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
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Leader: Labour and the Brexit debacle

The party appears to favour having its cake and eating it – yet the dilemma is not insuperable.

In the year since a narrow majority of people voted to leave the European Union, the Brexit project has not aged well. Theresa May’s appeal to the electorate to “strengthen” her hand in negotiations was humiliatingly rejected in the general election. Having repeatedly warned of a “coalition of chaos” encompassing ­Labour and the Scottish National Party, the Prime Minister has been forced to strike a panicked parliamentary deal with the Democratic Unionist Party. European leaders have been left bewildered by events in the United Kingdom.

The Brexiteers, who won the referendum on a fraudulent prospectus, have struggled to cope with the burden of responsibility. In the manner of Dr Pangloss, they maintain that the UK will flourish outside the EU and that those who suggest otherwise are too pessimistic, or even unpatriotic. Yet wishful thinking is not a strategy. Though the immediate recession forecast by the Treasury has been avoided, the cost of Brexit is already being borne in squeezed living standards (owing to the pound’s depreciation) and delayed investment decisions.

At the same time, far from disintegrating as the most ardent Leavers predicted, the EU is recovering, with a revival of the Franco-German axis under Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel. Donald Trump’s antics have dispelled the illusion that “the Anglosphere” can function as an alternative to the bloc. Britain has embarked on the great task of withdrawal at a time of profound national and global instability.

For all this, the Brexiteers retain an indisputable mandate. What the Brexiteers have no mandate for is their model of withdrawal. And there is a nascent majority in the House of Commons for a “soft” exit. Roughly two-thirds of voters remain supportive of Brexit but they have no desire to harm the economy in the process. A recent YouGov survey found that 58 per cent believe Britain should trade freely with the EU, even at the cost of continued free movement into Britain.

In these circumstances, Labour has profited from ambiguity. Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to uphold the referendum result and to end free movement won the respect of Leavers in the election. His pro-migration rhetoric and promise of a “jobs-first” Brexit impressed Remainers, who were in the mood to give the Tories a bloody nose. Although Labour fell 64 seats short of a majority, it partly spanned a divide that had been considered unbridgeable.

Mr Corbyn’s desire to avoid the cross-party Brexit commission proposed by some commentators and MPs is understandable. As Ed Smith observes on page 22, Brexit is a metaphorical “plague” that contaminates all those who touch it, claiming one Conservative prime minister and fatally infecting another. The Tories, who inflicted an unnecessary EU referendum on the UK, must not redistribute the blame.

As the Brexit negotiations progress, however, Labour cannot maintain its opacity. While vowing to retain “the benefits of the single market and the customs union”, it has also pledged to “end” freedom of movement. Like the risible ­Boris Johnson, Labour appears to favour having its cake and eating it. Yet the dilemma is not insuperable.

The logical extension of the party’s vow to give the economy priority over immigration control is to support continued single-market membership. This is the most practical and reliable means of ensuring that Britain’s dominant services sector retains the access it requires. Membership of the customs union would ensure the same for manufacturers. Economic retreat from the EU, which accounts for 44 per cent of all UK exports, would unavoidably reduce growth and living standards.

Such an arrangement need not entail continued free movement, however. Under existing EU rules (not applied by the UK), immigrants resident for longer than three months must prove that they are working (employed or self-employed) or a registered student, or have “sufficient resources” to support themselves and not be “a burden on the benefits system”.

It falls to Labour, as a reinvigorated and increasingly popular opposition, to chart an alternative to the ideological Brexiteers on the Tory benches as well as in the virulent right-wing press. Is Mr Corbyn a covert Brexiteer? It does not really matter. What matters is that he leads a party of committed Europeans who have no wish to see Britain humiliated, its influence in the world reduced, and its economy damaged by the folly of the Brexit debacle. 

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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