Space frontier is open – legal analysis of mining asteroids and private round-trip supply runs

Who Has the Right to Mine an Asteroid gives an overview of the legal issues involved in getting minerals and water from asteroids. The discussion is from Professor Glenn Reynolds, of course.

What’s the payoff?

Here’s the possible yield from mining asteroids:

A 79-foot-wide M-type (metallic) asteroid could hold 33,000 tons of extractable metals, including $50 million in platinum alone. A 23-foot-diameter C-type (carbonaceous) asteroid can hold 24,000 gallons of water, useful for generating fuel and oxygen. Even 1 gallon of water, at 8.33 pounds per, can cost tens of thousands of dollars to launch into Earth orbit.

Larger asteroids could be worth as much as the GDP of a superpower. Asteroid 1986 DA is a metallic asteroid made up of iron, nickel, gold, and platinum. Estimates of its value range between $6 and $7 trillion.

Volume of a sphere is (4/3)(pi)r^3. Thus a 79’ wide asteroid would be 258,154 cubic feet, calculated as (4/3)*3.1415*(39.5^3), or 9,561 cubic yards.

Cost to lift resources into orbit and return them

SpaceX’s Dragon just returned from the International Space Station. This is the first of their shots for NASA that returned a payload to earth. Check out Splashdown! SpaceX Dragon Capsule Returns to Earth.

Returning a payload safely is a big deal as SpaceX moves forward step-by-step to develop the ability to put astronauts into orbit and return them.

Let’s take a really rough look at the costs involved in SpaceX’s flights.  The article above says the Dragon capsule returned 2,670 pounds of cargo and delivered 1,200 pounds of supplies.

Last May I discussed the costs involved. NASA is paying $1.6 billion for 14 trips, which is $114,286,000 per flight.

Let’s split that cost evenly between delivery and return. The cost structure looks like:

  • $114.3M – cost per flight
  • $57.1 M – cost to deliver or return cargo

So per pound costs look like this:

  • 1,200 pounds – delivery load
  • $47,600 – cost per pound to deliver supplies
  • 2,670 pounds – return load
  • $21,400 – cost per pound to return cargo
  • $1,337 – cost per ounce for return trip – might not make it worthwhile to mine platinum or gold from an asteroid to sell on Earth

Now back to mining asteroids

What is the cost to lift 1 gallon of water into low Earth orbit? A lot.

A gallon of water weighs 8.3 pounds. Current stats mentioned above indicated lifting cost is $47,600 per pound. That means it costs $395,000 to lift a gallon of water into orbit.

Getting to Mars is going to cost astounding amount of money just for supplies. Unless…

Unless you could mine 24,000 gallons of water off just one 23-foot-diameter C-type asteroid.

Then you might be able to pull it off.

At the rate paid for SpaceX launches, it would cost about $9.48 billion to lift 24,000 gallons of water into low earth orbit (24K gal. x $395K/gal).

So the issues outlined by the professor are definitely worth exploring.

The space frontier is open. Very cool.

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