In light of the recent changes that have been taking place in the political landscape, I thought I would revisit the idea of gathering rare earth metals from near-Earth asteroids. As you probably know, China has cut off supplies of certain rare earth metals to Japan because of a diplomatic incident, and then did the same to the United States when the U.S. Said it was interested in discussion over intellectual property protection.
China can use this as a weapon, because it has no incentive to rein in IP theft. After all, the national government sponsors much of it, in the form of mandating that international companies must enter in joint ventures with Chinese companies. These Chinese companies then ‘acquire’ the technology of their more advanced partners, and copy it, without regard for IP laws or otherwise. This is why the semiconductor industry will only send machines four generations out of date to the mainland.
Thus, the current sticky situation. China produces 95% of most rare earth metals. The U.S. and Canada are beginning to ramp up production again, but that means re-opening or discovering mines either in bitterly cold climates (Canada’s Northwest Territories), or in areas difficult to access (certain rare earth metals are primarily found with radioactive counterparts).
Lest you think these metals are unimportant, here is a brief list of items where they can be found: batteries, laptops, wind turbines, hybrid cars, circuitry, and many other aspects involving chemistry and electronics. So they’re highly desired from all across the industrial spectrum. This, combined with their scarcity and the uncertain supply from China, has resulted in prices soaring as demand has outstripped production.
Now, when I wrote my original proposal for asteroid mining, about a year ago, the situation was not as bad as it is now. The further export restrictions from China have pushed the price even higher, and have made the economics of a small-scale mining operation in space more viable. There are several reasons for this, but the primary one is the successful launch of the Space-X Falcon 9. This is the first cheap NewSpace orbital rocket, and to see it successfully launch will give investors a more secure feeling. After all, it’s nice to know the ride there works.
Other facilities are being discussed that would make life easier. ESA, NASA, and others are engaged in talks around the creation of a cislunar spaceflight from the ISS. This means a spaceship, assembled in space, using propellant depots in space, completing a voyage that passes behind the Moon and then returns to the ISS. Successful completion of that mission would also be a boost, although there are many uncertainties surrounding it at this time.
In terms of propulsion technologies, the best in terms of power to weight ratio are still various forms of solar sail or ion engine, such at the VASIMR engine, which has currently completed ground testing of a 200kW model, and will be launching a test model to the ISS in 2011 or 2012, where it will be used for reboosting. Power to weight is an important concept for a cargo tub, because it will require additional volume to transport the metals back to earth orbit.
Studies have shown that a 200kW model can transfer 7 metric tons of cargo from LEO to LLO (Low Lunar Orbit) in approximately 6 months, and would require only 1.3 tons of argon as propellant, as well as a 1/5th MW solar array. Note that travel to a NEO is closer and requires less energy than LLO, meaning that less fuel would be required to transport that amount of cargo, and travel times would be reduced as well. Also please note that the travel time assumes optimum use of fuel. Faster travel times can be achieved by utilizing more.
So, we have an engine (VASIMR), a taxi (Falcon 9), and an economic reason. How do we stay there, where do we store the metals, and how do we extract them? That will be covered in Asteroid Mining Part 2.