SA expert pushes asteroid mining

2012-10-12 14:34
Ron Olivier of SIP wants SA to develop a space mining programme. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

Ron Olivier of SIP wants SA to develop a space mining programme. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

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Cape Town - In the future, South African mining companies may become space firms, if a local engineer has his way.

Engineer Ron Olivier is pushing for SA to develop a space mining programme that will either exploit raw materials on the Moon or on Near Earth Objects (NEOs) like asteroids.

The idea holds promise because of the capacity developed when SA built a satellite and launched it into space, he said.

"It came from expertise; it came from my time at SunSpace where we built spacecraft out of basically nothing and reasonably successfully so," Olivier of Shamayan Innovation Partnerships (SIP) told News24.

His presentation at the SA Space Association Congress in Cape Town proposed that a mission to mine NEOs could "produce the largest economic benefit" to the country since the discovery of gold and diamonds.

Extraterrestrial mining

Olivier suggests that partnerships with countries in the Brics could jumpstart a programme to mine asteroids of at least 1km and rich in mineral resources.

The idea may not be as far-fetched as Google's Larry Page and director James Cameron have backed a company called Planetary Resources to mine asteroids.

Some think that NEOs contain high levels of iron ore, platinum, nickel and zinc and that if it could be extracted efficiently, may present a business model to conduct extraterrestrial mining activities.

Olivier suggested that a space port similar to the International Space Station (ISS) could be used to launch missions to asteroids.

"We may want to use an ISS type of organism out there, and then exploit that and launch from there. At the moment the ISS exists and it's been shown to be possible - that you can do that, but it will take a couple of billion to construct that.

In his presentation, Olivier suggested that a 1km asteroid can deliver $150bn in platinum value at current prices and if a re-usable vehicle could be developed to be cost-effective, it made a space mining programme viable within a decade.

"Most probably closer to 10 years than 50 years: Number one, South Africa has immense innovation in the industrialisation of Earth-bound mining machinery," he said.


Unlike Planetary Resources that plans to send astronauts to mine asteroids, SIP intends unmanned robots to do the work.

"The automation is restricted in this country because of our requirements to provide a tremendous amount of jobs to people. No such restrictions are out there in outer space.

"You don't need to transport miners to outer space to go and mine there; in fact, it would be stupid to do so. You have to take machines there and necessity is the mother of all invention," said Olivier.

He proposes partnerships with experts in various disciplines to reduce costs and secure funding.

"What I have suggested here is a purely commercial outlook with some government funding on the side of it. But nothing like funding that whole project. It's a commercial venture."

The idea may seem a bit out of this world, but Olivier said that once the programme was up and running companies would back it.

"SIP is at the stage where it needs quite a bit of funding just in order for me to get around, so we're starting off at zero base. And this is the thing that makes it even crazier to the normal mind, but at the SunSat programme we started at zero base as well."

Olivier challenged South African companies to consider that such a project would be viable as the cost of resources escalate.

"I'm going to say to the companies: 'Either come in, or be left out.'"

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