Ryugu Proves Perilous Target in Asteroid-Mining Thriller 'Delta-v'

In "Delta-v," Daniel Suarez describes a dangerous fictional mission to the asteroid Ryugu.
In "Delta-v," Daniel Suarez describes a dangerous fictional mission to the asteroid Ryugu. (Image credit: Penguin Random House)

In "Delta-v" (Dutton, 2019) by Daniel Suarez, out today (April 23), an unpredictable billionaire recruits an adventurous cave diver to join the first-ever effort to mine an asteroid.

The crew's target is asteroid Ryugu, which in real life Japan's Hayabusa2 spacecraft has been exploring since June 2018. From the use of actual trajectories in space and scientific accuracy, to the title itself, Delta-v — the engineering term for exactly how much energy is expended performing a maneuver or reaching a target — Suarez pulls true-to-life details into describing the exciting and perilous mission.

Space.com talked to Suarez about the excitement and danger of asteroid mining; what he learned from the scientists, space entrepreneurs and scientists he talked to in writing the book; and what it will take to make humans a spacefaring species.

Related: How Asteroid Mining Could Work (Infographic)

Space.com: So why did you decide to focus a story on asteroid mining?

Daniel Suarez: I was interested in the idea of — how is it that here we are at the 50th anniversary of the Apollo landings and we still haven't gone back into deep space? That started puzzling me several years ago; I guess it didn't so much puzzle me as frustrate me. What was holding us back? We have this technological capability, why aren't we doing it? And so I spent a couple of years starting to research how it might actually come about. What would be the catalyst that causes it?

And I didn't really have any preconceptions as to whether that would be a colony on the moon or Mars — I really didn't think of asteroids initially, but it was in consulting with lots of other people, scientists, economists, entrepreneurs, that asteroid mining really became very clearly the obvious way that it would be done. We have these gravity wells that we're facing otherwise, for both Mars and the moon, and of course it's a matter of how do we get enough resources to start to build a cislunar economy? And asteroids really are the most cost-effective way to do that.

Space.com: Do you think asteroid mining could happen with current regulations? In your book that's not exactly how it goes.

Suarez: Obviously, when you write fiction you want to create some conflict, you want to propel the plot forward, to really raise the stakes. Part of what I wanted to do with this book was to inspire that aboveboard approach. To make more people realize that this is possible both technologically and economically. It is sensible, in many ways, if we think about all of the existential risks we're facing by being an Earthbound species. Climate change, pandemics, an asteroid strike, war. You name it, we really do need to take advantage of this moment in time to get into space and begin to spread humanity out. So it is eminently reasonable. It is also technologically possible. And that's really what I'm trying to do with this book — really popularize that, help people understand what all of the issues and complexities are, and that they are solvable. And in the process of solving them, we will also unify ourselves as a species and work together on a common goal.

Space.com: So you're trying to show people the way to those solutions.

Suarez: I have described it before; what I do is, in some ways, look out for icebergs. I look into the distance and I sort of explore up ahead and see what's coming. Sometimes those things are icebergs, and sometimes they're opportunities.

And in this particular case, I think the real risk for us, when it comes to space, is remaining here on Earth. Doing what we're doing now — that is the riskiest thing we could possibly do. I think that the far lesser risk is venturing out into space.

Space.com: The book's plot kicks off with this panel of bigwig space titans. I have to ask, did you have specific people in mind that you were basing them on?

Suarez: You know, I did not. If they bear any resemblance to any billionaires, that is purely coincidental. Let's say they're composites of figures today, no individual one … but let's say that there's a cultural narrative that people respond to with the activities of some of these entrepreneurs, and the space titans in my book are symbols of that desire.

Related: Asteroid Mining Is Just Latest Billionaire's Club Space Project

Space.com: Do you think people like that are the path forward to space travel?

Suarez: Not to go back to the word catalyst, but they certainly are a catalyst. Because they immediately help to prove what's possible. They provide an imperative, this urgency that I think is lacking. There are many, many people that you talk to at NASA who also share that urgency, but the realities of funding for NASA, its organization, all of these things diffuse that effort. Any major project at NASA needs to be, in order to get political buy-in, apportioned out to all these various congressional districts to make sure that the work is spread out, and that is not optimally efficient. There's many people in NASA who would tell you they know that, but the only way to get it funded is that way, within the existing guidelines, and that's why I think NASA in particular is trying to go toward a private model when it comes to transportation into low Earth orbit so that they can focus more of their resources on to deep space exploration. Entrepreneurs provide a really critical piece of the puzzle that's been missing.

Space.com: What's the most unbelievable thing in your book that's based on scientific fact?

Suarez: I would say, probably the thing that would surprise people the most is the idea of people involving themselves in asteroid mining — in other words, not just sending robots, but getting people involved. To me, this is a key point. [Based on reports of catastrophic climate change in the near future] and if we're trying to do something like lift power generation, a very carbon-intensive activity, off the surface of the planet, that means we need resources in cislunar space and we need them soon, which means we need to speed up innovation in space. And robotic asteroid mining will require many iterations to get it right. If you send out a mission and it's automated and something is not quite as you expect, then the entire mission can fail — but if you have humans nearby, you can iterate. It's speeding up that failure cycle, speeding up that iteration loop. Agile aerospace, that's what I think humans bring to the equation, which is critical.

I think the other really surprising thing for me was you have this known population of near Earth asteroids, numbering in the thousands — I think 19,000 now — and they think it's hundreds of thousands [in total]. What's interesting to me is that a lot of these objects are very distant, and they're high Delta-v objects [meaning that they take a lot of energy to reach] until you get to these very key moments in their orbit, in their relationship to where Earth is around the sun and where they are, and sometimes they become so easy to get to. And, really, scanning space around us to locate all of these asteroids will make such a huge difference in our ability to get those resources and use them to build that cislunar economy. They may, 96% of the time or more, be very far away, but at certain key points in their orbit they are really easy to get to and easier to get back from.

Space.com: Why did you focus on asteroid Ryugu in particular?

Suarez: Ryugu presented itself strictly because of its trajectory, its location and its mix of resources. I spent many months trying to find a target for my fictional asteroid miners, and it was important to me to not use a fictional target itself. I wanted to use a real asteroid, I wanted to use real trajectories, I wanted to use real dates, all of that, because I did want to inspire people with the story. I wanted people to be able to look at this and say, you know, that could happen! We could do that! And I think you have a better chance of doing that if you use real targets.

When I first started this, the Hayabusa2 mission had not yet arrived [to Ryugu]. Fortunately, I did have contact with that team, I was able to communicate with them, and they brought this asteroid into focus. Needless to say, I was very keen that the spectral data be correct. It turns out that it is. Because of course I'd written the entire story based on it having a similar mix of resources.

I wanted to choose Ryugu because it's easy to get to, it's lower Delta-v, really, than getting to the moon and getting off again. Far lower. And that surprises people, the idea that you could go tens of millions of miles away, and yet it requires less energy than to go to our own moon and far less energy to get those resources back, which I think is the bigger issue. [If] you're going to send thousands of tons or millions of tons back toward cislunar space, an asteroid like Ryugu at certain key orbital windows is the way to do it.

Space.com: Was there anything you got in discussion with the scientists that you weren't expecting and were able to work in?

Suarez: Absolutely. In talking about the electrostatic properties of airless planetary bodies, I was really interested in findings that showed, for instance on the moon, that the regolith dust particles can levitate electrostatically. That it creates a haze. And it almost looks like an atmosphere, but it isn't and of course it's electrically charged. This presents a tremendous peril to remotely-operated vehicles at times, and it depends on if you're on the dark side or the light side, the side that's being hit by the solar wind, and then there's this difference in energy that can sometimes result in a discharge. And all of that, which is fascinating to me — you think it's an airless planetary body, there's not going to be migrating particles, but of course this can cause particles to move even though it's in a vacuum.

Space.com: Why "Delta-v"?

Suarez: I made the title "Delta-v" because, really, Delta-v is fundamental to space exploration. It's the amount of energy [needed] to provide an impulse to achieve a trajectory to reach something, because everything is in motion in our solar system and in our universe. Just because you're heading toward something doesn't mean you'll ever reach it. You have to achieve a certain Delta-v in kilometers or meters per second to catch up with it, and you have to aim where it's going to be.

This struck me as the absolutely most crucial measure of commerce in space. Because, of course, when you're talking about a sovereign mission of exploration, let's say, Delta-v is sort of important in terms of cost, but of course nations spend a lot of money sometimes to achieve some big prize. But when it comes to commerce in space, Delta-v is going to be critically important because it means the difference between profit and loss. If it takes you more energy to get something than the worth of the thing you're getting to to return it back, you're not going to do it.

But more than that, metaphorically, I thought Delta-v was important because of course a Delta-v that you apply to yourself, some energy to move in a particular direction, to accelerate or decelerate, is going to change your trajectory. And I think that's really what humanity needs right now; we need to change our Delta-v, we need to accelerate, and try to get to a better trajectory. Because right now the trajectory we're on is doubtful.

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Sarah Lewin
Associate Editor

Sarah Lewin started writing for Space.com in June of 2015 as a Staff Writer and became Associate Editor in 2019 . Her work has been featured by Scientific American, IEEE Spectrum, Quanta Magazine, Wired, The Scientist, Science Friday and WGBH's Inside NOVA. Sarah has an MA from NYU's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program and an AB in mathematics from Brown University. When not writing, reading or thinking about space, Sarah enjoys musical theatre and mathematical papercraft. She is currently Assistant News Editor at Scientific American. You can follow her on Twitter @SarahExplains.