The Cost Of Moving Atoms In Space; Unpacking The Dubious Claims Of A $10 Quintillion Space Asteroid

The rest of the media were reporting on an asteroid named 16 Psyche last month worth $10 quintillion. Oddly enough they reported in July 2019 and again in February 2018 that the same asteroid was worth $700 quintillion, so it seems the space rock market is similar to cryptocurrency in its wild speculation. Those numbers are ridiculous, but it had us thinking about the economies of space transportation, and what atoms are worth based on where they are. Let’s break down how gravity wells, distance, and arbitrage work to figure out how much of this $10-$700 quintillion we can leverage for ourselves.

The value assigned to everything has to do with where a thing is, AND how much someone needs that thing to be somewhere else. If they need it in a different place, someone must pay for the transportation of it.

In international (and interplanetary) trade, this is where Incoterms come in. These are the terms used to describe who pays for and has responsibility for the goods between where they are and where they need to be. In this case, all those materials are sitting on an asteroid, and someone has to pay for all the transport and insurance and duties. Note that on the asteroid these materials need to be mined and refined as well; they’re not just sitting in a box on some space dock. On the other end of the spectrum, order something from Amazon and it’s Amazon that takes care of everything until it’s dropped on your doorstep. The buyer is paying for shipping either way; it’s just a matter of whether that cost is built into the price or handled separately. Another important term is arbitrage, which is the practice of taking a thing from one market and selling it in a different market at a higher price. In this case the two markets are Earth and space.

Where did $10/$700 quintillion come from?

Here’s what we know:

  • The best mass estimate right now is (2.41Β±0.32)Γ—1019 kg (source PDF).
  • 10 quintillion is 1×1019 (yes, 1 quintillion is 1×1018, but the units work out better this way).
  • Estimates at the composition of the asteroid are metals, mostly iron and nickel, with about 10% being silicate rock with a sprinkling of other elements inside. This is from surface spectral analysis, as well as calculations of its density, but for all we know it could be filled with nougat and gold.
  • The current price of iron ore (on Earth) at the time of writing is $0.1235/kg.
  • The current price of nickel is $14.857/kg.
  • The current cost of putting a kilogram of material into low earth orbit on a Falcon 9 is roughly $2700.

The handy thing about these facts is that we can cancel out some units and pretend that there’s 2.4 kg of stuff and it’s worth $10. Subtract 10% from the silicate rock and you have 2.16 kg. If it were all iron, it’d be worth $.27. If it were all nickel it’d be worth $32.09. If it’s 50/50 then it’s $16. So the $10 quintillion is just a giant guess using current market prices of the metals that are likely present in the asteroid, and assuming the material is already on Earth. In fact, the author who came up with the number said exactly that.

To get $700 quintillion, consider the fact that the mass is already in space and that we want to keep it there. That means that each kilogram that’s already up there is worth $2700/kg in transportation costs and then we add the $10 quintillion in arbitrarily assigned value based on its worth on Earth, so the asteroid is worth $5,842 quintillion. Ok, I don’t know how they got $700 quintillion, but it’s a pointless clickbait number anyway.

Why Would We Even Want It Here?

An asteroid of 100km in diameter entering our atmosphere would completely sterilize Earth by imparting enough energy to boil the oceans. A mere 10 km rock could be an extinction level event. At a diameter of 200 km, we really don’t want all that mass crashing down on us, especially if it’s a particularly heavy metallic beast like 16 Psyche that won’t break up or burn up in the atmosphere. That would really hurt the market for iron or nickel. Even if it were broken into lots of pieces, anything larger than the size of a car crashing down without something to decelerate it is going to do considerable damage wherever it lands. That kind of risk, as well as the security threat of any country or organization controlling it, makes parking an asteroid in Earth’s orbit extremely unsettling. Besides that, there’s already a giant rock filled with iron in Earth’s orbit (3,474 km in diameter), and we’ve already landed on it before.

There’s a lot more iron and nickel here on Earth, and it’s readily available on all continents. Getting these ores from an asteroid and bringing them to Earth would be like getting your drinking water in a square bottle from a foreign island and flying it back to you when you have tap water nearby.

Current iron ore production worldwide is 2.6×109 kg/year. Nickel is less than 1% of that. At our current consumption rates of those materials, it would take us a mere 8.3 billion years to consume it all, during which the value of those ores would likely decline.

What Would It Take to Bring It Back?

My orbital mechanics are rusty, so this next bit might be off by a few orders of magnitude, but to move the asteroid from its current position to Earth’s orbit would require a Delta-V of about 10 km/s. E=1/2mv2, so 1.2x1019*100002 = 1.2x1027 joules, or 3.3x1020 kWh. This is, of course, ridiculous (a theme in this article). Maybe you could even hurl chunks of it backwards and trade mass for velocity. You wouldn’t want to move the whole thing at once, either; you’d probably mine a chunk at a time. And it would make the most sense to set up a refinery on the asteroid so that only the most valuable materials were shipped back. Assume, then, that you can set up a station on the asteroid that refines the material, bundles it up into a pretty package, and hurls it towards Earth.

Next, you’d need to be able to crash it down on Earth reasonably well enough to narrow its return to a few hundred mile radius, preferably in the middle of the ocean, so as not to destroy entire cities. It probably won’t float when it lands, so you’d have to have the equipment to go recover it before it sinks.

If the contents are just iron, you have to be able to do all of this for under $.1235/kg, or else you can’t compete with home-grown ores. Even if it’s palladium or platinum, you’ll probably barely turn a profit once you take into account getting all the mining and transportation equipment up there, getting the material back, and recovering it.

The Real Value of 16 Psyche

16 Psyche imaged by the Very Large Telescope’s adaptive optics SPHERE imager with a Richie Rich filter. (CC BY 4.0

The way 16 Psyche could be useful to us is the fact that it’s already in space. If the future of humanity is in getting off the rock we’re quickly spoiling, then that means moving materials out of the gravity well of Earth or using resources that are already out there. Most asteroids are rock that is not very practical, but 16 Psyche has been identified as one that has a lot of the materials we like to use for building structures. If we sent the appropriate refining equipment to the asteroid, it could become a viable starting point for the construction of space vehicles. Then the $2700/kg could be spent on the materials like electronics and plastics and other raw supplies that can’t be sourced elsewhere, yielding a lower overall cost for the ship created in space. Going back to the arbitrage term, the market for iron already in space is very different from the market for iron on Earth; it would be a bad financial decision to try to sell the space iron on Earth. There are missions to visit this and other asteroids like it to figure out what exactly they are made of. If they are valuable materials for the construction of space habitats and vehicles, then it might make sense to mine them. But the likelihood is low that the material is plentiful on the asteroid and not on Earth and valuable enough on Earth that sourcing it off-world and bringing it back is the best option commercially.

Ultimately, the value of something is not just in the thing itself but also the cost to get it to where you want it. Putting $10 quintillion on an asteroid in deep space is completely meaningless because nobody wants all that material way out there right now, it would take billions of years to use it all, and it’s a plentiful material that’s readily available here on Earth already. But if that number is still interesting to you, I’ve got a local star putting out 3.846Γ—1026 watts, which at $.12/kwh is about $4.6×1022 or $46 hextillion dollars an hour. All you have to do is build a Dyson sphere.

42 thoughts on “The Cost Of Moving Atoms In Space; Unpacking The Dubious Claims Of A $10 Quintillion Space Asteroid

      1. Isaac Arthur (YouTube channel, sfia) had a recent episode on the value of mining on asteroids being cheaper than earth and min due to gravity wells (given its use for orbital habitats).
        He also suggested that you don’t need to refine the asteroid into metal to be able to use it for shielding.

        He toned down the risk of moving asteroids close to earth, but the reasoning didn’t make sense to me.

    1. Space ships don’t need all that much mass though. We desperately need O neill cylinders to support the worlds population, and avoid wars over diminishing resources by ushering in the post scarcity society.

      1. they are saying that the population will somehow settle down on some acceptable level, so maybe we can avoid this scarcity society, but in any case, it is strongly recommended that we archive our culture because the planet earth will be here but the people maybe not

        1. Well the best way to reduce the population would be a pandemic. Oh wait, we’ve already got one of those, but it’s not even dented the population and we’re still loosing our collective sh1t over it. Maybe your onto something, time to archive the culture whilst we still have some.

          1. The fallacy you’re using is “thinking beyond the sale”, and then you use that fallacy to post dispiriting predictions of the future.

            The reality is that Covid is more deadly than a typical flu, but not by much. It’s certainly not at the level of the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, and our attempts to mitigate have reduced the overall fatality rate. In effect, Covid has reduced the number of monthly deaths in first world nations.

            The other reality is that population is projected to be not an issue starting at around 2090 from UN estimates, with many sets of analysis suggesting that those estimates are conservative and the problem will be solved around 2050.

            I’ve got no problem with shouting “the end is nigh” from a soapbox, but you might consider rationalizing it from a different perspective.

            Just sayin’

          2. >our attempts to mitigate have reduced the overall fatality rate

            That is, until you account for the increasing poverty caused by our lockdown efforts – which means worse living standards, alcoholism and drug abuse, criminal behavior, and higher suicide rates for millions.

      2. There never was such a things as “scarcity” until someone invented it, and forced it upon all of us. The earth is bountiful and plentiful if you utilize her resources correctly. However, the current model is of destruction and waste.

  1. “Getting these ores from an asteroid and bringing them to Earth would be like getting your drinking water in a square bottle from a foreign island and flying it back to you when you have tap water nearby.”

    This is my new favorite analogy.

  2. The article is devoid of any mention of supply and demand, and you can’t calculate anything meaningful on that scale without taking those fundamental factors into consideration.

      1. My point is that a massive supply will swamp demand, so without some sort of fusion powered and automated space based fabrication system to produce ships and or habitats etc. there is not enough scale in the economy to absorb a lot more than what is already produced on Earth.

        1. Governments have crated economic offsets for countless decades now. It’s called ‘market regulation’. I’m sure we could EASILY find a way to deal with any kinks in the system. To be honest, I believe most of the materials would initially be used for supplies already in space. Moon base, a refueling station orbiting the moon, slingshot raw materials out to mars eventually, etc. materials that would end up back on earth would generally be materials that are not possible to process in space, or materials that have a market value high enough to do so. Not to mention ‘sending’ things back to earth would be the cheapest part of the entire operation, you simply fling it in the right direction and we can land it in the desert, the ocean, or catch it with a plane that has a net on it (which is how we used to catch things from space).

    1. Perhaps it makes more sense to value the rock on the basis of what it would cost to put that mass in that orbit from anywhere else. Or maybe based on what you could make out of it in-situ, without moving masses around.

      The space habitat people worked all this out in several ways. First, they propose “flingers”. Rotary spinners powered by solar that fling rocks from the asteroid in order to move it. It looks workable with the downside of strings of millions of rocks on orbits that need to be tracked forever. But there is also room for lots of solar arrays so maybe ion propulsion is OK.

      Then there are the Hohmann orbits that require very little energy to move around the solar system. If you can take 30 or 50 years, you can move it anywhere. Hmm. Maybe longer if you have to wait for Saturn to be in the right place. Hmmm. Maybe they are not Hohmann. They use the changing potentials across the solar system to find a path that requires the minimum work.

    2. People can’t deal with large numbers and that’s why they don’t see the gaping hole in the “this asteroid is worth xx gazillion” premise.

      The entire world GDP is in the order of 100 trillion. So the value of this asteroid is supposedly about 5 or 6 of orders of magnitudes larger than the entire world economy. Who’s going to buy your 700 quintillion worth of iron/nickel? Or gold/platinum/etc for that matter.

      Any such calculations indeed ignore the fact that as soon as you swamp the market with these raw materials, the price will plummet accordingly and you’ll never be able to rake in your quintillions.

  3. β€œ the market for iron already in space is very different from the market for iron on Earth”
    Not really. In fact, they’ll pay you to remove it from space back to Earth. It’s only of value if it’s been carefully crafted on Earth and launched as part of something which isn’t EoL.
    The market for scrap iron in orbit is also very different from earth: no one wants it there, because it’s a liability.

  4. “[…] preferably in the middle of the ocean, so as not to destroy entire cities.”

    It is a long time since reading it, but I think Arthur C Clarke wrote a story where he suggested that crashing a spaceship at speed into an ocean was potentially more catastrophic than hitting (unoccupied!) land. It would initiate a tsunami. across a hemisphere

  5. It’s not so easy. A typical pollution byproduct of mining & refining is dirty waste water. On an asteroid, you can’t just dump your waste water, because it’s too expensive. You’d have to clean the water, so you can use it again.

    But then the same technology could be used on Earth.

  6. While it is true that iron, nickel etc are much more valuable in space, importing them to Earth is not impossible, you just need to remember that slag is free, and can be used to make heat shields, orbital mechanics is deterministic and can be used to deorbit things so they land in an area a few miles across, and metal in zero g can easily be shot full of gas to make a foam that can float in seawater and be towed to land for remelting and shaping into stuff, or just hollowed out to make boats. The cost differential would be modest if not weighted in favor of space sourced metal if Earth bound companies were forced to pay the(currently externalized) pollution costs, including carbon and waste recycling. Waste recycling costs are already figured into the price of space operations and balanced by the availability of constant solar energy and an actual “away” (into the sun) to throw really nasty material(there is no true “away” inside Earth’s gravity well).

  7. I can’t believe that nobody has noticed the largest thing overlooked in the article.
    We all know what happens when you go deep space mining. You end up popping by strange planets, there’s eggs, and next thing you know you’ve got aliens being brought back to earth and -poof- everyone dies and the market for nickel crashes. Whole trip was pointless.

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