Author Topic: Reusability, Frequent Spaceflight and Economics of Space Resource Exploitation  (Read 16709 times)

Offline sanman

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Will reusability make Space Exploitation economical for Earth-based consumption?

We're always told that exploitation of resources in space should be for consumption out in space, because resource exploitation out in space is simply not economical enough for consumption back on Earth.

But now that reusability is about to become a reality, along with expected reduction in spaceflight costs, then how much does this alter the picture vis-a-vis the costs of resource exploitation in space?

Hypothetically, if some rich deposits of some of the most precious metals, gems, etc were found on the Moon or in the asteroid belt, will there eventually be a business case for retrieving them back to Earth? How far are we away from seeing such a business case being justifiable? Otherwise, what would be the most attractive business case for exploiting space as part of our Earth-based economy?
« Last Edit: 04/22/2016 05:27 pm by sanman »

Offline Cologan

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There are certainly rare earth elements that would be valuable enough to send them down to Earth with current technology. The big question is, if it would be feasible to extract and process these resources in Space, sending one ton of unprocessed rock down sounds like a waste of money.

For other materials that have a lower price, there would certainly have to be a big leap in booster and lander technology. But if you could fund the infractructure for extraction and processing, these materials would certainly help expand space infrasctructure. Maybe you could build Landers in Space, send materials down and recycle these landers or send them back up.

I will try to dig up some actual numbers, although i have the feeling that no company really has a solid clue what that "first spark" to ignite this sort of space-mining would cost. We are talking about one of the greatest leaps in human technology and economy, so everything right now is just pure speculation (unless someone actually does it of course)

EDIT:

Now i've looked up some of the concepts out there. There is a wide range of estimated costs, from 50-100 million dollar for mining a single asteroid up to 27 billion for building a complete infrastructure for refining and transport back to LEO on Ceres. Now second option clearly is out of reach, so lets say the most feasible is the way to go. Start small, learn how to 3d print smaller objects, scale as necessary.

This infrastructure i am talking about would need a while untill it would net any economic benefit, because it first has "build itself". After this point, it might be feasible to build these landers i was talking about. As they wont be sending humans, they would not have to be perfect. Just land the materials in a manner that they can be retrieved and without smashing someones house. (what resources could actually net a profit depends largely on what this space infrastructure would cost)

Now i see a few big questions that need to be answered:

1. What would it cost to build up the necessary equiptment to start a mostly space-based infrastructure that can be scaled up with "space-materials". It is very obvious that cost is one of the two main concerns here.

2. What technologies would have to be developed? We know how to send things into space (even if its not cheap). But do we have clue HOW to process raw rock, how to melt metals in space, how to laserprint in space?



« Last Edit: 04/22/2016 11:03 am by Cologan »

Offline Proponent

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There are certainly rare earth elements that would be valuable enough to send them down to Earth with current technology.

Really?  Elon Musk is on record saying that it pure crack cocaine in LEO would not be commercially retrievable.

EDIT:  Corrected spelling of "cocaine"
« Last Edit: 04/22/2016 11:36 am by Proponent »

Offline QuantumG

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And he was wrong. SpaceX already made that particular witism false. I wonder if space solar power will go next.
Human spaceflight is basically just LARPing now.

Offline Cologan

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There are certainly rare earth elements that would be valuable enough to send them down to Earth with current technology.

Really?  Elon Musk is on record saying that it pure crack cocain in LEO would not be commercially retrievable.

Mmm, can you link that quote? I think i didnt explain my way of thinking enough. I might of course still be wrong, but if it was possible to build a lander in space (the lander itself with current technology) it might be feasible. Now i did the mistake of leaving out the cost of constructing the lander. I more or less assumed that that this infrastructure was already in place. I mentally focused on the question, if space mining would benefit earth industry itself. I think it can, but it will take a lot of money and a lot of time.

Offline rocx

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There are certainly rare earth elements that would be valuable enough to send them down to Earth with current technology.

Really?  Elon Musk is on record saying that it pure crack cocain in LEO would not be commercially retrievable.

On the surface of Mars, not in LEO. A Mars lander and launcher uses a lot more energy and is a more significant technical challenge than 'landing' on a small asteroid.
Any day with a rocket landing is a fantastic day.

Offline Proponent

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Elon Musk is on record saying that it pure crack cocain in LEO would not be commercially retrievable.

On the surface of Mars, not in LEO. A Mars lander and launcher uses a lot more energy and is a more significant technical challenge than 'landing' on a small asteroid.

My mistake, thanks for the correction.

If only I were more familiar with the street price of cocaine, I'd have done a reality check on the claim.

Offline dror

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There are certainly rare earth elements that would be valuable enough to send them down to Earth with current technology.

Really?  Elon Musk is on record saying that it pure crack cocain in LEO would not be commercially retrievable.

Quote from: Elon Musk
[Audience question about natural resources on Mars.] Well, I think any natural resource extraction on Mars would be - the output would be for Mars. It definitely wouldn't make sense to transport Mars stuff 200 million miles back to Earth. Honestly, if you had like crack-cocaine on Mars, in like prepackaged pallets, it still wouldn't make sense to transport it back here. It's be good times for the Martians, but not back here. Resources would be for a colony to use.
http://shitelonsays.com/transcript/elon-musk-at-mits-aeroastro-centennial-part-5-of-6-2014-10-24
Space is hard immensely complex and high risk !

Offline sanman

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Really?  Elon Musk is on record saying that it pure crack cocain in LEO would not be commercially retrievable.

Well, even Musk can't predict how low prices could go - after all, there are other players making their own strides, and that competition may lower prices beyond what was originally conceived. If you look at how cheap smartphones have become in the 3rd world, you wouldn't have predicted that 5 years ago. 7 years ago, people were still mulling over the Augustine Commission report on what to do for space - do we even hear anyone mentioning that report or its cautious limited options anymore? It seems like horizons have expanded considerably since then.

The thing is that rather than trying to purely bootstrap a parallel economy in space for space-based consumers who don't exist yet (eg. Mars mining for Mars-dwellers, lunar mining for lunar dwellers, etc), it would be more  efficient to link space's offerings with meeting needs of our already existing Earth-based economy. If platinum from the Moon or asteroid belt could be extracted at below market price, then why not do it?


Ah, here's his quote:

« Last Edit: 04/23/2016 06:44 am by sanman »

Offline Proponent

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Mmm, can you link that quote?

The quote is here (in reference to Mars, not LEO, as rocx has pointed out).

Offline Lar

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I think it's more accurate to view the cost of *in space* resources as likely to decline steeply as it will be much cheaper to get capital goods (prospecting/extracting/processing equipment) and the people to tend them, into space where the resources can be exploited... that will be true even if the primary use of the resources is there... get capital goods in place and ISRU will blossom, which itself will expand capacity (consider ISRU for solar cells, and structural materials, for example) and it may be a virtuous cycle...

SpaceX optimised the launcher itself more for cost than for hairy edge performance, and we are going to see (maybe are already beginning to see) a shift from weight as almost the sole metric for payloads, to cost of the payload having SOME bearing, although we'll never be launching laundry to have it washed on orbit and returned[1] ...

1 - during the gold rush laundry was sent from California to China or Hawaii to be washed and returned: http://www.examiner.com/article/the-early-laundry-business-san-francisco
« Last Edit: 04/22/2016 11:49 am by Lar »
"I think it would be great to be born on Earth and to die on Mars. Just hopefully not at the point of impact." -Elon Musk
"We're a little bit like the dog who caught the bus" - Musk after CRS-8 S1 successfully landed on ASDS OCISLY

Offline Cologan

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I think i approached this the wrong way. I will try to make my "proposal" clear. Sorry if i caused confusion, this is the first time i am trying to come up with sort of a concept that other people have to understand. Please correct me if you can, i mainly post this to learn from your responses.

1. Use current technology and concepts to launch infrastructure for Asteroid mining. This includes fuel production for the space tugs that would be needed,  and of course Some sort of resource refinery for processing the materials. 

2. Use the refined materials to expand this infrastructure.  Use current booster technology for complex products that can not be produced in space.

3. For transportation to earth build landers in space. At the same time utilize the existing infrastructure for space - applications.

Now i am aware that there are huge cost and technology considerations and limits.  i do not believe that we could do this in 10 years. But i think this could be one way,  how resources from space could benefit earth-based industry.

Feel free to point out where i overestimate our capabilites / wallet.

Offline Lar

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I think i approached this the wrong way. I will try to make my "proposal" clear. Sorry if i caused confusion, this is the first time i am trying to come up with sort of a concept that other people have to understand. Please correct me if you can, i mainly post this to learn from your responses.

1. Use current technology and concepts to launch infrastructure for Asteroid mining. This includes fuel production for the space tugs that would be needed,  and of course Some sort of resource refinery for processing the materials. 

2. Use the refined materials to expand this infrastructure.  Use current booster technology for complex products that can not be produced in space.

3. For transportation to earth build landers in space. At the same time utilize the existing infrastructure for space - applications.

Now i am aware that there are huge cost and technology considerations and limits.  i do not believe that we could do this in 10 years. But i think this could be one way,  how resources from space could benefit earth-based industry.

Feel free to point out where i overestimate our capabilites / wallet.

I think you said it just right. It's one way things could go. c.f. grain barges from Luna to Earth in "Moon is a Harsh Mistress" (fiction, but it's not a new idea)
« Last Edit: 04/22/2016 11:47 am by Lar »
"I think it would be great to be born on Earth and to die on Mars. Just hopefully not at the point of impact." -Elon Musk
"We're a little bit like the dog who caught the bus" - Musk after CRS-8 S1 successfully landed on ASDS OCISLY

Offline Cologan

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Does anyone know how complex it would be to build solar cells in space?  If large scale production could be achieved in space,  efficiency would be less important

Offline sanman

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Bezos has of course talked about making the off-world places into the factories, and Earth would be kept as an unspoiled "nature park" we'd get to visit now and then. But even if that really is our future, achieving that transformation would probably be faster if we could tap the resources of space to meet our existing current needs here on Earth. Resource exploitation would be much more of a killer app than tourism, if the economics could be justified.

Offline R7

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And he was wrong. SpaceX already made that particular witism false. I wonder if space solar power will go next.

Space solar power was found dead in dark alley. According to coroners statement the cause of death was multiple stab wounds to the heart. Several witnesses saw an electric vehicle speeding away from the alley.
AD·ASTRA·ASTRORVM·GRATIA

Online oldAtlas_Eguy

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Rare earths was mentioned. Current prices of rare earths reach to $380/kg even in a highly depressed market with a glut of material.

The significance for rare earths is that the primary user is the electronics industry. The micro chips industry the foremost user. Now combine a source of rare earths, silicon and PGM with plenty of electrical power and a easy source of hard vacuum and you have everything needed to manufacture micro chips in large quantities. Because of the use of rare earths the micro chips industry is one of the high toxic byproduct producer. Many methods are used to recover rare earths to reuse from the byproducts and to lower the end result byproducts. But this also increase the chip manufacture costs.

To give an example of what computer chips are worth by weight: a 1 gram, and as little as .1 gram depending on size, unpackaged large memory chip (such as a Flash chip) in large quantity production is as much as $1 per chip, that's $1,000-10,000/kg unpackaged.

If cost to ship to Earth drops to $100/kg then moving these factories closer to large quantities of the minerals in an environment less sensitive to toxic waste, could literally close all rare earth mines on Earth fulfilling Bezos' statement. The Moon would become the new Taiwan chip manufacture source.


Offline sanman

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Well, price of platinum is $32000/kg according to google:

http://www.jmbullion.com/charts/platinum-price/

I remember some talk from Planetary Resources saying that platinum deposits on Earth are the result of Asteroid/Meteor strikes. So what if there's a large platinum source in the asteroid belt or on the Moon?

At those prices, investing in the means to acquire platinum from off-world sources could be justified.
And the earlybirds would probably fetch the highest price for their haul, not to mention getting dibs on best sources.

And while Musk may be intent on phasing out catalytic converters with his electric vehicles, the fact is that platinum does have a lot of environmentally beneficial uses, and even pharmaceutical.

Current cost per kg to LEO for Falcon 9 is supposed to be ~$4000, unless someone wants to correct Wikipedia. This is even without reusability. SpaceX has predicted that with reusability, prices would fall to below $300 per kg to LEO. I wonder what the cost/kg to retrieve from the Moon would be, or from the asteroids? Could anybody spell out the rough calculation for that? Suppose we assume all missions are robotic...
« Last Edit: 04/22/2016 06:04 pm by sanman »

Offline QuantumG

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The crack cocaine in LEO line was from 2006. I did an analysis way back in 2010 about it.
Human spaceflight is basically just LARPing now.

Offline sanman

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Careful you don't make the case for starting a grow-op movement in space.  :P

At any rate, resource transport to and from space would spur the development of ever larger vehicles and more powerful propulsion systems. You may even see launch loops and stuff happen sooner than expected. The broader spectrum of engagement by the terrestrial economy with outer space, then the more development of all kinds of space technologies will happen.

Just as CEOs everywhere found themselves being asked whether they had an "internet strategy", one day business leaders of all kinds will similarly find themselves being asked whether they have a "space strategy" - and they'll need to answer.

Robotic systems to extract and process ore before shipping back to Earth would also greatly benefit space colonization. At least the Moon's gravitational field means that debris produced by mining and construction activity on the Moon will stay on the Moon's surface, rather than floating around and cluttering space.
« Last Edit: 04/23/2016 03:14 am by sanman »

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