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.

Tracey Thorn. CRedit: Getty
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“Not technically beautiful, she has an engaging laugh”: 35 years of being described by men

For women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

I am sure you all saw the Twitter challenge that took off the other day – a request to women to “describe yourself like a male author would”, started by the writer Whitney Reynolds. There were thousands of hilarious replies, with women imagining how a bad male author would describe them. I thought about posting an example, but then realised, I didn’t have to imagine this. I’ve been being described by male journalists for more than 35 years.

Katy Waldman in the New Yorker wrote about the challenge, and how it highlighted clichés in men’s writing: “…prose that takes conspicuous notice of a female character’s physical imperfections. This is done with an aura of self-satisfaction, as if the protagonist deserves credit simply for bestowing his descriptive prowess upon a person of less than conventional loveliness.”

And oh boy, that hit home. Yes, I thought, that is precisely how I’ve been described, too many times to recall, so many times that I’ve actually sort of stopped noticing. The following aren’t direct quotes, but near enough.

“Not conventionally pretty, Thorn nevertheless somehow manages to be curiously attractive.” “Her face may not be technically beautiful but she has an engaging laugh.” “Her intelligence shines through the quirky features.” Often what’s irritating isn’t the hint of an insult, but just being wide of the mark. “She isn’t wearing any make-up” (oh my god, of course she is). “She’s wearing some kind of shapeless shift” (it’s Comme des Garçons FFS).

I’m not trying to arouse sympathy. I’m much thicker-skinned than you may imagine, hence surviving in this business for so long. But the point is, for women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

A few weeks ago, when I was in Brussels and Paris doing interviews, I was taken aback all over again by the absence of female journalists interviewing me about my album – an album that is being described everywhere as “nine feminist bangers”. As the 14th man walked through the door, my heart slightly sank. I feel like a bore banging on about this sometimes, but it astonishes me that certain aspects of this business remain so male-dominated.

Even the journalists sometimes have the good grace to notice the anomaly. One youngish man, (though not that young) told me I was only the third woman he had ever interviewed, which took my breath away. I look at my playlists of favourite tracks over the last year or so, and they are utterly dominated by SZA, Angel Olsen, Lorde, St Vincent, Mabel, Shura, Warpaint, Savages, Solange, Kate Tempest, Tove Lo, Susanne Sundfør, Janelle Monáe, Jessie Ware and Haim, so there certainly isn’t any shortage of great women. I’ve been asked to speak at a music event, and when I was sent the possible line-up I couldn’t help noticing that over three days there were 56 men and seven women speaking. The final bill might be an improvement on that, but still. Any number of music festivals still operate with this kind of mad imbalance.

Is it down to the organisers not asking? Or, in the case of this kind of discussion event, women often feeling they don’t “know” enough? It’s a vicious circle, the way that men and their music can be so intimidating. The more you’re always in the minority, the more you feel like you don’t belong. Record shops seemed that way to me when I was a teen, places where guys hung out and looked at you like you didn’t know your Pink Floyd from your Pink Flag.

I also have to watch songs of mine being described by male writers, and sometimes misinterpreted. I’ve got one called “Guitar” on my new record. There’s a boy in the lyrics, but he’s incidental – it’s a love song to my first Les Paul copy. That fact has sailed over the heads of a couple of male reviewers who’ve seen it as a song all about a boy.

That’s the trouble, isn’t it? You miss things when you leave women out, or view female characters through the prism of their attractiveness, or when you take for granted that you’re at the centre of every story, every lyric. I bet you think this piece is about you. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge