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
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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