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.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR