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Those of you who have watched Syfy’s Expanse season – resurrected by Amazon for its fourth iteration – would be well aware of the concept of space mining. Set in a future where humans have colonized the entire solar system, the series explores a realistic take on what may well become reality in the near-future. After all, humans have a rapacious appetite and our sole planetary home, the Earth, does not possess unlimited depositories of resources that have become so vital in the modern era.
Earth’s resource starvation
We are currently in an ecological overshoot. This means that our demand for resources that the Earth’s land and oceans can provide – food, wood, cotton for clothing, carbon dioxide absorption, etc. – far exceeds what the planet’s ecosystems can renew. Moreover, this imbalance is only growing more pronounced with time. Today it takes the equivalent of 1.75 Earths to provide the resources that we currently consume. In other words, the Earth now requires one year and eight months to regenerate what we use in a single year. This manner of consumption is unsustainable in the long run.
Then there are resources, such as rare metals, that have a very limited supply on Earth and whose scarcity is increasing day by day.
The following infographic from ‘Visually’ illustrates how long some of our most vital resources will last at the current consumption rate (for a detailed view of the infographic below, head to this link):
Space mining – a viable solution to the conundrum of Earth’s resource scarcity
Fortunately for us, our immediate celestial neighborhood is literally brimming with resources that can be accessed via space mining. For example, a resident of the asteroid belt – 16 Psyche – is worth an estimated $10,000 quadrillion or $10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000! Bear in mind that 1 quadrillion equals a whopping 1 million trillion. So why is this chunk of rock so valuable? It is thought to be the exposed iron core of a protoplanet and is considered one of the most massive metallic M-type asteroids. Additionally, it is believed that the asteroid contains gigantic deposits of gold.
Moreover, at current market price, an ounce of platinum is worth around $1,500. A single 500-meter platinum-rich asteroid can meet the entire global annual demand. A 450-meter wide platinum-rich asteroid, officially named 2011 UW158, passed Earth in 2015 at a distance of 2.4 million kilometers. This asteroid is believed to contain an astonishing 90 million tons of platinum in its core!
The following infographic from Statista details some of the other valuable asteroids in our vicinity:
Then there are other uses of space mining without which extraterrestrial exploration will remain unviable. For example, an astronaut staying on the International Space Station for six month requires 1 ton of water. At present, this water has to be transported from the Earth and costs around $50 million. However, numerous asteroids are believed to be extremely rich in water and may serve as a crucial node to sustain humans in their extraterrestrial voyages.
The infographic below from 'Planetary Resources' visualizes the space economy of the future:
Emerging players in the space mining goldrush
Given the size of wealth that awaits explorers in our celestial vicinity, it is hardly surprising that key players are gearing up to take a bite out of the space mining goldrush.
On the 25th of November 2015, the U.S administration brought this new frontier into the limelight when President Obama signed the so-called “Space Law”. The law facilitates private American companies in exploring space resources commercially and makes it clear that whoever is capable of recovering resources from an asteroid has the right to “own, transport, use and sell it”. Bear in mind that previously space was considered publicly-owned which barred any single entity from claiming ownership over any space resource. This law, however, upended that regime by opening space mining to the competitive forces of capitalism which, in turn, have responded both swiftly and decisively.
At present, a number of entities are vying for their place in history as the pioneers of space mining.
At the forefront is SpaceX, founded by Tesla’s (NASDAQ:TSLA) CEO Elon Musk. The company transports satellites into orbit for the U.S. military as well as other customers, carries cargo to the International Space Station and aims to start flying NASA astronauts and high-paying tourists soon.
Currently, SpaceX primarily relies on its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets for orbit and space missions. Moreover, the company’s rocket retrieval and reuse technology has allowed it to cut costs significantly. However, the company is also developing a new and fully reusable launch system – known as Starship – which also includes a novel Super Heavy booster. Eventually, Starship could replace both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy and become SpaceX’s sole launch vehicle, thereby, reducing launch costs and boosting profitability in the process. Starship may also prove to be a crucial node in achieving Elon Musk’s long-stated goal of colonizing Mars which, in turn, could go a long way in facilitating space mining. The enterprise is currently valued at $33 billion and may be worth as much as $120 billion in a few years.
Next, we have the Blue Origin aerospace company owned by Amazon’s (NASDAQ:AMZN) CEO Jeff Bezos. The company envisions a future where millions of people will live and work in space. Its ‘New Shepard’ is a reusable suborbital rocket system designed to take astronauts and research payloads past the Kármán line – the internationally recognized boundary of space – in 11 minutes.
Also, Blue Origin’s ‘New Glenn’ is a single configuration heavy-lift launch vehicle capable of carrying people and payloads routinely to Earth's orbit and beyond. Featuring a reusable first stage built for 25 missions, the vehicle is key to the company’s vision of building a road to space and, ultimately, space mining and exploration.
Bear in mind that Jeff Bezos is currently the richest person on the planet with a net worth of $126 billion. Elon Musk, on the other hand, has a relatively modest net worth of $38.2 billion. However, should either of these two entrepreneurs deliver a viable space mining operation, we would be looking at a net worth counted in trillions of dollars.
The Deep Space Industries (DSI) is another valid contender in this arena. The company was acquired on the 1st of January 2019 by Bradford Space. DSI's stated goal is to democratize access to deep space and the company is currently working on a number of projects to achieve its aim.
Its Xplorer spacecraft is being designed to use its own propulsion system to travel from low Earth orbit (LEO) to an Earth departure trajectory or higher Earth orbits such as geostationary orbit (GEO). It will enable exploration and high delta-V applications within low Earth orbits, geosynchronous orbit, near-Earth asteroids, and deep space destinations such as Lunar orbits, Venus, or Mars.
Similarly, DSI’s Comet is a launch-safe electrothermal propulsion system being designed for orbit raising, life extension, and de-orbit. It uses water as a propellant, and is scalable for a wide range of spacecrafts.
In conclusion, I would like to point out that the endeavor of space mining is not without its challenges. The logistical complications and financial costs involved are astronomical. However, given the current rate of depletion of Earth’s resources, we have no other viable option than to look beyond our planet for sustenance and continued economic progression. This is not a matter of choice but of necessity. One incontrovertible conclusion that can be drawn from looking at the collective human history is that when push comes to shove, we deliver!