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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.