Can mining space save Earth?

Mining asteroids in space may create a resources boom on earth.

Yesterday afternoon, a small group of billionaires, engineers and space exploration enthusiasts – including Titanic director James Cameron, Google co-founder Larry Page and CEO Eric Schmidt, and Peter Diamandis, the chairman of the X-PRIZE foundation, which encourages development of space technology – launched Planetary Resources, a company founded with the eventual aim of mining near-earth asteroids (near-earth in this context meaning "closer than the moon").

It's all very sci-fi, even their website, which looks like it could be a publicity stunt for Ridley Scott's new thriller Prometheus. But they are deadly serious about their aim, and it looks like they might achieve it. Discover Magazine's Bad Astronomy blog has a long post explaining their vision:

The key point is that their plan is not to simply mine precious metals and make millions or billions of dollars – though that’s a long-range goal. If that were the only goal, it would cost too much, be too difficult, and probably not be attainable. Instead, they’ll make a series of calculated smaller missions that will grow in size and scope.

The first step is to get a load of small telescopes into low earth orbit, and begin space-prospecting. By making the telescopes pretty tiny – they'll be 22cm long in a spacecraft 40cm square – they plan to save money piggybacking onto other launches. Once they're up, they start looking for asteroids on a trajectory to be close enough to mine, and with a make-up of valuable minerals.

Crucial to their plan is revenue generation in stages. Even with all those billionaires behind them, if they waited to get the first mined material back before they made any money, the company would probably go bankrupt. So once the telescopes are up in space, Planetary Resources will probably start selling some of the data they generate back to organisations with more mature spaceflight capabilities (basically, NASA), who can put it to more immediate use.

From there, the same basic design of telescope can be used, with the addition of a small motor, as a probe to check specific asteroids out in more detail. Once one has been found with useful resources, the mining begins. But the first minerals to be extracted aren't what you'd expect.

Rather than go straight for the platinum and gold which some asteroids have in abundance, the target will likely be water, oxygen and nitrogen. All of these have very low boiling points, so are tricky to get into space, and hard to find once up there – but crucial to exploration. Planetary Resource's chief engineer tells Bad Astronomy that it costs $20,000 to get a litre of water into space. Focusing on things which are valuable in space, rather than on earth, means that the problem of re-entry can be safely ignored for a while longer.

Eventually, though, the company hopes to mine asteroids for materials to use back on earth. If they are successful, it could lead to a major change in resource abundance. They point out that:

A single platinum-rich 500 meter wide asteroid contains about 174 times the yearly world output of platinum, and 1.5 times the known world-reserves of platinum group metals (ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium, and platinum).

A kilogram of platinum is worth roughly $50,000, but that price would, of course, plummet if 174 times the world output were made available even over the course of a century. If, however, an equilibrium price results in it being economical for Planetary Resources to bring most of it to market, then the surge in availability could have interesting effects. Unlike gold, platinum is relatively chemically active, hence its use in catalytic converters, and has many potential applications – if only it weren't so damn expensive.

It'll be a long trip to get there, but they seem serious. Whether the resource injection will be a major change, or just improve things at the margin, depends on a number of factors that aren't yet clear, but it will be fun to watch them work it out.

The Arkyd telescope is seen here in its 22cm glory. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.