SEDS Bocconi

The Future of Propulsion

State of the Art Rockets

There’s a simple reason why we hear a lot more about cars, ships, and planes than we do about rocket ships: there are a lot more of them. In addition, while each flight into space does have a small impact on the planet it leaves behind, for the moment, at least—these launches are very rare. Only a couple of rockets blast off every week around the world, but soon, the number of launches will increase, and this problem will grow in importance rapidly.

First, let’s understand how a rocket works: of course, it is obvious that the higher the thrust, the less time a rocket can fly. That’s why during a launch, we see the first stage pushing for a very short time (around 600 seconds) before being detached. (example of SLS static fire test).

Most rockets fall into two categories: solid rocket motors and liquid rocket motors, based on their construction and fuel type.

We also must understand that there are basically two families of large rockets. The first one is solid rocket motors. These are more commonly used in first stages and are like having a solid amount of propellant ready to burn whenever it is turned on. As you can imagine, it provides a lot of thrust, but it’s highly explosive, like a C4 charge .

So, if you happen to be near a launch ready rocket, I suggest you avoid having a barbecue!

The second is the liquid rocket motors family. Highly pressurized fuel and oxidizer are pumped in a combustion chamber and burned together. These engines are those which can drive the second stage of a rocket in space. The thrust provided is less because, as you can imagine, liquids have a lower energy density than solids do on average, but their advantage is that they can burn for a much longer time.

Engineers struggle to find the best compromise to have a rocket that can be fired for a longer time while providing a huge amount of thrust. And of course, this needs to be done at the lowest cost possible.

Performance at a Cost

Performance hardly comes free of charge. In fact, propellant is often one of the costliest parts about rocket building. So, it’s an issue that needs to be tackled properly for the cost of rocket building to come down a reasonable amount.

In this case, it is useful to analyze fluorine-powered rockets. The idea of implementing fluorine in rocketry goes back to the edge of the space exploration era. The element provides the highest-performing combination. However, we rarely see it nowadays given that overly focusing on performance alone is a naïve and over simplistic approach to development costs. Applying the logic above, we must consider the cost of acquiring and maintaining the propellant and the associated risks. As economists often argue, risk and cost always dance together.

To begin, fluorine needs to be stored and used in its liquid state. The temperature at which elements have specific states differs from one another, and for fluorine, condensing happens at –188 °C. The costs needed to sustain this, in the long run, are extremely high compared to other solutions, not to mention the effort required in terms of logistical expenditures. In 1959, NASA estimated a cost per Kilogram of $6.00 for fluorine, against a mere $0.04 for liquid oxygen. Undeniably, this generates a burdensome externality in the form of environmental impact when a lot of energy is consumed.

Furthermore, liquid fluorine is extremely toxic and unstable. Fluorine is the most powerful oxidizer known and it only takes one spare electron from another element to trigger a Hollywood-worthy explosion. In the lower atmosphere, when we combine it with liquid hydrogen, oxygen and water vapor, hydrofluoric acid is created as a by-product, which is not really a desirable outcome. This translates into higher costs to avoid such a scenario, and in turn, a stronger impact on the environment.

A fluorine gas fire demonstration

The case of fluorine is very helpful to understand how wide the spectrum of evaluation is when we assess new solutions for propellants. To understand the real impact of different compounds and technologies, it is essential to avoid focusing on the launch phase itself. Much harm can stem from the production and the logistic phases, and a superficial analysis that does not take these into account can only produce weak results carrying no value at all.

Environmental Background

Pushing the limits of performance often includes complex chemical reactions. In solid rocket motor development, metal (aluminum) is often added in the propellant to increase its performance. The physics behind this is clear: if we expel something heavier, the thrust we receive is higher. The main problem, however, is that tons of particles of aluminum, carbon dioxide, and soot are released into the atmosphere. These are reactive gases that cause environmental degradation, such as ozone molecules to breaking apart. To make matters worse, spacecraft dump these pollutants directly into the upper and middle stratosphere, where they can start causing damage immediately.

On the other hand, liquid fuel seems to be more environmentally friendly since it provides a “cleaner” and more controllable flight, and their burn results in the emission of less harmful chemicals. Mostly, these are CO2, water vapor, and less harmful oxides. Therefore, liquid rocket boosters can be considered the “greener” approach. But a challenge remains. The number of rockets launched has been multiplied by the growth of interest in the sector and the advancements in the industry. Thus, the environmental impact of the modern era space race still has a very big impact on the global effort against climate change.

Thus, the question remains: What can we do in order to launch rockets without straining on the environment? The answer for the time being is simple: we must regulate the limits of chemical exhaust in the atmosphere depending on the size and weight of each rocket. We also should promote the use of a single rocket for launching multiple satellites. In that way, both the cost and the emissions would be reduced in comparison with multiple rocket launches.

Liquid rocket motors are considered the more environmentally friendly option, but they have their own environmental drawbacks.

Low-cost Production

Significant cost reduction could be achieved by using the lower priced components. Although it may seem that lower priced materials lead to worse performances, that is not always true. Major industry players speculate a lot on the cost of components, so using lower priced ones is a solution where you can use the same value to get a revised total price system. Considering that a complete rocket made with these materials could cost about $600,000, this would be a significant saving from the $4M current rockets cost, where the propulsion system by itself costs almost 20% of the total.

Another emerging idea in the last decades is reducing the manufacturing cost of rockets by using 3D printers. For instance, Rocket Lab, a Silicon Valley-funded space launch company, launched the maiden flight of its battery-powered, 3D printed rocket from New Zealand. The company’s emphasis is to develop a reliable launch vehicle that can be manufactured in high volumes with the goal to make space obtainable by providing exceptional frequency of launch opportunities, using their Electron vehicle. The mission also met its objective: making it to space. Meeting the objective was an important milestone in the commercial race to lower financial and logistical barriers to space.

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket sitting on its launch pad in New Zealand, 2020

The Business of Space

Furthermore, an American company based in Los Angeles, Relativity Space, has built the world’s largest 3D metal printer called Stargate for use in creating rockets. The printer, which uses sensors and function-based learning to print rockets made of stronger more reliable alloys, will redefine how we go into space, reducing the window between launches to a couple of days. “This 3D printed technology is a game-changer when it comes to reducing total hardware manufacturing time and cost,” says Tom Teasley, test engineer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre. Their first launch is scheduled for later in 2021.

The future path of the space industry will be dictated by environmental limits and start-ups are emerging to tackle them. Solutions range from creating new fuel compounds to even introducing a new, more sustainable engine.

Regarding the former option, Skyrora is a company which is currently working on a rocket fuel named Ecosene. They aim to convert non-recyclable plastic waste into high-grade in-demand rocket fuel. To do this, they are working on an innovative plastic recycling method through catalytic pyrolysis to produce energy and high-quality fuels for the aerospace industry. With an increasing need to manage global waste and growing demand for fuel, the production of Ecosene rocket fuel could change the industry in years to come. Results already showed that Ecosene is 1-3% more efficient than kerosene.

Technology for Propulsion and Innovation is another firm creating a sustainable space industry. They are working on a simple, versatile, and cost effective bi-propellant propulsion system to provide mobility to satellite platforms and microsatellite deployers. The system is specifically conceived to represent a tradeoff between costs and performances, targeting a substantial cost reduction with respect to currently available bi- propellant units. Regarding sustainability, their solution (hydrogen peroxide) is basically hydrogen and oxygen, meaning that its by product is water. It also allows for reduced compatibility issues since their solution “explodes less often” thanks to a better interface with kerosene, the usual fuel we get every day at the gas station with our car.

Space X

What is SpaceX? What has made it so popular within the space industry and beyond? What is it currently dealing with? These are some of the questions we are going to answer in this article.

After a general overview of the organization and a brief sum up of the most relevant milestones achieved over the years, the focus will shift on three fundamental projects: the reusability of Falcon 9, Starlink and Starship.

The company

Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) is an American company founded in 2002 by Elon Musk (the current CEO) and headquartered in Hawthorne, California.

Since the beginning, Musk’s baseline goal has been the colonization of Mars. With this objective in mind, the company’s main activities range from the development and launch of satellites and rocket engines, the resupply of space stations, to national security missions commissioned by the US government, which are carried out in conjunction with players of the caliber of Orb COMM, the US Air Force and MDA Corporation.

Despite not being listed, SpaceX has succeeded in building a sustainable competitive advantage by focusing on specific niche markets and serving specialized customer segments, such as private and institutional organizations involved in space transportation.

Although their baseline goal has not yet been accomplished, the company has managed to achieve some minor (but still incredible) successes, which reflect its innovative approach. In addition, looking back at the substantial growth that SpaceX has recently experienced, it is reasonable to think that it will continue to be at the bleeding edge of space exploration even in the years to follow.


From the historical perspective, few of the aforementioned successes are worth mentioning.

The first relevant milestone was reaching orbit with its launch vehicles, which was achieved in 2008 and 2012 respectively by Falcon 1 (a class of rockets) and Dragon (a space module). Later, the company had the ambition of landing those vehicles back on Earth as well, and they managed to do so on land in 2015 and on a drone-ship in 2016. Both goals were achieved by Falcon 9. The purpose of landing rockets back on Earth was to reuse them for reflight, gaining massive savings. As of today, the same Falcon 9 has been re-flown 9 times.

In addition, SpaceX has also been developing large rockets that can carry more cargo and/or more people for further distances: in 2018 Falcon Heavy had its first successful flight, while Starship is currently undergoing preliminary tests before its first complete flight, which may take place in 2021. Finally, the company also managed to send humans to the ISS in their completely autonomous Crew Dragon for the first time in 2020.

What’s next for SpaceX? There are 3 major milestones that the company will achieve in the next decade: the first flight of Starship, landing on the Moon, and landing on Mars.

Now, we focus the attention on the most relevant projects currently undertaken by SpaceX.

Reusable Falcon 9

SpaceX is committed to tackling one of the major issues that have historically constrained entrepreneurial initiatives within the space sector: the high cost of space access, substantially represented by the expensive process required to build rockets. Why is it so important to reduce the cost of space access?

Because otherwise, consequences are dramatic. First, the high cost of reaching orbit is the major factor preventing the large-scale exploration of space. Private companies are, indeed, largely dependent on public funding and cannot exploit economies of scale. Besides, it creates insurmountable barriers to entry for external companies, which, in turn, affects competition, innovation, and demand for space activities. What is the solution proposed by SpaceX?

SpaceX believes a fully and rapidly reusable rocket is the pivotal breakthrough needed to substantially reduce the cost of space access. In this direction, it has focused on the reusability of a specific class of rockets, Falcon 9, which have become the first orbital-class rockets capable of reflight. The results achieved by SpaceX so far are without precedents: it has succeeded in lowering the average cost of rockets by more than 20 times (from US$54,500/kg of NASA Space Shuttle to US$2,720/kg of Falcon 9)!

Starlink constellation

Over the past few years, SpaceX has launched hundreds of small satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO) and will continue to do so until it reaches a constellation of thousands of elements. These will work to offer broadband Internet connection to anyone who subscribes to their services. The first advantage is to overcome the limits of offering telecommunications services only in certain areas, leaving large parts of the world isolated, especially at high latitudes. This represents an almost uncharted terrain for companies like SpaceX, offering a chance of huge economic returns. The Starlink constellation is 50 times closer to Earth than the geocentric orbit and will guarantee continuous pointing between them, thus reducing both the time of travel of data in space and the time it takes to process the information. The result of all this is a reduction of about 70% of the time necessary to move data around the world.

This technology is not without controversy: in particular, pollution is one of the hottest issues at the moment when it comes to space. The huge number of satellites launched into orbit has raised concerns about the possibility of obstructing the observation of phenomena in the sky. In addition, the low orbit of satellites may lead to a quick (we talk about 5 years) degradation of the orbit itself, causing possible crashes. As a result, the company has stated that it will provide its satellites with a ‘light shield’ in order to make them almost invisible at passage, and it will put them into orbit in such a way as to ensure a safe re-entry by burning the entire satellites in the atmosphere. It is therefore only a matter of time before the service will be available, obviously first in America (where it is already being tested) and later in Europe.

The Starship project

The Starship project is the next-generation heavy-lift transportation system for future space operations. Capable of rapid and reliable use, it will become the company’s primary orbital vehicle and it will take cargo to orbit at a far lower cost than any other existing launch method. Potentially it could reduce the cost of taking 1 kg to LEO (Lower Earth Orbit) to just $ 20/kg.

Starship will be a two-stage vehicle composed of the Super Heavy rocket (booster at the bottom) and the actual Starship (spacecraft at the top). When the two parts are together, the structure will measure 120m in height and 9m in diameter.

The Super Heavy is going to be the most powerful rocket ever made and it will generate a thrust of 72 MN. Just to understand how amazing it is, we could compare it to the Saturn V of Apollo 11, which had a thrust of 35 MN despite being almost the same size (111m vs 120m). On the other hand, the second module will be 50m tall with a payload capacity of 100t and it will come in two configurations (crew and uncrewed), so as to adapt to the circumstances.

The Starship system is aimed at going beyond the “simple” purpose of its predecessors to create an efficient space transportation method: as a matter of fact, it will not only improve what we can do now, but it will also be used for planetary destinations and space explorations.

Artemis Program


The Artemis program is the human spaceflight program that has the goal of landing “the first woman and the next man” on the Moon, by 2024. The program is carried out predominantly by NASA, U.S. commercial spaceflight companies contracted by NASA, and international partners including the European Space Agency (ESA), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the Italian Space Agency (ASI) the Australian Space Agency (ASA), the UK Space Agency (UKSA) and the United Arab Emirates Space Agency (UAESA). Despite NASA is leading the program, expects international partnerships to play a key role in advancing Artemis as the next step towards the long-term goal of establishing a sustainable presence on the Moon, laying the foundation for private companies to build a lunar economy, and eventually sending humans to Mars.

 Artemis Accords 

With numerous countries and private sector players conducting missions and operations in cislunar space, it is critical to establish a common set of principles to govern the exploration and the use of outer space. Having said that, the Artemis Accords aim at describing a shared vision of principles, in order to create a safe and transparent environment which can facilitate exploration, science but also commercial activities. To date seven countries have signed the Accords (Japan, Canada, Italy, UK, Australia, UAE, Luxemburg) and many others are expected to do so in the next months. The principles agreed in the pact are Transparency, Emergency Assistance, Sharing of Scientific Data and Protecting Heritage, but it also establishes regulations on the Extraction of Resources, Registration of Space Objects and Orbital Debris Disposal. 

International Partners 

“Artemis will be the broadest and most diverse international human space exploration program in history, and the Artemis Accords are the vehicle that will establish this singular global coalition” (J. Bridenstine, NASA Administrator).

Among the international partners, the contribution of the European Space Agency will be essential. On Oct. 27th 2020, NASA and ESA have finalized an agreement to collaborate on the Artemis Gateway (the lunar space station at the base of the program), so that ESA will contribute to designing and building the main habitat for the astronauts who will visit the Gateway, the International Habitation Module. The I-Hab will use environment and life-support systems provided by Japan’s Space Agency (JAXA). A second contribution will be Esprit module, which will supply enhanced communications, refueling and which will be provided with an European-built Cupola (observation window) similar to the one of the ISS. Transport to the Gateway will use mainly NASA’s Orion spacecraft, for which ESA is building two European service modules. JAXA is also designing, in collaboration with Toyota, Pressurized Rover which will enable astronauts to travel longer distances, living inside it for up to 14 days. All these contributions and collaborations represent the first step towards a new era that will bring international crew members and, one day, the first European and Asian Astronauts to the lunar surface. 

Private Partners and Financing 

“In the 1960s, ‘70s, and ’80s, there weren’t entrepreneurs who were willing to invest in space, today they are ready to put their own money behind it because they think there’s a future profit to be made” (D. Loverro, former Chief of NASA human spaceflight).

In stark contrast with the twin mission Apollo, a key role is expected to be played by private entities. The participation of these companies to the program will produce a double positive effect: the huge costs of the mission (about 35 billion dollars estimated for the period 2020-2024) will not be sustained anymore entirely by US public spending and, moreover, there will be a strong incentive towards innovation, favored by the high-competitive environment which characterizes the private space sector. On Apr. 20th 2020, NASA announced 967 million dollars in design development funding to three companies (Blue Origin, Dynetics, and SpaceX) to do initial design of Human Landing Systems (HLS). These companies will continue to develop their landers, respectively the Integrated Lander Vehicle by Blue Origin, the SpaceX’s Starship and Dynetics’ HLS, and in 2021 NASA will select two of them, starting a development period which will conclude with the first mission to the lunar surface, Artemis III, in 2024. Further contributions will be relevant in the field of Launch Systems: SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy will be used to launch the Dragon XL resupply spacecraft designed to carry pressurized and unpressurized cargo, and ESA’s Ariane 6 will launch Esprit module which will be part of the Gateway Space Station.  

Description of The Program: Stages and Main Components

From a chronological perspective the Artemis Program can be divided into three stages. Firstly, on Nov. 2021 NASA will launch Artemis I, an uncrewed flight that aims at testing both the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion spacecraft, and, in order to do so, NASA will use ground systems located at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, that will be tested as well during the mission. In 2023, it will be the turn of Artemis II, which this time will take the form of a crewed flight sent to the Moon’s orbit for a period of about two weeks, but without landing, since this is supposed to be just a test for the deep space communications networks. Moreover, simultaneously with Artemis II, the launch of the Power and Propulsion Element and of the Habitation and Logistics Outpost modules (components of the Gateway Space Station) will take place. Finally, there will be Artemis III, the fundamental part of this mission, which will lead to the landing of humans on the surface of the Moon by 2024. Hopefully, these three steps will represent just the beginning of the story, since Artemis III is supposed to be followed by several other missions that aim at building a permanent base on the Moon by 2028. 

Focusing on the main components which will allow the program to take place, it is noteworthy to again mention the Space Launch System (SLS), which is currently the world’s most astonishing launch system, even bigger and more powerful than the legendary Saturn V of the Apollo era. Then, another essential role is played by Orion, a deep space and human-rated spacecraft built in three parts: the crew module, meant to receive up to 4 astronauts, the service module built by ESA, and the launch abort system supposed to keep safe the crew. Finally, the last major component is the Gateway, a dedicated lunar station in orbit around the Moon, that will probably be expanded, following the model of the ISS, as new missions and partnerships will develop. The Gateway will be used by NASA and its international partners as a springboard for robotic and human expeditions to the surface of the Moon, and hopefully, in the future, even beyond our satellite.

The Lunar Economy

NASA’s ‘Moon-to-Mars’ efforts, including the Artemis program, represent a significant investment in the US economy that has an important impact in terms of jobs and economic output created. In addition, these investments drive technology and innovation within the private sector through partnerships, and this together with direct technology transfers has the potential to increase US businesses’ productivity and competitive advantage. Such economically valuable technologies will also help to sustain overall national US competitive advantage and scientific capabilities. An additional aim of the Artemis program is to economically enable continued and permanent human presence on the lunar surface and the exploration of Mars. The main requirement in this regard is the development of the extensive resources present on the lunar surface, that include water and metal deposits. Minerals and compounds found on the Moon could be converted into human consumables and propellant, which would significantly lower the cost of space exploration, as this is inflated by the premium needed to transport resources out of the Earth’s atmosphere. Harvesting such resources on the Moon would be comparatively cheap, as would transporting them to other orbits, considering the Moon’s low gravity. A sustained lunar presence and the development of lunar resources are key to enable Mars exploration, because, as well as lowering travel costs, this would allow for accurate crew simulations of the mission on the lunar surface. Lunar propellant would also have positive spill-over effects on Earth technology, as it would make it more efficient to operate large satellites, which would create improved satellite and internet navigation, as well as better remote sensing data. In addition, the Artemis program can contribute to create a market for private entrepreneurs in the development of space resources and open commercial opportunities for the private sector on the lunar surface, such as commercial lunar payload deliveries.  


We would like to conclude our report with two questions: Why are Artemis missions so different from the previous space races? And why will they be crucial in the development of the future Space Sector?

We identified principally two reasons: the first related to the political set up that characterizes the new program, which is no longer an armament race and a competition between two superpowers but an agreement joining together, up to now, eight different countries (US, Italy, Japan, Australia, United Emirates, UK, Canada, Luxemburg) which already signed the Artemis Accords. The other reason is the openness to the private sector that will be actively involved in transport and communication in all of the already scheduled three different phases. This expansion will result in a new era for humankind, new economic possibilities and opportunities, and a jump in scientific research leading to a future that gives us hope in hazy and uncertain times. 

Technical Report on Astromining

Future developments and economic implications



High risk, long lead times, and high capital cost


  • At the present moment –> no real need for astro-mined products
  • Products: habitats, metals, concrete, water, air, He-3 etc
  • Market only government sponsored 


  • Low profits –> need for government involvement 
  • Combining public + private
  • Boost further operations
  • Balance the costs


  • Research and development (inventing, designing, constructing, testing)
  • Exploration and delineation (identifying right asteroids, feasibility studies for the operations, on site testing)
  • Transportation
  • Construction and development
  • Time value of money


  • Terrestrial projects: pay back the investment in 3-5 years
  • Terrestrial: with high risk –> shorter payback period limit is preferred


  • Higher risk 
  • Longer payback period 
  • High cost space transportation
  • Research and Development increases risk
  • Mitigate these drawbacks –> COMBINE DIFFERENT PROJECTS (water + minerals)


  • Problem of profitability: even though the raw materials on a single asteroid can be worth trillions of dollars, with our current technology extracting their resources would be so costly that we would not make any revenue out of it.
  • A scaling economy: high fixed costs for entry in the industry but after the first successful trip achieving the next one becomes less expensive

Ex: we could use the moon’s gravitational pull to make asteroids’ orbit much closer to Earth and further reduce extraction costs



  • The distance separating us from asteroids. The 2 main agglomerations of asteroids are in the Asteroid Belt (further than Mars) or in the Kuiper Belt (outer part of the Solar system), but in the near-future we would need to focus on near-to-Earth asteroids.
  •  With our current propulsion systems sending cargo even in Earth’s low-orbit is expensive enough 🡪 need to develop alternate propulsion systems like electrical engines already used in deep-space probes or other. 

            NB: possibility of using water on the asteroids to create more fuel on the spot 

  • Asteroid prospecting: finding the best EROs (easily recoverable objects) that are accessible, large and the right composition 🡪 robotic prospectors will visit the asteroids


  • Complex technology to stop the asteroid’s rotation (vaporizing surface with lasers, stop rotation with thrusters)
  • Wait the right moment to fire thrusters and use orbital mechanics to bring asteroids closer to the Moon (point is that it has a stable orbit around Earth)
  • Technology required for the extraction of the asteroid’s raw materials. 

Ex: giant mirrors focusing sunlight to heat up asteroid rock, boil out the gases, break up the dried rocks into gravel/dust and centrifuges separate light from dense elements).

Ex2: The Mond process.

  • Complexity of getting the extracted materials back to Earth (reusable rockets? 3D printed objects? Heat-shielded capsules filled with gas bubbles that land in the sea?)

The whole point is to have more materials, cheaper and less polluting.

Different types or asteroids? (S-type , M-type) : 

Type of materials: iron, nickel, aluminium, titanium, 

Planetary Resource firm estimates that a 30-meter asteroid may contain 30 Billion $ in platinum.

All of our electronic devices need some minerals that are rare on Earth (Terbium, Noedynium, Tantalum) 

Moreover mining on earth is highly dangerous for environment (air/water pollution + chemicals)

 Going to space become cheaper so more profitable to exploit asteroid but still too expensive to be profitable

Small astroids (1km length) -> 4.5 trillions $ value (with platinium or an other small can provide enough nickel for erath consumption for millions of years) some values 700 quintillion$

Process to mine: target the asteroid, move it to a place easier to mine and then just do it (but we still need to truly understand how to move them efficiently and “safely”)

Study it through meteoroids. Asteroids have been made before the creation of earth -> part of the formation of solar system (4.5 billion years old)

Made of really pure metals (nickel-iron) but have a huge variety of compositions (most of them are stony from melted metals.

Solar system generated in a nebula -> cloud of gaz/dust colasped due to gravity and has created planets, asteroids etcs. Asteroids belts : not able to form a planet due to the gravity of Jupiter as it attracts “big objects”.

  • NEAR Shoemaker : landed on Eros in 2001
  • Dawn spacecraft reached the asteroids belt in 2011 to study Vesta (2nd largest object) and then Ceres (the largest)
  • OSIRIS-Rex to study Bennu and bringing a sample back to earth (2018) but have yet landed 
  • ESA Rosetta for Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014

if all asteroids of the solar system are assembled : would have a lower mass than the Moon 

nb of asteroids : hundreds thousand (still thousands more discovered each year but 99% asteroids above 100km diameter already discovered but very few discovered with a small diameters … could have million below 1km).

Biggest : Ceres : 933km in diameter and 26 others bigger than 200km

Different colors: (light reflected by the asteroid enables to know the type of rock at the surface)

  • Darkest: carbon rich (left over from the raw material of the nebula at the origin of the solar system + could store chemicals at the origin of life (for some exobiologists)
  • Brighter stony one: nickel-iron with magnesium silicates
  • Brighted : pure nickel-iron (rarest one)

Exist interstellar asteroids : ejected from a star system and go in the galaxy without any orbit until it is catch by the gravity of a starsystem

Get trapped in the asteroid orbit

Scanning process : With spacecraft orbiting around it to take picture and analyse but time consuming / costly to arrive and orbit around an asteroid without been sure it will worth it -> need remote sensing (photometry, colorimetry, spectroscopy, polarimetry and radar detection + comparing analysis with already known asteroids)

-> most of those studies can only be on the dimension of the asteroids and on the characteristics of the surface, not on the inside composition. 

Landing on an asteroid : last JAXA mission : bounce and rebound on the asteroid to finally stabilize … -> not the best as can harm the rover or a really short landing/bound for the spacecraft (only some seconds to extract some sample) and use explosion …

Osiris Rex mission 1month ago : Touch and Go approach

Mining process :

For water : microwave or heating technologies to separate water from the other components (technologies that could be tested on the moon with Artemis project) already existing

Or optical mining by concentrating on the surface of asteroids  sunlight that vaporise water beneath the surface and then trapped it (avoid landing on the asteroids + digging phase -> perfect for small asteroids) -> in dvpment

Now let’s consider briefly the economic implications and then two examples about astro-mining enterprises: 


So, in the market in order to gain profits from sales, you need products to sell. What are the products of astro-mining? For example water, minerals like platinum and various precious metals, Helium-3, concrete, habitats and similar.

But the problem is that -at the present moment- there isn’t a real need for astro-mined products: water can be used as fuel and habitats will be needed once we colonize other planets, but the path to get there is still long. And for now profits suffer.


Yes, because since there isn’t a real demand for astro-mined product the profits are low compared to the risks. 

In the future this sector will grow exponentially, and at that point we won’t have to worry about profits, but for now and for the next few decades this represents an obstacle. Therefore the investments made now are to be considered as investments for future investments.

To do so the involvement of governments is required: combining the efficiency of a private company with the less-profit-oriented tendencies of a public organization we can balance the costs of such an enterprise and so boost further operation


But what are these costs?

  • First we obviously have Research and development, so inventing, designing, constructing and testing the equipment but also developing strategies and ideas to face this challenge;
  • Exploration and delineation: which means identifying the right asteroids and to determine the feasibility of the operations with both Earth based and on site tests.
  • Transportation costs: which means arriving to the asteroid and back to Earth
  • Construction and development costs: once on site the physical plant must be build before the mining process can start
  • Time value of money: this last one is correlated with the returns, so let’s consider it


here the point is that usually terrestrial projects have a payback time for the investment between 3-5 years

And usually when the risk is high- it’s preferred to have a shorter payback period

INSTEAD astro-mining projects have a very high risk and a very long payback period

It is actually so risky that the level is categorized as “wildcatting” and on Earth the ROI required to face such a risk would have to be higher than the 200%!

Instead -as we will see in the following example- the returns for astromining projects are for now expected to be much lower.

Let’s consider the following case study:


The following data and estimates are taken from the study “Economic analysis tools for mineral projects in space” by Richard and Leslie GRE-TCH:

They considered the steps for a mission mining platinum from an asteroid and bringing the product back to Earth

  • The minimum cost estimated is of 5 billion dollars, aND this value is set low on purpose
  • The amount of time required should be around 12 years, divided as follows
  • Simultaneously between year 1 and 5 both Research and Development
  • And a first scout mission on the asteroid for exploration
  • In the years 2 to 5 the construction of miner and processing plant
  • The years 6 and 7 are spent flying to the asteroid
  • The eighth year is dedicated to the actual mining and initial processing
  • In the years 9 to 11 the flight back
  • In 12th year we would be able to sell the product
  • Going back to the The other variables to consider:
    the Risk, which as said before is much higher than the terrestrial one
  • Paypack period which is longer 
  • And the ROI.
    The returns depend on the tonnes of the asteroid that we are able to mine, but also on the amount of platinum we can bring back:
    Do you remember that we defined this category of risk as wildcatting? And that usually for such a high risk the ROI is supposed to be higher than 200%?
    Well, here it’s impossible to achieve the same results: to obtain an ROI of 50% it would be required to mine 45 billion kilos of the asteroid’s mass. And to reach the 100% the amount required would increase up to 500 BILLIONS.


In conclusion, considering such expenses and in order to mitigate these drawbacks, a possible solution would be to combine different projects, as one mining for minerals and one for water.

Water mining

First of all, we have to answer the question “why should we mine water when we have tons of water available on Earth?” Well, it turns out that there are a bunch of reasons. First of all, bringing water to space is expensive. As you all might know, the cost of bringing an additional kilo in space grows with an exponential law due to the so-called rocket equation. Moreover, water is present in many near earth objects, as outlined by Thibault. Also, water is much easier to extract that metals such as platinum as we’ve analyzed with Francesco, since the technology required is already available or at least it is in the developing phase. Water mining could serve as a support service to many missions such as those on the ISS and, in the future, on the Gateway. On top of that, water can be used as a less expensive and more powerful source of fuel with water thrusters. This technology is thriving also thanks to companies such as Orbit-Fab that have developed systems to make in-orbit refueling possible, opening the market to reusable satellites and, hence, less space debris.

But, how profitable is Water mining? I am going to briefly cover a research paper by Pablo Calla, Dan Fries and Chris Welch from the International Space University that analyzed the topic. First of all, the authors outline the mission architecture, which is structured as Jean Philippe described: a spacecraft leaves earth, reaches the asteroid, costs the asteroid to understand where water is and where to safely land, It extracts and process water before leaving the asteroid to deliver water whenever it is needed. 

The authors also outline some mission requirements, the most important being a small structure of the spacecraft, which should weight around 500 kg in total, and the extraction of at least 100 kg of water to sell in addition to around 50 kg of water to be used as fuel.  The hardware required on board the spacecraft is firstly a microwave water extractor. This technology has already been tested by NASA and represents an easy and efficient way to extract water. Then, we need a drilling system. Commercially available drilling systems can be used since they have been tested on materials such as limestone that are likely to be representative of C-type asteroids. We also need water thrusters, that have been developed by NASA, a guidance, navigation and control system, that have already been developed by NASA and many other space agencies for other missions; lastly we need a communication system, and we can use the communication system developed for other missions. 

Now I’m gonna give you some numbers. First of all, costs can be divided into four categories: spacecraft bus, the payload, first lunch expenses, that are beard only once and consist of research and development and lastly, the Lunch cost. With regards to revenues, a market for water in space has not been developed yet and therefore we can consider the cost of delivering water from earth to different places as a proxy of the potential selling price. According to the authors, who also took into account the learning curve, break even can be reached after 10 years of cis-lunar delivery of water using 200 space crafts. This means that an upfront investment of around 2 Billion dollars is needed. The investment is of course high but we believe that the investment return period is not extremely long and hence it constitutes a feasible investment. 

Having said so, there are many challenges to overcome in the future. First and foremost, defining the potential clients. After our analysis, we can summarize potential clients, that we identified as likely after our research, into three groups: Telecom companies that might need water for their satellites; Governments that are engaging in space missions that involve humans such as the US with the Artemis project; private space companies that aim to develop space travels and their own privately funded research missions. 

On top of that, huge opportunities are in the miniaturization of spacecraft components, in making extraction techniques more efficient and in developing an harvesting system in space. Lastly, I want to leave you with another interesting and promising field that is biomining. Biomining is interesting since it is currently, as we speak, being researched on the ISS thanks to an experiment that was brought to the ISS with the last Crew 1 mission.



  • Estimated min cost $5 billion
  • 12 years
  • Risk is higher than terrestrial
  • Pay pack period is longer 
  • ROI depending on tones to be mined 


Hubble Examines ‘Psyche’

Is asteroid mining possible?

Study for Planetary Resources

By Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS) at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadina (2012)

Technologies for astromining

Asteroids: Biblioteca e Archivi Università Bocconi. (

Most of those tech are duped by startup thank to public private partnership that’s reduce development costs

Leave Earth :  more and more affordable with new generation of Arianne, SpaceX, Blue Origin or Virgin Galatics etc  due to higher competition ( + 100 launching company into the race to get the best rocket for Space) 

Propulsion: ion propulsion ( )

How Asteroids are made of? (

Origin of the asteroids belts :

Different mission to asteroids: (

ESA website on asteroids : 

Landing on an asteroid,,

The Current State of the Space Economy


Excitement about the future of space is at an all-time high after the successful launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicle during the summer of 2020. Aside from all the fanfare and media attention, the launch also marked a big milestone in the development of the Space Economy—defined as an area of production and consumption of goods and services—as the first private crewed launch vehicle. Currently, the space economy is still in its infancy, but significant expansion and development are expected to take place in the next 20 years, boosting the space economy to become a major economic driver in the latter half of the 21st century.

The Space Economy

Currently, the space economy can be categorized into two operational areas: earth focused and exploration. Earth focused operations are largely feasible today, while exploration activities generally require a level of technology that is set to arrive within a decade. Currently, earth focused operations are being undertaken, such as monitoring the planet’s changing ecosystems, heavy manufacturing, and satellites being used for a multitude of reasons including for intelligence, GPS, and telecommunications. In the years that come, firms will build on the successes in these industries to create next generation solutions in earth focused operations, such as satellite constellations for telecommunications networks.

Exploration operations aren’t ready to be undertaken yet but will be soon. Potential activities include asteroid mining, space tourism, and interplanetary living. There are some firms starting to experiment in each of these industries—like SpaceX’s recently announced tourism flight—but in order for operations to be safe, effective, and economically feasible, more development needs to happen. Realistically, we can look towards the second half of the 2020s for implementation.

Financial Outlook

For much of its history, space has been a nationalized industry, but that needs to change in order for the space economy to become self-sustaining in the coming years. According to a research report published by US Investment Bank Morgan Stanley, global space activity was valued at $414.8bn in 2018, and 78% of that value was created by private companies.

By 2040, this proportion of the economy fueled by private entities will have grown significantly as new technologies allow new industries to expand to and flourish in space. One of the largest industries that is expected to grow exponentially in the next 20 years is internet service providers (ISPs). Currently, some product offerings are beginning their rollout, such as SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation, but many new players are expected to enter the market and the value of the industry as a whole is expected to reach $412bn by 2040—almost as valuable as the entire space economy currently. 

Space Startups

With the exception of big names like SpaceX and Blue Origin, most companies that will become big players in the space economy are still in their nascent stages. This is especially the case in Italy, where most space focused firms are still in development and few have launched hardware into space. One exception is D-Orbit, an Italian space logistics company that just launched their Pulse Mission atop a SpaceX Dragon 9 rocked. The mission served as a deployment vehicle for smaller CubeSats, utilizing a “ride-share” model popularized by American space startup SpaceFlight.

There are also a lot of investment opportunities within companies operating within the space economy. Space specific VC funds have sprung up around Europe and the US, including PrimoSpace in Italy. Many of these funds focus on early-stage companies, offering the capital necessary to get products developed and into space—a rocket launch isn’t cheap after all! Investment within the space economy is only expected to grow as the industry does, with industry analysts projecting that serious developments in the level of investment will happen over the next 20 years.

The Future of Space

Development in the space economy will only accelerate in the coming years, so it’s best to prepare for any eventuality. Will the space economy be government subsidized or be full of self-sustaining private firms? Can the economic space development be achieved by a single country, or is international cooperation required?​ These questions might seem like they have simple answers, but when it comes to something as complex as developing an economy, it’s difficult to predict. Either way, once we can answer these questions, we’ll be that much closer to getting the humanity into the cosmos and the space economy off the ground.