Sparks

Space mining without oil companies?

 By Chris Dalby

Governments and industries alike are rushing to show off their green credentials by phasing out hydrocarbons at various speeds. At least, that is what is happening here on Earth…

But what about in space? Can humanity’s exploration of the final frontier continue without the resources, technologies and products of oil and gas companies? Compressed liquid gases are used to power rockets but the hydrocarbons industry has a long history of collaboration with NASA and other agencies. Advanced process control for operations, seismic modeling, 3-D imaging technology, equipment stress testing—so many technologies exist that matter to both sectors where mission success is critical. However, oil companies are not technology developers, they are resource gatherers. And their eyes may slowly be turning to the stars.

While the date for peak oil is being pushed back due to new discoveries, the time when terrestrial resources will dry up or be left in the ground is fast approaching. As private space initiatives pick up speed, asteroid mining has moved from being a sci-fi staple to being a solid concept. The exact technology used to get to asteroids and pillage them of their resources are still being worked out, but the value to be unlocked makes this not about if, but when. Erika Ilves, founder of the OffWorld machine intelligence company, estimates a total value of between $40-80 billion in fifteen years. She adds that “in the 21st century, fuel in space will power the greatest advances of human civilization and become the first real out-of-this-world business.” The numbers can get a bit silly, one widely reported number put the value of the entire Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter at $700 quintillion. Such numbers do not help and it is important to focus on real measurables. The question is who will lead such discovery? Private initiatives are popping up and public stalwarts like NASA will oversee operations. However, there are players who are used to extracting resources in harsh conditions, applying the world’s best engineers to the task, and turning resources into fuel: oil companies. Drilling the deep sea floor may be complex but mining asteroids is a different matter. However, Planetary Resources has identified 11,000 potential target asteroids, including some which pass Earth at a distance no greater than the Moon.

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity drilling into rock (jpl.nasa.gov)

If the likes of NASA, SpaceX and Planetary Resources can get diggers to the asteroid, it is quite plausible that oil companies will see this as the next natural step in their evolution. Planetary Resources co-chairman, Peter Diamandis, has even drawn inspiration from oil companies. “They’ve literally created… fully robotic cities that then mine 5-10 thousand feet down below the ocean floor to gain access to oil,” Diamandis said in 2012. “For me, that kind of work makes going to the asteroids to extract resources look easy.”

To date, surprisingly, it is not the supermajors such as Shell and BP that are leading the charge. Instead, Middle-Eastern players could bridge this important gap. Tom James, a partner at energy consultancy, Navitas Resources, sees a trend that points in this direction. In April, he said that “water is the new oil of space. Middle-East investment in space is growing as it works to shift from an oil-based to a knowledge-based economy.” The reasons for Middle Eastern interest goes beyond financial evolution. The UAE and Saudi Arabia already have space programs of their own although these are focused on satellite design and launches. A pact has been signed with Russia to put Saudi satellites in orbit but Abu Dhabi has also teamed up with Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson’s space tourism company. Furthermore, the Middle-East’s position near the Equator is an advantage for launches, requiring less fuel to achieve escape velocity. Given the state-owned nature of oil companies in Saudi Arabia and its neighbors, this puts the likes of Aramco and ADNOC in pole position to achieve this transition.

Artist illustration of asteroid mining (thespacereview.com)

In Europe and the US, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are actively seeking to bring different sectors into their sphere of cooperation, including oil companies. For several years, this cooperation was focused on harnessing space technology for applications on earth. For example, Shell and the ESA teamed up to develop new remote sensing techniques from satellites, tackling temperature or land cover changes across the globe. Today, these collaborations have turned toward resource mining in outer space. The Space Commerce Conference and Exposition (SpaceCom) has become a focal point of contact between state space agencies and private companies. Topics ranging from exploration, turning water into fuel, remote sensing, and low-earth orbit rockets have been the subject of debate. Sadly, at this point, there has been little indication that these conferences can lead to practical applications. Shell’s partnership with the ESA has not led to the supermajor building any remote sensing satellites of its own but using data from other sources. The oil industry has in fact been keener on adapting space technology here on Earth, such as applying spacecraft guidance, control and navigation software to improve drilling efficiency. The industry is at an odd crossroad. The cost of spacecraft is dropping, thanks to private sector innovation. Goldman Sachs research says the price of sending a person to space has plummeted from $35 million to $200,000 a head.

The world’s leading investment bank is even prepared to consider funding a space mission. “We expect that systems could be built for less than that given trends in the cost of manufacturing spacecraft and improvements in technology. Given the capex of mining operations on Earth, we think that financing a space mission is not outside the realm of possibility,” it wrote. Investing in the space mining industry is understandably daunting. But it is being done. The likes of Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries have garnered millions in investment commitments. Oil and gas companies, along with their mining counterparts, are natural investors here. Space mining could be the next stage of their evolution. Much like in any other new sector, the early investor is likely to prosper.

SEE MORE: Drilling on Mars by Sandeep Ravindran

about the author
Chris Dalby
Journalist. Editor. China, Mexico, Latin America, Asia, place branding, Olympics, oil and gas, mining, renewable energy, international politics.