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
Show Hide image

Who's winning the European referendum? The Vicar of Dibley gives us a clue

These polls seem meaningless, but they reveal things more conventional ones miss.

At the weekend, YouGov released some polling on 30 fictional characters and their supposed views on Brexit.  If you calculate a net pro-Remain score (per cent thinking that person would back Remain minus the per cent thinking they’d vote for Leave), you have a list that is topped by Geraldine Granger, the Vicar of Dibley (+21), and ends with Jim Royle (-38).

It’s easy to mock this sort of thing, and plenty did: “pointless”, “polling jumping the shark”, and so on. Some even think pollsters ask daft questions just to generate cheap headlines. What a cynical world we live in.

But the answers to those questions tell you quite a lot, both about the referendum campaign and about voters in general.

For one thing, most of the fictional characters that people saw as voting to Remain are (broadly) nice people, whilst the Outers included a fair few you’d not want to be stuck in a lift with, along with other chancers and wasters. On one side, you have the Vicar of Dibley (+21), Mary Poppins (+13), Miranda (+11), and Dr Who (+9) taking on Hyacinth Bucket (-13), Tracy Barlow (-15), Del Boy (-28), and Basil Fawlty (-36) on the other. This isn’t really much of a contest.

Obviously, some of these are subjective judgements. Personally, I’d not want to be stuck in a lift with the Vicar of Dibley under any circumstances – but she’s clearly meant to be a broadly sympathetic character.  Ditto – with knobs on – Miranda. And yes, some of the Outer characters are more nuanced. Captain Mainwaring (-31) may be pompous and insecure, but he is a brave man doing his best for his country. But still, it’s hard not to see some sort of division here, between broadly good people (Remain) and some more flawed individuals (Out).

So, on one level, this offers a pretty good insight into how people see the campaigns.  It’s why polling companies ask these sort of left-field questions – like the famous Tin Man and Scarecrow question asked by John Zogby – because they can often get at something that normal questions might miss. Sure, they also generate easy publicity for the polling company – but life’s not binary: some things can generate cheap headlines and still be interesting.

But there are two caveats. First, when you look at the full data tables you find that the numbers saying Don’t Know to each of these questions are really big– as high as 55 per cent for both Tracy Barlow and Arthur Dent. The lowest is for both Basil Fawlty and Del Boy, but that’s still 34 per cent. For 26 out of the 30 characters, the plurality response was Don’t Know. The data don’t really show that the public think Captain Birdseye (-11) is for Out; when half of all respondents said they don’t know, they show that the public doesn’t really have a clue what Captain Birdseye thinks.

Much more importantly, second, when you look at the cross breaks, it becomes clear how much of this is being driven by people’s own partisan views. Take James Bond, for example. Overall, he was seen as slightly pro-Remain (+5). But he’s seen as pro-Brexit (-22) by Brexit voters, and pro-Remain (+30) by Remain voters.

The same split applies to Dr Who, Postman Pat, Sherlock Holmes, Miranda, and so on.

In fact, of the 30 characters YouGov polled about, there were just eleven where respondents from both sides of the debate agreed – and these eleven excluded almost all of the broadly positive characters.

So, here’s the ten characters where both Remain and Leave voters agreed would be for Brexit: Alan Partridge; Jim Royle; Del Boy; Hyacinth Bucket; Pat Butcher; Tracy Barlow; Captain Mainwaring; Catherine Tate’s Nan; Cruella De Vil; and Basil Fawlty.

That’s not a great roll call. And it must be saying something that even Outers think Cruella De Vil, Alan Patridge, and Hyacinth Bucket would be one of theirs.

Mind you, the only pro-Remain character that both sides agree on is Sir Humphrey Appleby. That’s not great either.

For the rest, everyone wants them for their own.

So what about those who say they don’t yet know how they will vote in the referendum? These might be the key swing voters, after all. Maybe they can give a more unbiased response. Turns out their ranking is broadly similar to the overall one – with scores that are somewhere between the views of the Outers and the Inners.

But with this group the figures for don’t knows get even bigger: 54 per cent at a minimum, rising to a massive 77 per cent for Arthur Dent.

And that’s because, lacking a partisan view about the referendum, they are not able to project this view onto fictional characters.  They lack, in the jargon, a heuristic enabling them to answer the question. Which tells you something about how most people answered the questions.

Philip Cowley is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London.