If you're going to mine in space, the last thing to do is bring minerals back down to earth

Miners! In! Space!

Following on from Planetary Resources, the asteroid-mining company formed by a small group of billionaires, engineers and space exploration enthusiasts including Titanic director James Cameron and Google co-founders Larry Page and CEO Eric Schmidt, a second firm, Deep Space Industries, has revealed plans to launch a fleet of spacecraft to strip resources from small asteroids passing close to earth.

The Guardian's Ian Sample reports:

Announcing the proposals, chairman Rick Tumlinson said that resources locked-up in nearby asteroids were sufficient to "expand the civilisation of Earth out into the cosmos ad infinitum".

The first prospecting missions with what the company call FireFly and DragonFly probes could hitch a ride into space on the launches of large communications satellites, it said.

The company hopes ultimately to land spacecraft on hurtling asteroids and have them scrape up material for processing in space or for return to Earth for sale. One long-term idea is to build a space-borne manufacturing facility that takes in asteroid material, processes it into usable alloys and other substances, and makes objects with the material via a 3D printer.

The crucial thing to realise in order to make space mining work is that, surprisingly, most minerals are far more valuable if they are left in space.

For all the talk — repeated by Deep Space Industries — of "asteroids with more gold and platinum in them than the human race has used in its entire history", the company has a ready made market if it takes advantage of the fact that it costs roughly $20,000/Kg to launch something in to space. That means anything it can mine up there which has the slightest bit of use in space exploration — water, oxygen, hydrogen in particular, but many other common minerals — can be sold for around that amount to other companies trying to do things in orbit.

In fact, until that launch price drops — perhaps because of a space elevator (we should build a space elevator) there is no reason to mine anything for earth's consumption at all. Even platinum, one of the most valuable things they could find, is only worth $50,000/Kg on earth right now. The costs getting a Kg of platinum just from orbit to ground level are pretty high — though obviously not as bad as the reverse trip — but once you start bringing it down in any large quantity, the market will be flooded. Unless Deep Space Industries are planning on become a sort of Star Trek De Beers, controlling the supply of precious metals with an iron fist, they'd do better steering clear of the shiny stuff and focusing on helping future astronauts breath and drink.

A concept rendering of a fuel harvester. Photograph: Deep Space Industries

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
Show Hide image

The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.