SA expert pushes asteroid mining

2012-10-12 14:34

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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  • Charl - 2012-10-12 14:42

    I want to be a space miner LoL

      gordon.turner.37 - 2012-10-12 20:35

      You going to have to stay being a space cadet ;-)

      mlucejko - 2012-10-14 10:24

      Something tells me, they will not be using South African Miners ???

      merven.halo - 2012-10-18 07:47

      @mlucejko NOOO, what give you that idea??

      Bruce Giles - 2013-05-27 08:31

      Breaking news, NUM strike on the INTERNATIONAL SPACE station halts all mining activity, AMCU brushes off the issues involved, saying NUM are just show boating for attention. End result, miners laid off, billions lost.............sound familiar?

  • nishan.sitlu - 2012-10-12 14:50

    just an idea. find an asteroid, attach rocket engines to it. push it into earth's atmosphere and have some sort of parachutes deploy to get it down to ground.... no need to mine, or have vehicles travel back and forth...

      wesley.bischoff - 2012-10-12 15:01

      Asteroids weigh a sh*t load, so i don't think that would be viable. But then again, who knows

      patrick.mampane - 2012-10-12 15:02

      The thing will burnout on entering the atmosphere.

      mario.dippenaar - 2012-10-12 15:59

      Damn, News24 users sure hate people that share opinions that differ from theirs. I actually also thought of this. Or maybe try to get the astroid closer to earth, but still in a geosynchronous orbit. Anyway, Ron Olivier if you are reading this, could you please create a letter on MyNews24 or on Reddit's IAMA? We have so many questions to ask you.

      aniken.vader.31 - 2012-10-15 00:36

      Let me explain the concept of mining Asteroids that are 1km to 500km large as well as the concept of species' extinction due to asteroids coming too close to earth and impacting the earth! i think it is a VERY bad idea..! My thought is that we move the ISS to an orbit aorund the moon. Use that as a base until we get a moon base which should be landed into a crater. We'd use tunnels into the side of the crater to protect ourselves from the space radiation as well as meteorites. We then create a launching and a landing space port - it would be easier to launch and land as the gravity is a 6th that of the earth's, Thus imagine a roller-coaster that stops suddenly, then a spacecraft can be rollercoasted all the way into space. Oh and it would be powered by sunlight..! THEN we go and find ourselves a 500 KM wide asteroid. Bore tunnels into it and create a spacecraft OUT of it! Same idea, to protect ourselves from the space radiations and the meteorites..! Lastly we now can move our asteroid-space-craft to nearby fields of asteroids, we can even use our own gravity to pull in certain sized asteroids closer to the spacecraft and mine it as such! Etc... etc... etc..!

  • raven.jimmy - 2012-10-12 14:58

    On the brite side there will b no striking.imagine guys striking in space suits.hehe

  • Tony Lapson - 2012-10-12 14:59

    Prepare for war against the us. Everyone knows that everything in space belongs to the almighty USA.

      mario.dippenaar - 2012-10-12 16:06

      You only have a claim if you "intent to occupy". Also the UN established in 1967 the "Outer Space Treaty", effectively forbidding states from claiming territorial sovereignty. In the 1980s the law extended to private entities.

      LanfearM - 2012-10-13 09:13

      No it doesn't. The Russians, Chinese and Eurpean Space Agency are all equal contenders. The US has cut funding of space exploration to such an extent that NASA finds it difficult to operate. Yes they put the Rover on Mars, which is fantastic, but expect the rest to follow soon. The US is not longer the sole space farers. Thank you for mentioning the Outer Space Treaty, DerpyHooves.

  • jody.beggs - 2012-10-12 15:00

    Sign me up for that job , I fly around in orbit !

  • warren.rodel - 2012-10-12 15:07

    They have to resort to this so they dont get STRIKES!

      merven.halo - 2012-10-18 07:49

      And if they strike, they can just switch off the gravity generator and let the strikers float away into space!

  • cindy.wrathex.ruthven - 2012-10-12 15:13

    China and Russia as well as the USA and other countries eg Japan, Korea, Germany and so on..will probably be the main space mining companies in the future. South Africa is part of Bric and so should be part of such an endeavour, if we can cultivate the needed human resources to take part. Space engineers and miners will have to go through expensive training, as working in space is working in a deadly environment. The calibre of the engineers and the miners will have to be of the highest order. At the moment the only space port doing good business is leased by the Russians from Kazakhstan at The Baikonur Cosmodrome. It is a good idea to envision the future and long term planning and education and training will ensure that South Africa does not stay behind. More about the legal aspects here:

  • denis.dendrinos - 2012-10-12 16:10

    riggggght, Quick thoughts that pop to mind...... Cost Vs Revenue Labour Competition Saftey Has this guy even seen armegedon (yes yes, I know it;s just a movie) But seriously, at the moment the mines spend millions on just sussing a piece of ground to see if there are minerals and the deposits are worth mining........ Now they'll spend even more just to send engineers to sus it out?

      Michael - 2012-10-13 22:57

      The concept is not that complicated, and requires vast cash outlay upfront with a long time on return investment. It's like a 50 - 100 year plan kind of thing. There's spacecraft to develop, satelites and probes. Processing facilities. Testing, and a lot of small steps to get to the desired result. Once the infrastructure is in place, the returns will start to add up. There the two main kinds of asteroid, either soft, easily crushable rock that has a high water content, and from which water can be quite easily extracted, and asteroids that are mostly iron or other metals, a lot of those metals quite precious and rare on Earth. Platinum is used extensively in technology, and is also used for jewellery because of it's rarity. There are finite amounts of platinum on the planet, it might be nice to acquire some more. The amount of iron in the size asteroid they'd look at in a project like this is staggering. The water extracted can be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen for use as rocket fuel. And if they can figure out how to do the mining and processing in space, the processed metal can be fitted with a single use shield and accurately steered to earth, ocean impact, tow it to a processing plant. See? Simple, you just need lots of billions of Dah-lurs to get it started.

      aniken.vader.31 - 2012-10-15 09:42

      it is estimated that in a single asteroid around the belt (between mars and jupiter) there is more gold than the entire gold harnessed by humankind in the entire recorded human history. So the answer - is YES it is worthy! Secondly the offshoots of such a human enterprise are priceless: such as colonizing the neighboring space. This brings no wars for land ownership (sure there would be other kind of wars, but LAND ownership will be part of the history), plus it brings our CHANCE to surviving some sort of a cataclysm such as the super-volcanoes of earth, floods, ice-ages, disease outbreaks and even those Armageddon things you mentioned - the asteroids that could hit us ANY TIME! As it stands now we are MORE in a dangerous position as we cannot even SEE some of the stuff that could annihilate life on earth! I think it is a GREAT thing to get involved NOW in the space industries! It does not even have to be mining - it can simply be, components for robots, or parts manufactured HERE for such missions! We are too short-sighted - or rather our amazing leaders are too short-sighted! Typical African mentality! Use what you got for the immediate needs, don't look and plan ahead for the future generations! Sad

  • baldersnatch - 2012-10-12 16:33

    Old ideas.

      aniken.vader.31 - 2012-10-15 09:43

      ...let me complete you: "....that should have been acted upon LONG ago!" I agree

  • kseyffert - 2012-10-12 16:49

    Oh I can see the future. He will succeed in 10 or 20 years all on his own with private funding support and Julius and cronies will say "Hey that properly belongs to the people! Give it back!" Of course, the bit he will mumble so the camera's don't catch it is "Now that it is actually making loads of money and I never had to spend a cent to develop it in the first place"

  • robin.stobbs.9 - 2012-10-12 18:50

    Beware of 'experts'!

      mike.down.5492 - 2012-10-12 20:09

      Are you the village idiot, what a statement

      aniken.vader.31 - 2012-10-15 09:44

      beware of idiocy and dogmatic views!

  • lostand.damnedskeptic - 2012-10-13 11:29


  • Michael - 2012-10-13 22:42

    There are already American companies planning to do this, we should be getting in on it. It's the future.

  • michael.neale.948 - 2012-10-14 11:24

    It is great to see others in the country are also pushing this. Go check out for a South African company advocating the space mining concept. Ron's points are good, but I have two reservations about his view: 1) As much as there is a very strong need for autonomous mining, I believe (along with Planetary Resources Inc and Shackleton Energy Company) that humans will most likely be needed for early mines. We should still strongly drive the development of our robotic capabilities, but we need to be prepared to include a human presence. 2) He focuses a lot on the mineral value return. This is valid, and a good way to entice the public (I use it myself), but I am afraid this causes the concept to lose credibility with experts in the mining industry. The minerals he talks about, especially platinum, are difficult to mine and process with high transport costs on Earth. The business case for mineral value return from space is – at this moment – quite uncertain. To my view, the business case lies in using the resources you mine to sustain your development in space. An example of this is mining water ice and volatiles to create rocket fuel in space, which will enable further development of space. You’ll build on the early successes to eventually be able to return high value minerals to Earth. Good work Ron! I hope to meet you soon.

  • theMichaelHawthorne - 2012-10-14 18:18

    While you at it please can you put up a decent webcam on the moon so we could log into it via www

      aniken.vader.31 - 2012-10-15 09:46

      what are you MAD? We will be able to see the other area51-like structures that are on the hidden face of the moon LOL! But I LOVE your idea!

  • Lezanne Schutte - 2013-08-22 08:22

    Definitely the next frontier.

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