Space captures our imagination because there’s so much to explore and so many possibilities. As we look towards the future, space resources and asteroid mining could become a lucrative field here on Earth. George Sowers, a professor in the space resources graduate program at the Colorado School of Mines, remembers the moment he was intrigued by what lies beyond our planet.
“I remember [the Apollo Launch], I was at summer camp and during the first moon landing, we all gathered in the dining hall looking at a black and white TV. But I was a kid, and it didn’t make a huge impression on me,” he said. “Once I got into the space business, as a fresh out of college physicist, I loved it.”
George moved to Colorado from his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, and worked for decades in aerospace.
“I did thirty years in big aerospace,” Sowers said. “I started out with Martin Marietta, which kind of tells you how far back that goes. Eventually, I became part of the United Launch Alliance, which was a spin-off of Lockheed and Boeing.”
At ULA, Sowers helped build rockets and began looking into asteroid mining. He said ULA made some contracts with newly formed asteroid mining companies around 2010. Those companies’ business models centered around pursuing metallic mass asteroids for precious metals.
“They were going to mine platinum group metals, bring them back to Earth, and sell them on the commodity markets,” he said.
Asteroids can contain iron, nickel, aluminum, titanium, platinum, and gold. Some companies pursue asteroids rich in these metals to sell those resources for the highest price. But water was the priority for Sowers as water is used for rocket propellent.
“I got involved with those companies because at United Launch Alliance, building rockets, we had gotten interested in refueling our rockets in space,” Sowers said. “I was talking to them about sources of propellant. In 2016, I think I became the first person ever to offer to buy space resources. As the Chief Scientist of ULA, I offered to buy propellant in space for a certain price.”
After retiring in 2017, he was approached by Dr. Angel Abbud-Madrid who was starting up the space resources graduate program at the Colorado School of Mines. Sowers jumped at the opportunity and has been teaching at Mines since.
“I love it, it’s great,” Sowers said. “It’s a lot less stressful than being a corporate executive, and it gives me a chance to pass on some of my knowledge!”
Asteroid mining is very complex and has not been fully developed. Although, the theory is you have a spacecraft that launches and goes to rendezvous with an asteroid. One recent example of this was a NASA mission called OSIRIS-REx. According to NASA:
“OSIRIS-REx traveled to near-Earth asteroid Bennu and is bringing a small sample back to Earth for study. The mission launched Sept. 8, 2016, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The spacecraft reached Bennu in 2018 and will return a sample to Earth in 2023.”
Sowers said that they visited a c-type asteroid, so this one would be targeted for water production. What they learned is that the asteroid is a loosely consolidated rubble pile. The challenge is how to interact with these asteroids in a way that enables extraction. Sowers explained that essentially NASA used a cup-shaped device that impacted the surface of the asteroid and pulled out a sample of the material. Then, the device detracted into a door that sealed the material into the spacecraft.
“Nobody’s mining them,” he said. “Everything is still in the planning stages, early stages. There are scientific missions that have gone to asteroids. The Japanese have done a couple, the US has done a few,” says Sowers. “One of the things that makes it challenging is that these objects are really too small to have gravity, everything’s happening in zero G,” he said. “So, if you push on it, you’re going to go backwards.”
As companies have studied how to conduct asteroid mining missions, the most viable option seems to be extracting water from asteroids to use for rocket propellant. The water gathered from asteroids can refuel rockets in space and can help support ongoing space activities and even lead to manufacturing in space.
“If you can make things in space you can start to open up possibilities that are not currently feasible,” Sowers said. “One of those that I really like to think about is space solar power.”
Sowers said that on Earth, we are pushing to rely on renewable energy sources like solar power. Although it faces limitations because you cannot capture solar energy at night, clouds prevent solar capture during bad weather, and solar panels do not work at all if they are covered in snow.
“There’s huge limitations, but if you can put your solar collection hardware in space, then you avoid all those problems,” he said. “The idea is that you build big solar collectors in space, and then you convert that energy into microwaves that are very diffuse and you can beam that energy back to Earth to receive it. So, suddenly, you have an inexhaustible supply of energy that has no carbon emissions whatsoever.”
In Sowers’s aerospace career, he has spent countless hours working on space projects, with applications that could help solve problems here on Earth. Now semi-retired, he relishes the opportunity to work with college students at Mines and provide an optimistic outlook on a future.
“I really enjoy interacting with students, that’s the fun thing for me is to try and get the new generation excited about space and the amazing future that it holds,” he said. “One thing that is kind of disconcerting for me is [the younger generation] has been indoctrinated to be pessimistic about our future, and I find that to be very disturbing because I think the future is awesome!”
He said that we are truly on the cusp of breaking the bounds with our attachment to Earth and feels asteroid mining and space resources can create an out-of-this-world future for humans.
“Asteroid mining is going to be one activity that’s part of a really cool future for humans in space.”