asteroid mining will lose a lot of money. we should do it anyway.

Today, nothing can replace terrestrial mining. But if make the necessary long-term investments, our reward will be nearly infinite cheap resources, and a cleaner, healthier Earth.
robots mining asteroid
Illustration from Prosperous Universe

It’s more or less taken for granted that one day, humanity will be mining asteroids because the countless pieces of floating debris from the creation of the solar system have enough precious and useful metals on them to meet our every need for billions of years. And remember that we’re just talking about one solar system here. Similar caches of practically infinite wealth are floating around other stars too, which is why we’re probably not going to get invaded by alien species for our resources. It would be easier for them just to catch nearby asteroids and get to work, potentially producing evidence of their existence we could one day pick up using our telescopes.

Of course, you may be asking, if mining rocks in outer space is such a worthwhile venture, why aren’t we doing it ring now, and why does so much science fiction have us exhaust nearly all of Earth’s resources first at a steep environmental price before we do? Well, the answer is that asteroid mining really isn’t profitable when you first get started. You could bring back a literal truckload of gold and platinum from orbit, but it will cost you more to get it than it could ever fetch on the market, and that’s assuming that we modify the legal framework that could make it impossible for you to actually sell your hard-earned ore. Even with falling costs of spaceflight, trying to mine asteroids today is murder on the wallet.

That said, however, we actually do have the technology to visit asteroids and have done this a few times for science. We also know how to use ion engines, which will make the trips much faster and more fuel-efficient, and there’s even a very creative proposal for asteroid hopping involving steam, of all things. Likewise, we also have a good idea for how to capture one of these flying space rocks and park it in a more cost-effective and logistically friendly orbit, and we even have plans for using concentrated sunlight to vaporize layer after layer of rock, cool it down enough for centrifuges to separate it by density, then send the extracted ore down to Earth in a shuttles or 3D printed capsules.

how much will asteroid mining cost and who’ll pay?

A realistic mission would have a likely price tag close to $4 billion versus between $500 million to $1 billion to set up a mine on Earth, but as continued mining missions put more and more reusable infrastructure in space and drive economies of scale, each asteroid becomes cheaper to mine. After a dozen missions, we could close the profitability gap between terrestrial and orbital mining without spending sums anywhere close to unreasonable. At that point, we can look at the vast environmental, political, and cultural damage mining does and very reasonably conclude that the only kind of mining we’d want to do involves rockets and robots rather than wells and pits.

Who would invest the necessary cash for such a transition? Why not mining companies? They already spend nearly $7 billion per year on exploration alone, then billions more for the right to actually extract the ore they’re after on top of lobbying and regulatory compliance. Mines also take years to become operational, much less profitable, so these businesses understand how to be patient. Spending $50 billion over a decade and a half is entirely within their abilities, and as a reward, they’d end up with access to over 800,000 asteroids, each with quadrillions worth of ore, with absolutely no expensive environmental regulations to follow in the vacuum of space, plus glowing PR on Earth.

Over the long term, we will always need to make stuff, it’s just a matter of how quickly and how much we’ll need. All the stuff we’ll make will need to be built out of materials that we can mine from asteroids for eons. Being able to deliver those materials without doing long term damage to the environment, triggering the wrath of people whose livelihoods are routinely upended by today’s mining practices, and getting embroiled in messy geopolitical conflicts seems like a win across the board for any mining company. And being able to do it for less than the annual profit of Apple amortized over 12 to 15 years seems like a no-brainer, especially with private space companies ready for creative partnerships.

why we need to figure out how to profit from change

Here’s the bottom line. Asteroid mining will happen. At some point, the technology will be good enough, money will be no object, or we’ll be desperate enough for resources to start doing it. In the process, we will create a lot of new jobs, benefit from intensive automation and AI, and as we abandon mining on Earth, environments ravaged by decades of heavy industry will recover while our quality of life improves. Technologies to generate self-sustaining energy in space will make it back down to our world in the form of microgrids, and new, more efficient materials will allow us to get more use out of our technology while using less power, and asteroid mining will be one of the main drivers of such change.

But the problem with this ominous positivity is that it can come as an effort to anticipate the changes coming over the horizon and make the choice to face them head on, or as a means of rebuilding after decades of inaction and facing ruin from seemingly apocalyptic environmental and economic disasters that would rival the effects of the Black Plague and volcanic winters. Right now, we seem to be headed down the latter path as world leaders and financiers seem incapable of understanding that there’s a future beyond the next quarter or the next election cycle, and often lack even a rudimentary understanding of modern science and technology or what they can do.

It doesn’t have to be this way. When world banks think nothing of injecting trillions of dollars to temporarily prop up stock markets, casinos of imaginary money where the wealthy play chicken with virtual money, trying to save $50 billion to lay the groundwork to effectively colonize the solar system and ensure we can clean up Earth seems absurd. After all, what good are all those stocks if the real world around the haves rots to its very foundations? It wouldn’t be the first time a civilization collapsed, its money becoming little more than a historical curiosity. And to think how much pain could be avoided and money could be gained with just a little forward thinking about space rocks and the treasures they hold…

# space // asteroid mining / economics / environment


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