What is the most valuable asset in space? Hint: it's not gold
As mining in space moves from science fiction to reality, don’t expect the world to be flooded with minerals, according to NASA.
In an interview with Kitco News on the sidelines of the Mines and Money Online Connect virtual mining conference, Robert Mueller, senior technologist at the NASA Kennedy Space Center, said that although the technology exists to successfully mine in space, reliability remains the biggest technical hurdle.
Any equipment used on the moon or in space has to withstand extreme conditions, including massive temperature change.
“If you move from a shadowed region to a lit region, you have the thermal delta, the difference between the hot and cold temperature, which creates a coefficient of thermal expansion stress, where it’ll literally tear your equipment apart,” he said. “Yes, the top technologies do exist. But they still need development in order to have the reliability we need.”
Mueller also dispelled a common misconception surrounding the idea of space mining. The resources extracted in space are not expected to be bought back down to earth. He added that not only would this be cost prohibitive, but any minerals would be significantly contaminated and couldn’t be properly refined.
The idea of space mining and creating a solar-system economy is more about developing energy resources in space rather than mineral extraction, he said. In this context NASA is looking at extracting water from the moon and using solar energy to separate the hydrogen and oxygen.
“The best form of a propellant that you can use for chemical propulsion are hydrogen and oxygen,” he said. “In terms of energy, if we can go almost anywhere in the inner solar system using the water, if we become really efficient at mining water ice on the moon, we'll have a surplus of water. That surplus can be exported from the moon to the propellant depots -- the gas stations on a solar system highway.”
As to what will be the critical key to develop space mining and create a solar system economy, Mueller, said it comes down to one factor: political will.
He compared the idea of space mining to the creation of the U.S. airmail system, which then launched the aviation industry.
“The history of aviation changed the way the human species lives. So in a very analogous way, the government needs to step in and support this expansion of humanity into the solar system,” he said. “The return on investment for humanity is just so good. If you have a little bit of investment capital upfront to start bootstrapping this whole process, we will have a huge return on investment.”
Mueller added that if everything comes together, space mining could be a reality in 10 years.