of period 5 transition metals in asteroids which are rare on Earth because they're heavy and sank into the core during the planet's formation. Specifically molybdenum, niobium, ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, and silver. Some of these have very interesting properties but the supply of all of them is pretty limited on Earth.


It costs $4k/lb to get something into orbit. Maybe mining for use in space is the way to go. I hear SpaceX might have some plans to build stuff in space in the coming years so there might be a ready buyer.


SpaceX is planning on reducing the $/lb by a lot with a fully-reusable launch vehicle. That will make the economics of mining and building in space both better and harder at the same time.


That makes anything you can “mine” out of orbit worth at least 4k/lb. pretty steep incentive for even the most basic resources.


With right delta v. I mean, if it is in wildely wrong orbit, than it is no more useful than same thing on earth.


Ooh, that's interesting. Commodities trading makes use of contract specifications which can include the physical location of delivery [1] - futures for delivery of aluminium to Singapore can be a different price to those for delivery to New Orleans. Perhaps the contract specifications for space commodities will name, not particular places, or even orbits, but delta-V zones. So, the asteroids and the earth-moon L2 point might be in the same band, because it doesn't take much energy to move between them, but the surface of the moon and low earth orbit would be different, because, despite having similar delta-Vs when coming from the asteroids, they are expensive to move between - at least, according to the map [2].

[1] https://www.lme.com/Metals/Non-ferrous/Aluminium-Premiums

[2] https://i.imgur.com/WGOy3qT.png


Certainly.

However, spaceflight is getting cheaper by the year and is heading into a significant phase change related to costs. Soon the market will be dominated by partially reusable rockets. After a generation or two of improvements those reusable rockets will drive launch costs down by at least an order of magnitude if not two compared to today. That will make doing anything in space cheaper, and it's a fair bet that you'll see more organizations "doing stuff" (launching payloads) into space as a consequence (in fact, this is already happening).

Additionally, there are follow-on effects, especially when it comes to manned spaceflight. Take the ISS for example. Because it exists it means there is a call for services for it, such as crew transfers (Soyuz, formerly Shuttle, and soon Dragon/CST-100), resupply (Progress, Dragon, HTV, Antares, etc.), and module delivery. Lower cost launches would translate naturally to more activity in Earth orbit and more call for services, leading to a feedback loop of increasing activity. Within 20 years you'll see not just space stations but orbital towns and maybe even cities, as well as industrial establishments where R&D is performed on-orbit. Imagine how much more effective you could be at designing satellites and spacecraft if you had an on orbit environment that you could as a prototype test environment whenever you wanted to at low cost. All of that translates into orders of magnitude more activity in space at orders of magnitude lower marginal costs.

And in that environment, asteroid mining seems pretty sensible, not for service to Earth's surface but for service to on orbit activities. For one the equipment and infrastructure to exploit such resources will be cheaper to put into space due to lower launch costs, lowering the necessary price-point where profit is possible. For another, the customer base will be large and capable of making use of even bulk materials.

In that world, the world of 10, 20, 30+ years from now, asteroid mining will make sound economic sense. But the time to begin pursuing technology development is not 30 years from now, it's today. Building prototypes, figuring out what's possible, learning the early lessons as early as possible at comparatively low cost will give those operators a huge jump as changes bring their business into viability. Especially so in regard to the legal precedents in terms of laying claim to resources. For something that could easily be a trillion dollar a year, or more, industry in 30 years, that's an excellent RoI.


We're not going to see orbiting towns in 20 years. A town means a place where someone can spend their whole life. But living in zero-g for over a year causes serious health problems. We might be able to solve that with spinning habitats for artificial gravity but considering no one is making serious plans to build those it's going to take a lot longer than 20 years.

As robotics and AI technology improves I expect very few humans will be sent into space. We're too expensive to keep alive.


With only a handful of people actually in space right now, one of their primary functions is to be guinea pigs for the long-term effects of microgravity. Absolutely nothing about that is true for the case of a station with 100 people engaged in regular operations. You don't have to have a centrifuge for 100 people, one with capacity for 20 people, cycling the people in and out in rotation is probably sufficient. The wheel radius can be kept quite small, because nausea scales with the amount of movement the people in the wheel have. Easy solution - just don't have them move while in the wheel.

This is still unknown territory, but already we have made significant progress developing routines that reduce bone decalcification on the ISS, and that's with pure microgravity.

Talking about the first orbiting station with 100 or 1,000 people.. these will not be comfortable places. They will be extremely poor destinations for a relaxing vacation. But people should be able to work there sustainably, in rotations, as part of their careers. It's still allowable to call those places towns in the same way people call aircraft carriers cities today.


In zero g you don't need much is the way of scaffolding, so satiates are almost entirely highly manufactured things like CPU's, solar panels, batteries etc. Their is some need for propellant but ion drives minimize that need. So, to benifit from space mining you need space manufacturing which is a very large very unsolved problem.


If it's not grown, it has to be mined!


Twenty years ago a high school buddy of mine went to Mines, and he came back wearing a t-shirt showing (if memory serves) the earth with big drills all over it and the rest of the planets in the background and the caption read:

"Earth first - we'll get to the other ones later"


I clicked on this link hoping it was the French School of Mines ("Ecole des Mines").


At this point a reference to the groundbreaking and utterly fascinating "Mining the Sky" book by John S. Lewis is in order which should be on everyone's "must read" list.


I went to South Dakota School of Mines and was sad to learn this wasn't my school doing this..


I could see SD doing it, but I expected it was Colorado because they always struck me as having a tinge of the “hold my beer” attitude. They ran a class in high speed filming of explosions not too long ago. I get the feeling that the faculty of that place has some stories to tell.


Haha, they actually do have decent aerospace and mining engineering programs.

Their CS program leaves a little to be desired though.


A lot of Googlers in Boulder went to school of mines so it can't be that bad.


Googler from Mines. There were some fantastic courses and professors, but it definitely suffered from being such a small department at the time I was there. I recently visited to pitch Field Session projects (it's like a capstone project done between junior and senior year over the summer), and was blown away by how large it's become. They're also much better funded now it seems. :)


They actually don't have an aerospace program. You're right about their mining engineering program. CS has been getting better over the last several years. It's definitely grown. I do agree it leaves something to be desired, but to be fair, plenty of graduates go on to work jobs at prestigious employers because they went for it on their own and picked up a lot along the way. They didn't just learn what was taught in school.

Source: I went there and https://inside.mines.edu/Degrees-Offered


One of their two intro programming classes uses C++.


Can you elaborate? I feel like depending on who you asked, that could be a point for or a point against.


The class was CSCI261. It used this curriculum: http://www.zybooks.com/catalog/programming-in-c-plus-plus/ It was mainly an elective for non-CS majors, so there was a lot of people with no experience and no future in programming.

I think it spent way too much time on syntax and minutiae to be a really good introduction. It spent a really brief time talking about compiled instructions, stacks, etc. but not really enough to justify C++, imo. It shoved pointers into a couple days at the end of the semester. A lot of final questions were things like std::string member functions or construct syntax (for, switch).


The real intro course is taught in Python (CS101), all bulletins after 2011 require CS101.

But you're correct, CS201 and 202 (numbers might be wrong, it's a long time...) were both C++ courses. Intro to Programming and Data Structures. IMO, C++ was appropriate for Data Structures, but perhaps not CS201.

Later, all instruction is more or less in Java, MIPS assembler, or Python. And a little Scheme/Racket.


Aerospace? You must be thinking of CU.


Why do you say that?


>[T]he class covered the Outer Space Treaty, a creation of the United Nations that governs outer-space actions and (in some people's interpretations) makes the legality of space mining dubious.

If this topic interests you, there's a whole category at your local library for Space Law (it's at the end, KZD1002-6715): https://www.loc.gov/aba/cataloging/classification/lcco/lcco_...


The Outer Space Treaty may say that but back in 2015 the United States said it will allow US corporations to keep and sell what they mine in space. So it will be interesting to see how it actually plays out.

[0] https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/2262 [1] https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/ezp4yk/the-us-say... [2] https://www.planetaryresources.com/2015/11/president-obama-s...


There are no governments in space yet so as long as you don't bring the goods back to earth nobody can really say anything.


As long as you're personally living on Earth, various governments can, and will, say a lot. Even if you migrate to space permanently, it'll only be a matter of whether it's worth it to launch something after you.


There are no governments in the open ocean but maritime law still exists.


My EPICS 2 project was on space mining. Mines already had a good amount of space classes, will have to visit in 2018.


Mine too! Small world haha.


I think if anyone were to do this, it should be them. Just for their name.


I wish this was the School of Mimes wanting to launch the first Space Miming Program.




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