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Space satellite orbiting the earth. Elements of this image furnished by NASA

Space Resources

Some of the many projects aimed at conquering the resources available in the space.

by Michael Belfiore
05 March 2020
9 min read
by Michael Belfiore
05 March 2020
9 min read

The significance of water on other planets has long been heralded as a sign that life might exist on other worlds. Essential to terrestrial life as well and human life, the existence of water will prove invaluable to future astronauts and settlers on the moon, Mars and other locales. In addition to potentially providing drinking water and oxygen, it can also be used as rocket fuel when split into its constituent elements of hydrogen and oxygen.
But water is just one of many potentially valuable resources in space, some of which can benefit us on Earth right now, not only in the distant future. Companies like Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), Rocket LabVirgin Galactic and Astrobotic, along with the space agencies that employ them, are blazing new trails to the stars in search of extraterrestrial gold in the form of space-based resources.
It starts with the space environment itself.

The space environment as a resource

SpaceX has been cited as one of the companies that could help bring about a $1 trillion space-based economy. The company's Starlink venture seeks to bring affordable high-speed, low-latency internet access to communities around the globe, including those now isolated from the information age by a lack of terrestrial infrastructure. The company launched 122 broadband satellites in 2019, the largest fleet of satellites owned and operated by a single entity. It plans to bring the number past the 1,000 mark and start service in 2020. In addition, it has filed paperwork to launch as many as 42,000 satellites in coming years.

SpaceX is far from the only player in near-Earth space seeking gold in outer space. The US-based Rocket Lab, with launch pads in New Zealand and Virginia, has lofted scores of small satellites for government agencies, universities, non-profits and private companies, all seeking to bring home value from the environment of space near Earth. In October 2019, Virgin Galactic became the first human spaceflight company to go public, with the ticker symbol of SPCE. on the New York Stock Exchange. Its stated mission: to become Earth's spaceline, serving orbiting hotels, laboratories and even transcontinental travel via space. It aims to launch the first revenue-producing flights in 2020. Not far behind it is Blue Origin, owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, also offering space flights for tourists and researchers. It hasn't yet announced a timeline for first human flights, but it has completed a series of uncrewed test flights.

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The Aurora Station at Orion Span, one of the orbital hotel projects

Solar power from space

Space provides unobstructed access to another already-valuable resource here on Earth: solar energy. There's no night in space, no clouds, no bad weather of any kind to obscure the sun. That's why the dream of space-based solar power has captivated engineers and potential investors for decades. In early 2019, scientists in China revealed plans for a research center to test technologies for collecting solar energy at high altitudes and wirelessly beaming it to the ground as microwaves. A Chinese solar power station in Earth orbit could send down power from space by 2040.

Not to be outdone, the U.S. Air Force announced in October 2019 that it had awarded more than $100 million to Northup Grumman to develop space solar power technologies. Researchers at the Space Solar Power Project of the California Institute of Technology have already created hardware that demonstrates how solar power from space could work. A flexible tile incorporates a highly efficient solar panel on one side, with electronics for converting electricity from the panel into microwave radio energy on the other. Connected in strips to form larger modules, tiles would be launched into orbit with the solar panel side facing the sun and the radio-beaming side facing Earth. A receiver on the ground would gather the energy and feed it into the electricity grid. “This system will actually generate eight times more power because of the fact that there is no loss through the day", explained Sergio Pellegrino, co-director of the Space Solar Power Project in a recent lecture. He said the system has the potential to produce electricity for $1 to $2 per kilowatt hour, which he admitted was significantly higher than other sources of electricity. Electricity prices averaged a mere 10 cents per kilowatt-hour in the United States in 2019, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Still, economies of scale, continuing advances in the technology and decreasing launch costs could bring the price of space-based solar power down significantly, without many of the disadvantages of terrestrial solar power.

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Graphical reconstruction of the solar energy system in orbit

Prospecting the Moon

In early 2019, the private space venture, SpaceIL of Israel, launched the first commercial moon lander. The mission was ultimately unsuccessful, sending back just a few photos before crash-landing on the moon's surface. Still, the attempt marked the beginning of the commercial exploration of the moon.

The moon provides an environment that is valuable for experiments as a platform for boosting national prestige, and—before long—as a place to prospect for useful resources. That's why China when landed a rover on the moon in early 2019, the United States also announced plans to send its astronauts back to the moon. India kicked off 2020 by announcing a lunar landing mission of its own.

The U.S.-based Astrobotic is one of the companies at the forefront of sending landers to the moon. It's offering lunar landing services to anyone who can afford the $1.2 million-per-kilogram delivery fee, including the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The company won a $79.5 million contract in 2019 from NASA to send 14 science and technology demonstrator payloads to the lunar surface.

It plans to land the first commercial lunar lander on the moon in the summer of 2021, and then send new landers every year thereafter. Besides NASA, the company has signed on at least 14 other customers, including shipping company DHL, to land payloads of their own on the moon.
Astrobotic is one of a number companies NASA contracted to make such a mission. The list also includes Blue Origin, Moon Express, SpaceX and 10 others. The new moon race is on.

“We've been doing a lot of hiring and growing as a company—we've more than tripled in the last four months", said Astrobotic CEO John Thornton. "We're just getting started, and we're excited for this next phase of the moon".

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The SpaceIL lunar lander

Resources beyond the moon

Meanwhile, robotic explorers are already ranging farther than the moon. Japan's Hayabusa2 probe ended its mission exploring the asteroid Ryugu in late 2019. It's headed back to Earth with samples from a crater it blasted out of the asteroid's service for analysis by scientists in late 2020. And that could be just part of the very early stages of a future asteroid gold rush.

A carbonaceous chondrite asteroid similar in composition to Ryugu, just 23 feet in diameter, can contain 24,000 gallons of precious water. A metal asteroid only 79 feet wide can hold 33,000 tons of useful metals, including tens of millions of dollars' worth of platinum. The mission now is to get out there to harness those distant asteroids, of which more 100,000 are known to exist.

Even farther out, Saturn's moon Titan has been shown to contain hundreds of times the amount of liquid hydrocarbons as on Earth, including vast lakes of liquid methane. As the authors of the book "Beyond Earth" speculate, all that fuel could power future colonies on Titan, even giving rise to a future independent civilization there.