Martin Elvis, astrophysicist

This space scientist is perhaps the most outspoken proponent of an industry you’ve never heard of: asteroid mining. Interview by Alex Fox.

April 02, 2018

Martin Elvis. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Martin Elvis argues that asteroid mining could fund a “golden age of astronomy” by supporting projects like the $8 billion James Webb Space Telescope, a successor to the Hubble Telescope.

Asteroids can contain precious metals like platinum and palladium, as well as ice—all potential targets for mining. Space might seem like a long way to go for water, but water can be used as rocket fuel. So mining water from asteroids could pave the way for interstellar gas stations, extending the distance humans could travel once in orbit.

Elvis, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., says asteroid mining could mint the world’s first trillionaires. He estimates that up to $50 trillion in value is spinning around in the vacuum of space.

Several of Elvis’s astrophysics colleagues have left academia to start an asteroid prospecting venture called Aten Engineering. Their particular skills allow them to search the heavens for asteroids that contain water and precious metals. They hope to one day sell the information they’re collecting to the handful of companies looking to mine asteroids.

SciCom's Alex Fox caught up with Elvis in February at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Austin, Texas.

In February, Space X’s Falcon Heavy successfully blasted off, fueled by five million pounds of thrust. What does this event mean for asteroid mining?

It has huge implications. Our rockets could previously only reach a small fraction of asteroids. Falcon Heavy may allow us to access 15 times more ore-bearing asteroids.

It also makes the actual mining easier, because you can bring up much larger pieces of equipment to go up and mine things.

I think it’s now a good bet that there will be a number of commercially launched and operated space stations starting very soon. There are at least three companies doing this: Bigelow Aerospace in Nevada; Axiom Space in Texas; and another one called Ixion, which is actually a collaboration of three other companies.

What are the materials that asteroids could deliver?

Water, palladium and platinum are some of the big ones, but it could be that the real moneymaker in space is not the bulk stuff, but rather very small amounts of really unusual materials that simply cannot be made on Earth. There are minerals in meteorites that are not present on Earth. Most of them have not really been studied in terms of their physical properties, but a few of them have, and some of them look quite interesting.

"Nobody owns an asteroid, but once you land on it and extract something, whatever you put in your bag is yours."

What are some of the properties of these minerals?

There’s one called londsaleite that’s harder than diamonds. Some are superconductors with strange magnetic properties. It seems likely that somebody might have some special use for them.

Why would we go to space to get water?

One of the companies that is pursuing asteroid mining, Deep Space Industries, now sells water-powered rockets. They simultaneously want to develop the market for water and the ability to extract and sell it in space. They’re currently selling about $10 million of these rockets each year. Once it becomes normal for a satellite to have water-powered rockets, then they could be refueled in space with water that was mined from asteroids.

Will people be mining these asteroids?

Mining operations will be unmanned for the foreseeable future. Until there is substantial infrastructure in space, you don’t want people out there. These missions would simply be too long—it’s a six-month trip out to most of these asteroids and another six-month trip back. On the other hand, when it becomes a big industry and you’ve got a billion-dollar piece of mining equipment that’s broken because it’s got a pebble stuck in it, you may need to send people out to repair it. It’s very difficult to automate that kind of repair.

Do your fellow astronomers view your push for the potential extraction of resources from space as heretical?

They view me as kind of an amusing sideshow, but they were kind enough to name an asteroid after me. So they can’t be throwing me out altogether.

Are there other astronomers like you who are interested in joining the party?

There are friends of mine who have actually left academia to become asteroid hunters. They’re using telescopes to create a list of valuable asteroids. They’ll potentially sell their data to asteroid mining companies. In a way it’s like selling the shovels to the miners. They’ve got people interested.

What’s currently stopping us from mining asteroids?

First, we’ve got to find the rocks. We also need to track them accurately. Both of these tasks require more and better telescopes.

The second thing is characterizing them. We need to know what they’re made of—if they’ve got anything in them or on them of value. We need to get their orbits accurately to minimize the amount of fuel we need to land on them.

Then you need to start sending out probes like cube-sats—this new breed of shoebox-sized satellites.

Which would help astronomers test for valuable ore on these asteroids. And what’s the last hurdle?

Reaching the asteroids. Falcon Heavy will help change that. It increases the number of asteroids you can get a couple of tons of equipment to.

Is science driving this industry or is industry driving the science?

Right now, the big driver is industry. Space has always been begging for taxpayer dollars, and if people start seeing a way to making a lot of money out of it then it won’t be so financially limited.

Science will benefit greatly if the cost of doing things in space goes down and if the amount of money behind developing these capabilities goes up. Science will inform the business and the business will aid the science.

We currently run about 15 interplanetary missions per decade, with most of them going to Mars. Let’s not take another 50 years to move beyond this; let’s boost our exploration by ten times—that’s possible.

Is there something about the way NASA goes about doing things that is inherently more costly?

They don’t have a profit motive. There’s a default to saying, “Well this has to work, it’s too big to fail and so we must throw more money at it to make sure it’s tested and everything’s perfect.” That’s inherently very expensive. If low cost is one of your design parameters, it forces a different kind of innovation.

Who owns asteroids?

Nobody owns an asteroid, but once you land on it and extract something, whatever you put in your bag is yours. In the Outer Space Treaty, anyone can come inspect your rocket or base, but if they harm or disrupt your operations then that’s a no-no. So, you could imagine amassing properties in space simply by landing on them and deploying fragile equipment that would be damaged if anyone else landed on the asteroid.

How did you become one of the more outspoken proponents of asteroid mining?

My motivation is for the profits of asteroid mining to bring down the costs of telescopes and space exploration.

I think that by a stroke of luck I have studied the things that are more appropriate for this new phase of asteroid study.

How did you first get interested in this idea of asteroids and space as being a potential resource for humankind?

Earlier in my career, I never studied asteroids. In fact, they’re kind of held in contempt by astronomers, who consider them the vermin of the skies.

But I started worrying that the telescopes we’re building, like the James Webb Space Telescope, are far too expensive. James Webb costs about $8 billion. That’s nearly a decade’s worth of NASA’s funding for astrophysics. If we go on like that, that will end the golden age of astronomy.

Describe this “golden age” of astronomy and what we will lose if it ends.

For almost 50 years now, when you make a discovery with Hubble in the visible light spectrum, you can turn around and try to put the jigsaw together with, say, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, or vice versa. You need them all working together; otherwise, you’re looking at the universe in black and white instead of color.

But the James Webb telescope will be so powerful and so expensive that unless NASA’s funding increases dramatically, there won’t be another telescope of comparable power for at least a decade. So, there will be no way to follow up your James Webb discoveries in the X-ray, ultraviolet, or infrared spectrum until James Webb has been decommissioned.

It would become a boring field by comparison, and that would be a shame.

And asteroid mining could potentially solve all this?

It could. We have to make building these telescopes and getting to space cheaper. And how do we make things cheaper? We have a good method for doing this: we call it capitalism. If you care about making a profit to stay in business, you have to get cheap. The profits of asteroid mining could become a powerful motivator for cheaper telescopes and space travel.

What’s an important question that most people aren’t asking about asteroid mining?

Should we do it? Space enthusiasts tend to assume, “Oh you must do it,” conquering the universe, etcetera. But there could come a point at which we’ll have eaten up all the asteroids. Will we have mined the rings of Saturn for the ice and destroyed them? When does that get to be a moral outrage? There’s an uneasy feeling that there might be a limit to what we should do.

We should start thinking about how much of the solar system we should leave as wilderness. We haven’t done this well on Earth.

© 2018 Alex Fox. Alex maintains a constellation of stories at