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Business Impact

Asteroid mining might actually be better for the environment

The first study of its environmental impact suggests that extracting resources such as platinum from asteroids might be cleaner than doing so on Earth.

For a certain kind of investor, asteroid mining is a path to untold riches. Astronomers have long known that asteroids are rich in otherwise scarce resources such as platinum and water. So an obvious idea is to mine this stuff and return it to Earth—or, in the case of water, to a moon base or Earth-orbiting space station.

There is no shortage of interest in these ventures. In the last decade, investors have funded half a dozen companies that have set their sights on various nearby rocks. To many observers, it’s only a matter of time before such a mission gets the green light.

But profit margins are only part of the picture. A potentially more significant aspect of these missions is the impact they will have on Earth’s environment. But nobody has assessed this environmental impact in detail.

Today, that changes thanks to the work of Andreas Hein and colleagues at the University of Paris-Saclay in France. These guys have calculated the greenhouse-gas emissions from asteroid-mining operations and compared them with the emissions from similar Earth-based activities. Their results provide some eyebrow-raising insights into the benefits that asteroid mining might provide.

The calculations are relatively straightforward. Rocket launches release significant amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The fuel on board the first stage of a rocket burns in Earth’s atmosphere to form carbon dioxide. For kerosene-burning rockets, one kilogram of fuel creates three kilograms of CO2. (The second and third stages operate outside the Earth’s atmosphere and so can be ignored.)

Reentries are just as damaging. That’s because a significant mass of a re-entering vehicle ablates in the upper atmosphere, producing NOx such as nitrous oxide (N2O), a greenhouse gas that is about 300 times more potent than CO2. By one estimate, the space shuttle released about 20% of its mass in the form of N2O every time it returned to Earth.

Hein and co use these numbers to calculate that a kilogram of platinum mined from an asteroid would release some 150 kilograms of CO2 into Earth’s atmosphere. However, economies of scale from large asteroid-mining operations could lower this to about 60 kilograms of CO2 per kilogram of platinum.

That needs to be compared with the emission from Earth-based mining. Here, platinum mining generates significant greenhouse gases, mostly from the energy it takes to remove this stuff from the ground.

Indeed, the numbers are huge. The mining industry estimates that producing one kilogram of platinum on Earth releases around 40,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide. “The global warming effect of Earth-based mining is several orders of magnitude larger,” say Hein and co.

The figures for water are also encouraging. In this case, the authors calculate the greenhouse-gas emissions from an asteroid-mining operation that returns water to anywhere within the moon’s orbit, a so-called cis-lunar orbit.  They compare this to the emissions from sending the same volume of water from Earth into orbit.

The big difference is that a water-carrying vehicle from Earth can haul only a small percentage of its mass as water. But an asteroid-mining spacecraft can transport a significant multiple of its mass as water to cis-lunar orbit. “Substantial savings in greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved,” say Hein and co.

This interesting work should help to focus minds on the environmental impacts of mining, which are rapidly increasing in profile. But it is only a first step. There is significant uncertainty in the numbers here, so these will need to be better understood.

Other factors will also eventually need to be taken into account. The Earth-bound mining industry could become more environmentally friendly by using renewable energy rather than burning coal to generate power (as it does in South Africa). Rocket launching could also become greener if more eco-friendly fuels are developed. Both these things would change the numbers.

There are also emissions that this analysis does not take into account. For example, it does not include the emissions from mission control on Earth or from launch-pad construction. Then there are the ongoing effects of rocket launches on the ozone layer, which also need to be considered.

So there is more work to be done. But Hein and co have taken a significant first step toward realistic environmental life-cycle assessments for asteroid mining, a task that will surely become more pressing as this industry matures.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1810.04749 : Exploring Potential Environmental Benefits of Asteroid Mining

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