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.

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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?