Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Space Mining - Science Fiction or just Science? (NASA wonders about exo-solar Diamond space mining)

open.NASA - Awesome Stuff in Space: Planet Mining GONE

You may have heard of the hyper-startup Planetary Resources, a company which aims to “expand Earth’s natural resource base” by developing (and eventually using) the technology to mine asteroids in the Solar System. They also have a lot of money, with investors such as Larry Page (Co-founder of Google) and James Cameron (Writer of Rambo: First Blood Part II). But what if they’re thinking a bit too small? There’s an exoplanet called 55 Cancri e which orbits the star 55 Cancri A ~41 light-years away from Earth. What makes 55 Cancri e interesting is that it weighs about 8.63 times the mass of the Earth and there is a good chance that about third of that mass is diamond. That’s a lot of diamond. Let’s be optimistic and assume for the moment that 55 Cancri e does in fact contain 2.88 times the mass of the Earth on diamond. What would happen if Planetary Resources really turned on the afterburner and tried to mine 55 Cancri e?


It would be prudent to open up the wormhole portal thing reasonable far away from Earth, we’ll use 35,786km because that’s the same height as a Geosynchronous orbit and I can calculate how much it costs to to get our mining equipment up there! Using the SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch system, currently the world’s most powerful rocket, it costs $130 million to get 21.2 tonnes up to that altitude. I don’t know much about mining equipment, so I just found the most expensive looking Drill I could. I know it probably won’t be the right kind of thing, but I’m going to use it’s mass as a benchmark for the weight for the fancy laser-using robotic miners we’re going to deploy to 55 Cancri e. Fortunately, the expensive looking drill weighs 20.4 tonnes, so we’ll say each Robo-Miner thing costs $130 million to get to 55 Cancri e (assuming the wormhole was already there or something). We’re also going to want to bring some transportation equipment to send the diamonds back to Earth! Since there likely aren’t any people on 55 Cancri e, we can probably put one of the wormhole entrances on the surface of 55 Cancri e (and figure out some way to slow down our equipment when it passes through the wormhole from Geostationary Transfer orbit). I’m going to use the specs of the SpaceX Dragon as a benchmark for what the specifications of our diamond return vehicle will be like (we’d need a souped up heatshield though!). A SpaceX dragon weighs 4.2 tonnes and can return to Earth with 3.13 tonnes of extra cargo, so if we use some fancy folding system we can assume that we can launch 5 diamond return vehicles on one SpaceX Falcon Heavy. Since R&D/Construction/Running costs are notoriously hard to estimate, let’s assume that the cost will be in the same order of magnitude as the Apollo program (I’ve excluded the cost of the launch vehicles, because we’re going to get them from SpaceX): $15.2 billion. I’m going to sum up our costs below:

Startup Costs: 20 Robo-Miners x $130 million each for launch = $2.6 billion. Total Estimated Costs = $2.6 billion + $15.2 billion = $17.8 billion (This does not take into account the cost of the Diamond Return Vehicle launches).

Cost of each Diamond Return Vehicle: $130 million for each launch/5 Vehicles = $26 million.

Current estimated price of 1 Tonne of Diamond: $60 million for 0.01192 kilograms. Therefore 1 Tonne of Diamond is currently worth $83892 million.

Cost to return 1 Tonne of Diamond: Each Diamond Return Vehicle costs $26 million and can return 3.13 Tonnes of Diamond. Therefore 1 Tonne costs $8.3 million

Profit on each Tonne of Diamond: $83892 million – $8.2 million = ~$84.9 billion

As you can see from the above, this would be very profitable! Keep in mind the effect INFINITY DIAMOND would have on the price of diamond (Economists, help me out!) It would give the miners of 55 Cancri e essentially a monopoly in the diamond industry though, and each capsule returning to Earth would make ~$265.7 billion in profit with the diamond prices of today! This would likely make the extremely high R&D costs much easier to stomach!


I SO want to be a space miner. If our race is to survive, we need to get off this rock... and if there's money to be made doing it, well so much the better! :)

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