Must America Go to Mars for Minerals?

By Daniel McGroarty

Like the summer movie season, the summer news cycle sometimes starts early. Case in point: A spate of stories about the prospect, literally, of a space mission to mine asteroids. Planetary Resources - a privately-held company boasting backers like legendary movie director James Cameron, and what the press eagerly dubbed “tech tycoons” Larry Page and Eric Schmidt of Google and former Microsoft exec Charles Simonyi - is taking aim at going where no man has ever gone before in the quest for intergalactic resources.

And why not? James Cameron found Unobtanium under the Hometree on Pandora; his aim to help Life imitate Art via asteroid mining is a bracing tonic. Especially now, when so many of us in the Washington, DC area just watched space shuttles being piggy-backed to their Air & Space Museum retirement home. What better time for a good futuristic flick - er, business venture - about getting back to space and conquering distant challenges.

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And challenging it will be. Asteroid mining won’t lack for problems that can’t be fixed with a little CGI wizardry in post-production. Take the likeliest prospect for asteroid extraction: 4660 Nereus. Big on one end and smaller on the other, Nereus exhibits what astronomers call considerable “eccentricity.” In plain English, Nereus orbits like a spinning egg on a tabletop. Asteroid-miners are in for a rough ride. As one expert puts it: “Asteroids have nearly no gravity, so the mining equipment, and the astronaut-miners who operate it, will have to use grapples to anchor themselves to the ground.” Add in prevailing temperatures on Nereus’ surface averaging -100 Fahrenheit, plus the fact that, in zero-gravity, once dug up, the metals and minerals will tend to float off into space - becoming tiny little asteroids in their own right. Cameron’s crew had better pack their butterfly nets.

Now, far be it from me to crush a driving dream. After all, if any Earthling manages to pull precious rocks out of an asteroid, I’ll put my bets on the men and women (and miner-bots) of the USA.

But there’s something else going on with all these recent stories on mining metals in exotic places. Asteroid-mining is merely the latest in a series of ventures urging us to extract resources from the moon, under the sea - or in war-torn Afghanistan, a few kilometers from the famed caves of Tora Bora: Anywhere, it seems, save for any patch of dry land demarcated with a U.S. zip code.

What’s going on here? It may just have to do with the time it takes in the United States to bring a mine through discovery and development and into production: According to an authoritative industry study, the permitting process runs an average of seven to ten years – worst in the world of the 25 mining nations surveyed. Forget Pandora: For all intents and purposes, we’ve got our own supply of Unobtainium under U.S. soil.

Compare that to Planetary Resources’s business plan, which estimates they can get to the asteroid, mine the metals and make the round-trip back to Earth - in four years or so. If you’re a miner in America, forget all that Sci-Fi space travel stuff. A mining project that takes only four years to begin production: Now, that’s amazing!

Which brings us to the real question: Shouldn’t it take less time to bring an American mine online than to mount a mining mission to a frozen rock hurtling through space at 55,000 miles per hour?

But back to the asteroid venture, with one last catch: Spaceships need metals. You want to make them out of something that can survive catapulting them up to space where the skin of the craft endures alternating temperature swings between +300 and -230 Fahrenheit, and then sits around on that frosty asteroid surface before a toasty re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. The experts recommend using stuff that won’t “creep” - deform under intense stress - like ZE63A, a Magnesium-Zinc-Zirconium-Rhenium-Neodymium (rare earth) alloy. Or if you don’t have that on hand in your space spice cupboard, you can go with WE54 alloy, substituting Yttrium - another rare earth - for Zinc.

Of course, to shape any of these metals into a spaceship, you need to dig them up first - right down here on the 3rd rock from the sun. Unless Cameron and company have a plan to cut through the current permitting process with George Lucas lightsabers, they’d better file their paperwork fast: 4660 Nereus will be streaking by in just nine short years.

Daniel McGroarty, principal of Carmot Strategic Group, an issues management firm in Washington, D.C., served in senior positions in the White House and at the Department of Defense.

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