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Asteroid mining
In this artist’s conception, a mining spacecraft makes a rendezvous with an asteroid. (SpaceResources.lu)

It’s been 55 years since satellite communications became the first commercial space frontier, and space tourism is looming as the next frontier. But what comes after that? Would you believe in-space mining and manufacturing?

Those are the opportunities that came to the fore on Saturday when members of the Association of Professional Futurists gathered at Seattle’s Museum of Flight.

“The big change that I foresee is when we begin to live and work on the asteroids, using them as the resources for our civilization. … We are going to see a leap in productivity to create wealth and to allow us to do things without harming the Earth,” said Brian Tillotson, who is the systems technology chief engineer for Boeing Research and Technology and a Boeing senior technical fellow (as well as a science-fiction writer).

“It’s going to be much bigger than the industrial revolution, and this time it’s going to be good for the Earth, not bad for the Earth,” Tillotson said.

Tillotson’s reason for saying that has to do with gravity. On Earth, it takes considerable effort for a person (or a robot) to lug 90 pounds of stuff around a factory floor. But in the low-gravity environment of your typical asteroid, the same amount of muscular or mechanical effort could move 400 tons of material.

Transporting industrial material in space would be far easier, in terms of the energy expended, than shipping it on Earth’s oceans.

Huge challenges ahead

To be sure, space-based industrial operations face huge challenges, starting with the cost of launching payloads to space. New manufacturing processes would have to be invented to convert the raw materials harvested from asteroids into fuel and industrial materials. But Tillotson said trends in additive manufacturing, artificial intelligence and robotics suggest that we could overcome the challenges within the next century.

“If we do, then we’ve got the capacity in space to start exporting material back to Earth at a scale that actually displaces some industries here and moves them out in space,” Tillotson said.

Space future panel
Jeff Roberts of Spaceflight Industries, Marna Kagele and Brian Tillotson of Boeing, and Chris Lewicki of Planetary Resources discuss the long-term future of space commerce. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

That view meshes with Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ long-term vision of having millions of people living and working in space – so that heavy industry becomes a primarily off-planet pursuit, while Earth is zoned strictly for “residential and light industrial” use.

Bezos has said it could take hundreds of years for that vision to become a reality, but commercial ventures are already working on the building blocks. Bezos’ Blue Origin is one of the pioneers seeking to lower the cost of access to space. So is SpaceX, the company founded by billionaire rival Elon Musk. Even Boeing is working on a low-cost spaceship for NASA, called the Starliner.

Boeing is also one of the companies developing concepts for space habitats that could be used as platforms for NASA-led exploration or for commercial activities once the International Space Station has run its course.

Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries, meanwhile, is pioneering ways optimize the use of all the launch vehicles in the commercial market, ranging from SpaceX’s Falcon 9 to India’s PSLV rocket and Rocket Lab’s low-cost Electron launcher.

“We operate like an Uber or Lyft for small spacecraft,” Jeff Roberts, director of launch programs at Spaceflight, told the futurists.

Why asteroids are attractive

What could asteroids possibly provide for Earth? Chris Lewicki, president and CEO of Redmond, Wash.-based Planetary Resources, sees two phases to the industrial use of material mined from asteroids.

Planetary Resources is gearing up to get into the first phase of asteroid prospecting within the next few years: Phase 1 involves extracting water ice from suitable near-Earth asteroids, and converting all that H2O into hydrogen and oxygen for in-space rocket refueling depots. Such depots would come in handy for space transports like the Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage that United Launch Alliance is designing, or for yet-to-be-designed interplanetary spaceships.

The next phase would push ahead to in-space manufacturing and the mining of valuable metals.

“Phase 2 is where we get into probably more of the things you read about in science fiction,” Lewicki said. “Building space habitats and hotels, large ringed space structures, and then being able to get at the abundant rare metals like the platinum-group metals, and go through the transition that we saw with aluminum in the 1860s – making platinum as abundant as aluminum once was.”

It may sound like pie in the sky, but in a note sent out to investors in April, Goldman Sachs analyst Noah Poponak said rapidly falling costs are making asteroid mining and in-space manufacturing increasingly plausible.

“Space mining could be more realistic than perceived … a single asteroid the size of a football field could contain $25 billion to $50 billion worth of platinum,” Poponak wrote.

It’s also telling that one of the world’s top companies in the engineering and construction industry, Bechtel, is a core investor in Planetary Resources.

Bothell, Wash.-based Tethers Unlimited is already developing a 3-D printer and recycler for in-space use, dubbed the Refabricator. The device can produce plastic items on the International Space Station. When the items are no longer needed, they can be turned back into plastic for reuse. Tethers Unlimited is also working on a system to build truss structures in orbit.

California-based Made In Space, the company behind the first 3-D printer in space, is planning its own demonstration of in-space manufacturing and assembly.

Tillotson said that, as far as he knows, Boeing doesn’t have any projects in the works for asteroid mining or in-space manufacturing. But speaking as a science-fiction writer, he looks forward to the day when the first mass-market product bears a “Made in Space” label.

“It’s not clear yet what that will be,” he said, “but if you can make a product affordably enough, if you can make it cheaper than they do on Earth … I think, ultimately, you will.”

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