Space Resources: Re-Igniting A Can-Do Spirit Of Ambition
    By David Brin | April 23rd 2012 01:57 PM | 7 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About David

    David Brin is a scientist, public speaker, technical consultant and author of books including The Postman, Startide Rising, The Uplift War and Existence...

    View David's Profile

    It appears that a small cabal of  billionaires -- those who got rich through innovation and who feel loyal to the future -- are about to to fund a new effort worth some excitement and attention. It aims at transforming not just our Earth -- but the whole solar system. And, along the way, this endeavor may help bootstrap us back into our natural condition... a species, nation and civilization that believes (again) in can-do ambition.

    Can that be achieved - while making us all rich - through asteroid mining? 

    In its Tuesday announcement, Space exploration company Planetary Resources claims a goal to "create a new industry and a new definition of 'natural resources.'... adding trillions of dollars to the global GDP."

    Resources from space? It's not a wholly new concept.  Way back in the 1980s, in his prophetic book - Mining The Sky: Untold Riches From The Asteroids, Comets, And Planets, my friend and colleague John S. Lewis explored in detail the range of minerals, volatiles and other useful materials to be found in all the different types of small bodies we know to be drifting about the solar system, from carbonaceous chondrites to stony or iron meteoroids, to dormant comets which (according to my doctoral thesis) may make up to a third of the asteroids we find out there.*

    Back then, as a young fellow at the California Space Institute, I recall many long conversations with John and the few others working in the field, striving to come up with ways to get some movement in this area. Before it became clear that the Space Shuttle would suck up every gram of funding or attention.

     What makes this new effort unique is its high-profile support group. The venture is backed by Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, film director James Cameron, and politician Ross Perot's son, among others.  Moreover, I am pleased to note that John Lewis is, indeed, one of the major advisors for this new company, along with his former students, noted planetary scientists Chris Lewicki and Tom Jones.

    The founders apparently did their homework. (A Cameron trademark.)  They apparently mean business.

    == A Long and Hard Road ==

    But what kind of business? Is such a grand project feasible? As I see it, there are a several distinct general problem domains.

    1) Prioritizing asteroidal science.  Naturally, as an astronomer who specialized in small solar system bodies, I approve of this phase one. (My wife, Cheryl, also did her doctoral work in this area - we're neighbors in the solar system.) 

    It also correlates well with President Obama's wise decision to abandon a fruitless return to the sterile Moon, in favor of studying objects that might make us all rich.

    In fact, this seems an excellent time for private funding to make a big difference. New thresholds have been reached. The technologies needed for inexpensive asteroid rendezvous missions are coming to fruition rapidly, as we saw at the recent NASA NIAC meeting.  Some, in fact, are downright amazing, opening the potential for missions that cost mere tens of millions, rather than billions of dollars, confirming and characterizing these fascinating - and possibly lucrative - bodies.

    2) Shepherding and changing the trajectories of small meteoroids and asteroids.  There are several techniques on the table.  Some of them surprisingly simple, using solar sails.  We might as well get started! And if these guys can give the technologies a boost, more power to them.

    3) Legal, safety and environmental impact considerations. Is it even permissible to grab and "own" space resources? The pertinent treaties were left deliberately vague and it may be time to update them, so that investors in wealth-generating processes can be sure of decent return.

    Of much more public concern - and sure to dominate the headlines - will be the image of deliberately moving asteroidal bodies toward the Earth. That's sure to prompt a lot of fretting and talk of lurid disaster scenarios. Oh, we'll start small and aim them toward the Moon or Lagrangian Points (e.g. L5), giving plenty of time to discuss issues of law and care in space. But these fellows need to come up with just the right tone of prudence, avoiding the kinds of lines spoken by Michael Crichton's science-hubris villains.  Like: "all contingencies are accounted for - there's no cause for concern!"

    Worth pondering on the up-side: these same technologies might someday prove very useful, if we spot something dangerous, on a long-warning collision course toward Earth.  If done right, this is a potential world-saver, not world-killer.

    4) Mining, disassembly, smelting and refining in space.  Here we're still in a very tentative, sketching phase. Most concepts involve using large mirrors to concentrate sunlight and process the raw materials. Or else solar energy to drive heat and electro-mechanical processes indirectly. If this can be done robotically and efficiently, all the way off in L1 or Lunar Orbit, then much smaller masses of refined substance could be transported down to GEO... where electrodynamic tugs might bring it to LEO... where cheap, asteroid-made braking shells would deliver the goods safely to collection points on Earth.

    5)  Or, better yet, much of the iron and nickel and such could be used up there in orbit to make more cool things and reduce the burden of launching bulk material out of our planet's deep gravity well.  Certainly, storing the volatile like water and carbon and nitrogen compounds in orbit-made tanks will be a major side-benefit, providing the materials needed most for both life support and rocket fuel. To derive those benefits would entail learning to do many other things in space. Larger habitats and radiation shielding. Possibly solar energy collectors of massive scale, beaming power 24/7 to Earth. Or grand vessels to explore the planets.

    6) Economics. It's a lot more complicated than the first calculations might make you imagine. In Mining The Sky, John Lewis calculates that even just one asteroid a kilometer across - of a certain type - might (if smelted down) produce the world's entire steel production for 10 years!  

    It gets better. Try the entire world's gold and silver production for 100 years!  That plus a thousand year's production of platinum-group elements.

    The good news?  We would be unleashed to do a myriad things with cheap raw materials, while cutting way back on wasteful, inefficient and polluting processes to mine and process the stuff here on Earth.  Much less digging, grinding and greenhouse gas emissions. All that wealth, generated with solar mirrors melting rocks way out in space.  Talk about improving the balance of payments....

    One reality check?  Downstream, after this ball gets fully rolling and initial R&D costs are paid off, you can expect the prices of gold and platinum to plummet.  That's a good thing, overall! We have much better uses for gold than leering gleefully over stupid coins and bars. Still, bear this in mind when you start rubbing your hands over how rich you'll get from asteroid mining.

    You won't be rich enough to own the world.  Sorry.  Just very very very rich, from doing a whole heap-loads lot of good for us all.

    7) Which brings us to the final benefit of all this. We'll all benefit.  But the top fellows who are taking the risks, who will reap a lot of the rewards, happen also to be the good billionaires. Archetypes of how capitalism ought to work.  Self-made moguls who got wealthy by helping engender new-better products and services, not by means that Adam Smith himself derided as parasitism.  These guys have proved, time and again, their loyalty to the positive-sum process that raises all boats.  This is the kind of endeavor that will keep them up there as role models, instead of the new feudalists.

    It's a better way to get rich ... by delivering magnificent, daring products that help take us to the stars.

    == NOTES ==

    A little colorful aside:

    In our 1984 novel Heart of the Comet (soon to be re-released) Gregory Benford and I portrayed a dramatized effort to harvest space resources, by sending a human crewed mission to Halley's Comet in 2065, intending to use the controlled evaporation of the comet's own material (an effect long-known) to divert it into orbit near the Earth.

    A bit extravagant in its action-adventure aspects (though based on my doctoral work), the book still conveys the best science known about these mysterious and wonderful bodies, including the main process by which some of them evolve into dormant asteroids.


    Iā€™m really pleased that you are writing about these things, David.

    Would you care to speculate on the near-term steps that might be taken? Assuming that the logistics of a suitable vehicle is settled, do you think the steps might be something like so: 1 ā€“ investigate the Earth Trojans (and mine them), 2 ā€“ Visit other NEOs, 3 - ?

    3) Is the big one for me. The problem with the "but this also helps protect us if an object is heading TOWARDs Earth" argument is of course real risk analysis. The chances of a dangerous body naturally headed towards Earth are literally astronomical. The chances of a human being deciding to do something rash? Lots more likely, even if still a slim chance.

    The risk is in the mid-term, of course. EVENTUALLY if there is enough near-Earth-orbit traffic, it will be very difficult for something dangerous to be directed towards the planet without a resource being available to divert it. And in the short term the resources to do such a thing are not easily available, even to billionaires. But in the mid term, when near Earth orbit traffic is sparse, but the resources (solar sails, ion motors) are present in sufficient numbers, then the chances of a problem are greater. If Spaceama Bin Laden DID direct an asteroid towards Earth, could we spot it in time, and could we divert it?

    While the chance may seem slim, the *ahem* impact of the problem is so high that it must be given real consideration as we start to venture into space. I'm not concern-trolling here - get me a berth and I'll take up space mining TOMORROW. But one asteroid dropped on New York City (it's always New York City) could seriously pooch things for the world.

    Mining for gold or platinum in space is ridiculous. Getting an ounce of gold out of space to the earth would make it ridiculously expensive. Quite hilarious is the idea of mining water in space. Why not beer?
    I think the only viable option is to mine for silicium on the moon, and to use it locally for the production of solar panels, which in turn would generate the power to sustain their production. Only this way could we bootstrap the production of cheap energy on the moon, which could then be used for some kind of factory, where silicon and other elements could be produced in very high quality by some mass-spectrography.
    The most valuable assets in outer space are (solar) energy and vacuum. Priceless nothing!

    I don't understand why mining water in space is hilarious? Are they supposed to ship the water up from Earth? Or are you saying that sending water from space to the Earth won't be cost-effective? The latter may be true. On the other hand available fresh water on Earth may become quite scarce - fit a bag of water with a re-entry shield and some parachutes, and you may be able to drop fresh water into a given location (the Sahara Desert for example) in an affordable manner (assuming the people, equipment, etc. are already in orbit).

    As far as getting gold or iron out of space to the Earth, likewise, fit it with a heat shield and a parachute and just drop it, no? It's getting things OUT of the gravity well that is expensive, dropping them IN is pretty cheap... no?

    Lex Anderson
    As far as getting gold or iron out of space to the Earth, likewise, fit it with a heat shield and a parachute and just drop it, no? It's getting things OUT of the gravity well that is expensive, dropping them IN is pretty cheap... no? 
    While not as expensive as escape trajectories, I wouldn't call de-orbit "cheap". The orbital velocity must be overcome by thrust (delta-v) to cause the cargo to move through successively lower orbits into a controlled entry trajectory. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the more massive the object, the more energy you have to spend getting it to "fall" to Earth. An object 100km above the Earth (about the height of the ISS) has about 30 MJ/kg orbital energy. You can get some free deceleration at low orbits from atmospheric and gravitational drag by waiting months or years; but in the end you still have to apply delta-v at exactly the right time to get the right trajectory.

    Once that half of the problem is solved -- and providing you have sufficient shielding -- the remaining problem will be preventing catastrophic impact. For water the trick may be aiming it rather than slowing it down. If you target an existing freshwater lake (and don't mind the odd tusnami) you might better spend the money on flight control surfaces rather than parachutes or retrograde rockets needed for other types of cargo. Either way, it costs fuel and hardware (vessel, shields, engines, parachutes) to bring anything to Earth if you want it to be useful after it arrives._

    Then you have mission control, tracking and telemetry, recovery costs and insurance against the odd mishap. Even with all of this it may still be a financially viable business model for some types of cargo... but by no means cheap.
    Frank Parks
    Water on earth is plentiful.  Sometimes it's in the wrong place or in combination with unwanted chemicals.  The cost of purifying water, and transporting it for earth bound uses, is likely to be a lot less than trying to get it from space.

    The oxidation and hydrolyzing properties of water will make it valuable in extra-terra manufacturing.  And, those space dudes and princesses will want a bath on Saturday.
    Thank you, Aaron and Frank, for understanding my ill formulated joke. The point is, that water is very valuable, in SPACE, as gold is very valuable, on EARTH. The problem indeed in getting the stuff up, or down.
    Now what we should do, is look in space for something that is very valuable in space, and very cheap. One thing is vacuum, and absence of gravity. Another thing is solar energy.
    If you could vaporize, and ionize, extraterrestial matter and beam it through a magnetic field, you could separate the different elements, and so produce high quality silicon, for getting more solar energy, and even iron and gold. But I think a factory like that might be easier to build on the surface of the moon.