Will space mining become a reality?

Planetary Resources to Soviet meteor diamonds and beyond.

As US presidential candidates drum up support in their race for the White House, scientists are also working against the clock to get space mining on the agenda before the 2014 budget plan takes off.

This month, four entrepreneurs made their pitches at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Space 2012 conference, Clint Eastwood-style.

Neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney attended the event, so space panelists addressed two empty chairs with their ideas, paying tribute to Eastwood’s "invisible Obama" act at the Republican national convention. The delegates poked fun at the candidates but were deadly serious about space-age ideas.

The buzz really started in April, with the arrival of Planetary Resources (PR) – a new venture made up of the Nasa scientists Chris Lewicki and Tom Jones and the space entrepreneurs Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson – which hopes to mine near-earth asteroids within ten years.

PR’s timing couldn’t be better. Not since the early space missions have "interplanetary exploration", "asteroids" and all things Martian been household buzzwords. It's all thanks to Nasa’s Mars rover Curiosity, which, as I write, is unlocking the geological secrets of a pyramid-shaped rock named Jake Matijevic.

As if this wasn’t exciting enough, the world was recently given a glimpse of the treasure troves we could find orbiting in space and right here on earth.

Russia recently revealed that the crater of a meteorite that landed in Siberia 35 million years ago, contains trillions of carats of rare diamonds. The Soviet government discovered the deposit in 1970s but it’s only now that documents have been disclosed revealing the true extent of the diamond hoard, which scientists say could supply the entire world for 3,000 years.

The growing interest in space mining is understandable. Based on known reserves on earth and growing consumption in developing countries, it is estimated that key elements such as gold and platinum, essential for modern industries, could be exhausted within 60 years. Yet with analysts claiming that mining in space is not economically feasible, are the scientists' ideas a little starry-eyed?

Due to Nasa’s tightening budget, just $800m is currently available to bring rock samples from Mars back to earth, not a substantial amount considering an upcoming mission to return just two ounces of material from an asteroid will cost $1bn.

As for PR, this company has the financial backing of the Google billionaires Eric Schmidt and Larry Page but how much of a profit can be made from mining platinum and gold, valued at about $1,600 an ounce, when logistical costs are so high?

The 100km Popigai meteorite crater found in Siberia is said to contain diamonds that are two times harder than regular ones but these resources can only be used for industrial use, not jewellery. Currently, the cost of mining far outweighs the asking price for industrial diamonds and profits can only be made from selling gemstone diamonds. The market already has a more easily accessible substitute for this material: lab-grown industrial diamonds.

The world, it seems, is stuck in a catch-22 situation – it needs money to fund mining and it need mining to make money. The question is, should scientists, entrepreneurs and governments wait until earth’s reserves run out or take a giant leap of faith?

Sarah Blackman is the energy features writer for the NRI Digital network.

Back to mine: space mining in the 1981 film Outland. Credit: a production still from Warner

Sarah Blackman is the energy features writer for the NRI Digital network.

Photo: Getty Images
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We don't need to build more prisons - we need to send fewer people there

The government talks a good game on prisons - but at the moment, the old failed policies hold sway

Some years ago the Howard League set up an independent expert review of what should happen to the penal system. We called it Do better, do less.

Too many governments have come in with enthusiasm for doing more, in the mistaken belief that this means better. We have ended up with more prisons, more prisoners, a bulging system that costs a fortune and blights lives. It is disappointing that the new regime appears to have fallen into the same old trap.

It is a big mistake to imagine that the justice system can be asked to sort out people’s lives. Prisons rarely, very rarely, turn people into model citizens able to get a great job and settle with a family. It is naïve to think that building huge new prisons with fewer staff but lots of classrooms will help to ‘rehabilitate’ people.

Let’s turn this on its head. There are more than 80,000 men in prison at any one time, and 40,000 of them are serving long sentences. Simply giving them a few extra courses or getting them to do a bit more work at £10 a week means they are still reliant on supplementary funding from families. Imagine you are the wife or partner of a man who is serving five to ten years. Why should you welcome him back to your home and your bed after all that time if you have hardly been able to see him, you got one phone call a week, and he’s spent all those years in a highly macho environment?

The message of new prisons providing the answer to all our problems has been repeated ad nauseam. New Labour embarked on a massive prison-building programme with exactly the same message that was trotted out in the Spending Review today – that new buildings will solve all our problems. Labour even looked at selling off Victorian prisons but found it too complicated as land ownership is opaque. It is no surprise that, despite trumpeting the sell-off of Victorian prisons, the one that was announced was in fact a jail totally rebuilt in the 1980s, Holloway.

The heart of the problem is that too many people are sent to prison, both on remand and under sentence. Some 70 per cent of the people remanded to prison by magistrates do not get a prison sentence and tens of thousands get sentenced to a few weeks or months. An erroneous diagnosis of the problem has led to expensive and ineffective policy responses. I am disappointed that yet again the Ministry of Justice is apparently embarking on expansion instead of stemming the flow into the system.

A welcome announcement is the court closure programme and investment in technology. Perhaps, in the end, fewer courts will choke the flow of people into the system, but I am not optimistic.

It is so seductive for well-meaning ministers to want to sort out people’s lives. But this is not the way to do it. Homeless people stealing because they are hungry (yes, it is happening more and more) are taking up police and court time and ending up in prison. We all know that mentally ill people comprise a substantial proportion of the prison population. It is cheaper, kinder and more efficacious to invest in front line services that prevent much of the crime that triggers a criminal justice intervention.

That does leave a cohort of men who have committed serious and violent crime and will be held in custody for public safety reasons. This is where I agree with recent announcements that prison needs to be transformed. The Howard League has developed a plan for this, allowing long-term prisoners to work and earn a real wage.

The spending review was an opportunity to do something different and to move away from repeating the mistakes of the past. There is still time; we have a radical Justice Secretary whose rhetoric is redemptive and compassionate. I hope that he has the courage of these convictions.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.