It’s probably coming sooner than you think: private companies headed out to space to grab what resources they can in our solar system’s wild wild west. But it may not be coming for the reasons you think.
Just last week, the by all estimates teeny tiny country of Luxembourg — it has a population of roughly 563,000 people, or less than 1/9 of the population of the Greater Boston Area — said it was going to commit $223 million (US) to going out and grabbing an asteroid. Both it and the US have already passed laws and regulations to help the nascent industry.
But the reasons aren’t that intuitive. Even if you were to go bring back large quantities of rare elements and minerals and bring them down to Earth, you’d have to be very careful not to cause a glut — you’d have much higher mining expenses (because let’s face it, setting up any kind of system in space is hardly going to be cheap) and if you brought it all back at once, you’d tank the price and have a hard time getting your money’s worth (at least, without slowly trickling your supply into the market over years).
Yet companies are lining up to go after asteroids. NASA just gave $100,000 to a company called Made In Space to do a feasibility study on turning asteroids into self-delivering objects; the asteroid-mining folks Luxembourg is teaming up with are called Deep Space Industries; and Planetary Resources is working on an asteroid-mining satellite. But not, as you might think, to bring their minerals here.
One of the most expensive parts of spaceflight is mustering the brute force it takes to climb out of Earth’s gravity well. That’s what makes building space stations and potentially large ships to take astronauts to Mars (and beyond) so expensive: every single pound costs tens of thousands of dollars to get into space. Even if Elon Musk realizes his dream of routine reusability, at his most optimistic he’s looking at $1000-2000 per kg, and that’s on top of however much the materials themselves are worth — a pound of water, a pound of fuel, and a pound of gold all cost the same to lift.
Now imagine there’s all this material up there — water, fuel, gold — that doesn’t need lifting out of our gravity well. And imagine there’s a burgeoning space tourism industry, private companies going to Mars, space habitats, and they all need water to drink, gold to protect them from radiation, fuel to get them places. Imagine you could set up a refueling point in orbit, so someone could catch a cheaper flight to Low Earth Orbit, refuel, and then head out to cislunar space.
These companies aren’t mining in space to get (not-terribly-rare) rare earth metals for the Earth-based markets. We could do that down here if we had the economic motivation, and probably for cheaper than going in search of asteroids. No, these companies are going to mine space for its most valuable resource: things that are already in space.
That’s the asteroid mining future.
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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.