Some estimates of the potential payoff from mining the cosmos — whether on the moon or Mars or in the mineral-rich asteroid belt — are out of this world.
One such appraisal would equal $100 billion for every single human being alive.
But the former NASA astronaut who now heads the U.S. Geological Survey, which would help identify those space resources that might soon be within our grasp, has a message for would-be prospectors: come down to Earth.
“People say, ‘If we can just find an asteroid full of platinum, we’d make a fortune,'” says James Reilly, a geologist who flew on three Space Shuttle missions and logged more than 500 hours in space. “The reality is not so simple and it probably won’t be something we do very easily for a lot of reasons.”
The USGS, founded in 1879 and part of the Department of Interior, last year completed an Asteroid Resource Assessment. While there’s little doubt there are infinite resources out there — from iron and nickel to the more rare-earth elements that are the focus of fierce competition here on Earth — the feasibility and economic rationale remain wide open questions, Reilly argues.
For one, it is not clear if the most valuable resources can be found in large enough quantities to make their extraction worth it, given the cost and complication of getting there and back.
“The cost of entry is so high,” says Reilly, who was confirmed as the USGS director in April. “You can’t just buy a ticket to go to the moon and start panning for Helium 3. The feasibility on these projects really comes down to what’s the cost-benefit. And that’s whether it is the government or the private sector.”
Reilly spoke to POLITICO about the agency’s history working with NASA — dating back to the Apollo era — and why he thinks the biggest payoff for space mining will likely be mastering the supplies of water on the moon and Mars.
“How much water is there,” he wants to know, “and how much can we recover as a resource to support whatever it is we want to do?”
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
What potentially valuable materials are out there?
Pretty much anything that would be a high value component on Earth is liable to be a component in space somewhere. There are certain things that we could find in space that are unique enough that they could become valuable. The real market is in industrial minerals — the rare earth minerals we need to make your iPhone and computers and communications systems work. Those would be the things you search for. What do we need for that next-generation processor?
Helium 3 on the moon, for example, would be a great fuel element for a fusion reactor if we can ever figure out how to make that work. It would become incredibly valuable once that happens. Helium 3 is solar-produced and doesn’t really exist on the planet. It is in the soils on the moon and it would certainly be a viable commodity if we could get fusion to be a viable power. That’s an easy one in terms of the economics and the scales and ability to recover it.
We don’t have a lot of titanium but Russia has a ton of it. There are ways of getting it but whether there’s a political issue in terms of selling that material to us, that could be a bit problematic. Same problem Japan has had with China with rare -earth elements and some of the other things we require for our high-tech industries. Can those things be a resource elsewhere is the cosmos? Certainly. Can we image those and find those concentrations? The technology is not that difficult. It is spending the money to do it.
How do you see the role of the U.S. Geological Survey in all this?
We have been involved in the space piece pretty actively since the Apollo days. That allowed the United States to figure out what’s literally is going on with the moon — geologically, geochemically and historically. And how do we see that in relation to the Earth? That activity is still going on. We have a lot folks who are working on that on a day-to-day basis. So this is a natural fit.
We’ve had an ongoing relationship supporting NASA’s efforts in terms of the return to the moon, on to asteroids, eventually on to Mars. That’s generally run out of our Flagstaff, [Arizona,] center.
The challenge is going to be figuring out these [mineral] concentrations. How do we do a resource assessment for remote objects? How do we build the instruments that allow us to do an evaluation of what’s where and how much? You can assume that the Earth probably isn’t too much different from the vast majority of bodies in the solar system, in that you don’t have 100 percent cesium, for example, on a particular body. It’s going to be distributed with a bunch of other stuff. So how much is there we can make use of?
There is an explosion in our technology and being able to characterize environments, different parts of the spectrum, to give us a much better picture. We can just turn those sensors around and look at things in space. We have been doing that to some degree on Mars and the moon as well.
You believe mining the moon is a much more realistic prospect than asteroids.
To actually get to the Moon is not that hard compared to getting safely to asteroids. The moon is all of three days away. Asteroids are days, weeks, months away. And there is a problem with orbital mechanics that you have to overcome to get things back that isn’t a problem going to the moon. Asteroids can be somewhat difficult because unless they happen to be in the same orbital plane – the same inclination of the sun – you have to maneuver to get it into the Earth’s orbit and that is expensive to do.
Everybody likes to show the pictures of astronauts out there mining asteroids. The problem with that is almost anything you would put out there in space is going to be so difficult and expensive. Is it impossible? No. If we found enough of a particular elemental concentration that had high market value then I could see the private sector perhaps taking a shot at ‘how could we get that in Earth orbit where we could mine it and actually get the benefits of that resource?’
My personal opinion is the most valuable resource we will be able to find would be water — on the moon, which we know is there at the poles, and also on Mars, which we know is there in the sub-surface and also at the poles. How much water is there and how much can we recover as a resource to support whatever it is we want to do? It could be generating propulsion components in the form of hydrogen or oxygen, or using that as metabolic water for us and plants, or for oxygen for atmospheric regeneration [on the moon or Mars].
Has USGS received more resources for some of this work?
Do we have a big plus up in our budgets? The answer unfortunately is no. We would love to have that. If we really get serious about going back to the moon — in other words started well down the path of designing the missions and the architectures — then absolutely we would hope to see some increases because we’re going to have to do a lot of work.
Do you buy into the idea of a coming space Gold Rush?
The feasibility on these projects really comes down to what’s the cost-benefit. And that’s whether it is the government or the private sector. I wouldn’t necessarily characterize it as a coming Gold Rush. The cost of entry is so high. It might be a Gold Rush with a few participants but not the general public perception that, ‘hey, there’s gold lying all over the place in California, Alaska and Colorado.’ You can’t just buy a ticket to go to the moon and start panning for Helium 3.
If you found the gold [during the Gold Rush] you put it in a sack and you came back with it or you sold it right there, wherever you were mining it. The challenge in space is you won’t have that market. You’ll have to get it back here. For it to actually come back to the Earth is pretty expensive, even with the new commercial launch-to-orbit with SpaceX and other new entries into the market. You’ll have the transportation on both ends of it unless there’s a middle man in the process. It is going to make it very difficult for us to make an economic return on it.
The big challenge is going to be the economic return on the space resources. Everyone thinks of it in terms of commercial. People say, ‘If we can just find an asteroid full of platinum, we’d make a fortune. The reality is not so simple and it probably won’t be something we do very easily for a lot of reasons.