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Buy, sell, lift-off: the global economy is going interplanetary

Harvesting space resources will raise living standards worldwide, without further damaging Earth. So how can those resources be tapped in a way that will produce a return on investment? That question may…

The commercialisation of space is already underway. Rick Sternbach/Keck Institute for Space Studies

Harvesting space resources will raise living standards worldwide, without further damaging Earth. So how can those resources be tapped in a way that will produce a return on investment?

That question may have been hypothetical in the past; now, it’s of pressing concern.

In February, the centre I work for at UNSW hosted a forum on an exotic topic: mining the resources on asteroids and the moon. It brought together space engineers, world-class Australian miners, and some Australian experts in fields such as robotics.

The event followed announcements of some start-ups in off-Earth mining, some of which had powerful backers. It seemed like a typical, low-key academic exercise.

To our surprise, the forum received international media attention. We were exhausted by a week’s worth of constant TV and radio interviews. No-one expected this, and we’re still struggling to understand it.

Interest may have been fuelled by some of the novel space accomplishments of the last year:

Curiosity’s first sample drilling. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

These high-profile missions are in the collective consciousness, and many people may know preliminary plans are underway for an asteroid-capture mission.

Such space feats also suggest that the technology is more in hand than one realised – more science-fact than science-fiction.

The challenge now is to establish viable businesses, and the economics must be clarified to bring investors to the table.

For what it’s worth

What are space resources even worth? Consider the asteroid, named 2012 DA14, that buzzed past the Earth in February. One valuation of its water and mineral contents was US$195 billion. Another was zero.

Well, that’s helpful.

Such ambiguity arises from the lack of market definition. One could bring resources back to Earth, where markets exist. There are valuable resources out there, such as the platinum and diamonds known to be on asteroids.

But terrestrial market prices probably do not support the costs of obtaining solar system minerals.

By contrast, resources obtained and used in space have an inherent value: the avoided cost of launching equivalent resources from Earth. Today that’s at least US$7 million a tonne to low Earth orbit, and perhaps three times that to higher orbits. That represents an attractive price for those resources.

But markets for in-space uses of space-obtained resources are currently hypothetical: filling fuel depots to make interplanetary travel more efficient; processing in-situ resources to support human settlements; building orbiting solar power stations to beam clean energy to Earth.

Large orbiting space solar power station. NASA/Kennedy Space Center/NextGen

Resources that will be valuable in space will not be the ones that could be sold back on Earth. As a colleague said at our forum: “If you’re stranded in the desert, gold is useless and water is priceless.”

The two most valuable commodities could be construction materials (for the structure, say, of a huge space solar power station) and water (processed into rocket fuel, or used for human habitation).

Emerging markets

How will space resources markets emerge? Some people have suggested they will come to the fore via a disruptive innovation model, whereby a lower-quality, lower-cost product makes small inroads into an existing market, the profits fund product improvement and, eventually, the new product dominates.

But since there is no existing space market, this would seem unlikely.

Perhaps the commercial aviation industry provides a better model. This market, so critical to the global economy, has grown for decades at 4% even in the US, and 5% worldwide. As we all know, that industry began modestly.

A Qantas ancestor. Gordon Roesler

Government investments, such as air-mail services and air traffic control systems, were critical to aviation’s early growth and ultimate profitability. New applications continuously expand the market – so we can thank commercial air-cargo services for fresh sushi.

The space resources market is likewise developing modestly. The first product the American “asteroid-mining” company Planetary Resources will launch consists of tiny, low-cost telescopes:

Planetary Resources' first-generation space camera. Planetary Resources.

The telescopes' primary function is to find asteroids suitable for mining, but they may also be used to image the Earth, generating near-term revenue while waiting for the resources market to develop.

The business plan of the privately-held American company Deep Space Industries envisions medium-term revenues from operators of commercial communications satellites, who will buy propellant to extend the satellites' lifetimes.

We have reached the point where the question is no longer “is the commercialisation of space possible?” but rather: “what is the path to return on investment?”

Combined economic, environmental and social forces will propel the industry to a high level of importance in the coming decades.

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74 Comments sorted by

  1. Ronald Ostrowski

    logged in via Facebook

    I hate to say it, but given the current political climate any innovative and big ticket ideas will not have Australia in the forefront of entering the space industry unless in partnership with oversea interests despite the abundance of talent we have here. Just look at the continual misinformation and condemnation the NBN project is copping from the LNP and Murdoch led ABC/MSM Alliance. The concept of a very fast train has died a million deaths in the tangled and beyond stupid political posturing. Howard also demonstrated, during his period of Government, that people prefer tax cuts and generous middleclass welfrare to nation building infrastructure. But to Gordon Roesler, I say, thanks for the dream, anyway.

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    1. Gordon Roesler

      Visiting Researcher & Senior Project Engineer, Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Ronald Ostrowski

      Ronald,

      As a visitor to Australia, I have to say that the politics here have astounded me. My hope is that university research will allow Australia to continue to play a part in this exciting enterprise.

      Regards

      Gordon Roesler

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  2. Alex Cannara

    logged in via Facebook

    Too bad "return in investment" is rarely honestly calculated.

    If one indeed wanted to enable the efficient, profitable use of space, then R&D on materials needed for the very simple but effective "space elevator" would get priority.

    Space-X, etc. are simply using the least efficient methods for space access, on the taxpayer $, regardless of how many billionaires they give rides to. And their failures are just beginning.

    Then we have ancient .ideas. like: "mining the resources on asteroids…

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  3. Andrew Glikson

    Earth and paleo-climate scientist

    1. Every metal which occurs in asteroids (for example platinum metals) also exists on Earth and can be mined, either as economic or non-economic venture.

    2. Every reality test will indicate that mining the resource on Earth, even from non-economic sources, will cost orders of magnitude LESS than mining the metal on an asteroid, concentrating it and transporting it back to Earth.

    3. This is quite apart from the possibility that creating mining explosions on a nearby asteroid could divert their trajectory, creating an impact hazard.

    Yet there could be billionaires to whom the idea will be more attractive than, for example, investing their $billions in planting trees and saving living environments and species on the living, fast-warming, Earth.

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    1. Tim Benham

      Student of Statistics

      In reply to Andrew Glikson

      Yairs. The article starts with "harvesting space resources will raise living standards worldwide" but never justifies this statement. The closest it gets is a sleight of hand: "resources obtained and used in space have an inherent value: the avoided cost of launching equivalent resources from Earth". Inherent value is a dubious concept but it's supposed to be independent of what people are willing to pay for something. "Avoided cost" is a financial benefit.

      Without unobtainium going into space to mine is not going to make sense.

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  4. George Harley
    George Harley is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Retired Dogsbody

    Interesting Gordon
    The disparity in the value of an asteroid's resources ($195 billion v zero) may partly be explained by markets. If the current price of iron ore is $195 a tonne and an asteroid has a billion tonnes of the stuff, on paper $195 bill. However, if we could nudge the asteroid into near earth orbit and start dumping the stuff, the price would plummet til you couldn't give it away, zero.
    But perhaps self replicating machines that used to extract stuff for use in further space exploration could be viable.
    Sadly by then, my clogs will be well and truly popped.

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    1. Gordon Roesler

      Visiting Researcher & Senior Project Engineer, Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at UNSW Australia

      In reply to George Harley

      George,

      Mine will probably be popped as well. This venture is truly a long-term one. And you are correct: the business model that works is one of using the materials in space, not bringing them down to Earth. I have an aphorism: "Reentry burns up value."

      In 1815, Francis Greenway proposed a bridge over Sydney Harbour. But he knew that there was no material that was suitable--not wood and not cast iron. When Bessemer made low-cost, high-quality steel available, a Harbour Bridge became possible, and it was completed in 1932. Our politicians can't think past the next election, but perhaps we can.

      Regards

      Gordon Roesler

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    2. Henry Verberne

      Former IT Professional

      In reply to Gordon Roesler

      Hi Gordon,

      I agree that very long term vision, thinking ,imagination and risk taking will be required to realise the potential benefits, some yet unimagined, of the "final frontier".

      I am confident it will happen and there are early signs that it is happening. It will be from a low base where costs will be high, returns negative and many setbacks. The spin-offs from the science and technologies involved will also have many benefits.

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    3. Albert Rogers

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Gordon Roesler

      How very correct. The first human-muscled-flight became possible with the development of mylar, I think it was. Elsewhere here I note that for humans usefully to be anywhere more distant that the geosynchronous satellites, requires nuclear power.
      I am aware that I have implied that the "conquest" of the Moon was not useful. One small step for a man, one huge propaganda boost for the USA. Not as classical a quote as Oppenheimer's "Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds"

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    4. Gordon Roesler

      Visiting Researcher & Senior Project Engineer, Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Henry Verberne

      Henry,

      It's good to hear from a soul-mate.

      Regards

      Gordon Roesler

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  5. Chris Booker

    Research scientist

    I have a few problems with this article, but especially the first sentence:

    "Harvesting space resources will raise living standards worldwide, without further damaging Earth"

    'will raise living standards worldwide'. Really? No wait, what I meant to say was: Really?!? because that's quite a claim. There's essential medicines like insulin which have been around for almost a century now which some people still don't have access to. Basic clean water, access to existing medical treatments and technology…

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    1. Steven Liaros

      Town planner at PolisPlan - town planning and eco-village consultants

      In reply to Chris Booker

      Well argued Chris... the whole premise is absurd.
      You only need to be a casual observer of the mining boom in Australia to realise that the harvesting resources here hasn't raised the living standards of all Australians.
      Of course those in the mining industry benefit, they then refuse to share that benefit from extracting resources that belong to all Australians including future generations, they cause the $A to rise in value relative to other currencies, impacting on many other industries... etc. etc.

      The premise is entirely about profit and self-interest and nothing at all about raising living standards world-wide.

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  6. Ron Chinchen

    Retired (ex Probation and Parole Officer)

    My concern from the point of view of the masses living on Earth, is 'will it raise living standards here on Earth or reduce them'.

    The major problem here is accessibility and ownership. In an ideal world (or solar system) everyone benefits. But history shows that that never happens.

    Wealthy people, businesses, nations may well exploit the asteroids and for a time there is enough out there for there to be no serious territorial disputes, though space piracy no doubt will be a factor.

    You…

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  7. Elizabeth Laidlaw

    Research Project Manager

    Whilst this is all very interesting, there are some truly massive assumptions sitting behind it that really need to be challenged!

    Some have already been mentioned here, such as the likely reality of the claim 'Harvesting space resources will raise living standards worldwide, without further damaging Earth'. Like many others, I don't believe that there is any chance at all that living standards would be raised worldwide, and it is also not realistic to claim that this asteroid mining could be…

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    1. Fred Moore

      Builder

      In reply to Elizabeth Laidlaw

      Elizabeth,
      You are a unique woman. You care about the future of our species beyond the usual feminine dictum of hatch dem eggs at all cost, don't care about the ecological, climate or social consequences and blame men when all the bitter chaos is done qand dusted.
      As a project manager you may be interested in MPAL.
      MPAL is the way to conquer space. I spent 2002 to 2006 on NYT forums unfolding MPAL .
      MPAL:
      *'M'aglev lift
      *'P'acket switched 5Kg to 100kg self assembly material packets in a space…

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  8. greg fullmoon

    being and doing

    I don't understand this? There have been millions of accounts of ET, UFO and other potential multi dimensional activity witnessed by millions of Earthlings called humans.

    These accounts have been forwarded to government authorities globally down through our history. There are numerous books authored by a variety of people with a diverse background in sciences and other disciplines both documenting for the public and expounding theories on what the phenomenon means.

    One notable light in this…

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    1. greg fullmoon

      being and doing

      In reply to Ron Chinchen

      Who built the Giza pyramids? and how were they built? What's their purpose?

      We know everything?

      You have a look at what Dr Judy Woods is saying about the disintegration in mid air of half a million tonnes of steel and concrete.. what's your explanation?

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    2. greg fullmoon

      being and doing

      In reply to Sean Manning

      Cheers mate thanks for the back-hander..

      Who built the Giza pyramids? and how were they built? What's their purpose?

      We know everything?

      You have a look at what Dr Judy Woods is saying about the disintegration in mid air of half a million tonnes of steel and concrete.. what's your explanation? You state your a physicist, which field of specialization?

      The 9/11 Commission report? Is that the facts? Who's report is that? The Government's report, of course they're telling you the truth..

      What would the force of resistance be in the remainder of the towers below the points of explosion if you want to travel that road. How many seconds/minutes and what loads to overcome these? Would it have come down in 10 seconds?

      Give me a break, calling names is a derisory practice when one offers a serious submission.. in peace greg.

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    3. Ron Chinchen

      Retired (ex Probation and Parole Officer)

      In reply to greg fullmoon

      Hey! Dont blame me. I've got an air tight alibi. I know a good cop who could look into it for you though, if you wish.

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    4. Sean Manning

      Physicist

      In reply to greg fullmoon

      Geez, way to jump around topics and while you may be serious about your submission, the submission cannot be take seriously.

      At best guess (and I wasn't there) the Egyptians built the pyramids. Purpose? To look cool, to put things in, to please a god or two. Take your pick.

      So, you're a 9/11 conspiracy... person. The calculations for the tower collapse are easily done on the back of an envelope. Yes, complicated finite element modeling has also been done but they were quite unnecessary. It…

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    5. greg fullmoon

      being and doing

      In reply to Sean Manning

      A link to the calculations please, and

      your comment, 'that many events are so far outside of normal human experience that we are simply not mentally equipped to have an intrinsic or intuitive understanding of it. In particular, phenomena that are nonlinear.' this is what I mean, not everything is as we like it to be, or as it is represented..

      bat-shit-crazy hey.. :-)

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    6. Ron Chinchen

      Retired (ex Probation and Parole Officer)

      In reply to greg fullmoon

      No. But he discovered the meaning of it all when he examined some stolen chicken entrails once. And it wasnt 42.

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    7. Albert Rogers

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to greg fullmoon

      If you read "The General Theory of Employment, Money, and Interest" by J.M.Keynes, he argues that even useless activities like digging up gold, or building pyramids, are a good way to provide employment and share a large society's riches. Plenty of experimenters have shown that the resources of labor and so on that ancient Egypt possessed were quite sufficient to build a pyramid.

      Or as my physics master told us in the early 1950's "All you need, to travel to the Moon, is to be willing to spend the money."

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    8. greg fullmoon

      being and doing

      In reply to Sean Manning

      re this paper Sean; http://www-math.mit.edu/~bazant/WTC/WTC-asce.pdf did you read it?
      This is what it says on the first and second pages re the assumptions it makes about the incident that led to the collapse of the towers;
      'In stage 1 (Fig. 1), the conflagration caused by the aircraft fuel spilled into the structure
      causes the steel of the columns to be exposed to sustained temperatures apparently exceeding
      800ŽC. The heating is probably accelerated by a loss of the protective thermal insulation…

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    9. Sean Manning

      Physicist

      In reply to greg fullmoon

      Not parroting anything. I have read and fully understand all of the maths and assumptions. Can you claim the same? You seem to be parroting the same conspiracy rubbish as the rest of the 9/11 truthers. Where is your analysis? Where is your peer review? Are you suggesting that the entire scientific/engineering community is activly supressing the truth? Come on! That in it's self would be a far more amazing conspiracy than the 9/11 'cover up'.

      Anyway, the assumptions made in the paper are quite…

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  9. Kevin Orrman-Rossiter

    Research Partnerships Officer at University of Melbourne

    Gordon,

    Great article you have summarized the off-earth resources opportunity quite succinctly and correctly. Good effort.

    I like other commentators here are not convinced by your statement "Harvesting space resources will raise living standards worldwide, without further damaging Earth." There are two premises in this statement.

    The first "Harvesting space resources will raise living standards worldwide" is arguable it will depend on how those "abundant" resources are spent. A resource…

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    1. Ron Chinchen

      Retired (ex Probation and Parole Officer)

      In reply to Kevin Orrman-Rossiter

      I dont dispute what you're saying, and I dont think the potential for damage from space is likely to be caused by us....I think we're doing a much better job of it down here.

      I just think for a time, perhaps a century, few will seriously benefit from space mining, because the vast proportion of minerals mined in space are unlikely to be returned to Earth.

      Until we have some easily accessible means of getting into and back from space, the advantages will remain with those who live out there…

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    2. Gordon Roesler

      Visiting Researcher & Senior Project Engineer, Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Kevin Orrman-Rossiter

      Kevin,

      Thanks for the compliment.

      One thing that space resource exploitation WON'T change is human nature. It won't change unequal distribution of wealth, unless a tax is implemented in law and its proceeds are distributed equitably.

      A difference between resource exploitation on Earth and in the solar system is that Earth supports life. If we can shift our resource requirements off-Earth, we may be able to protect our fragile life-giving planet. Space solar power is a motivation to do that--more energy to support our growing population, without greenhouse gases, radioactive waste or environmental degradation. But to have protection of Earth as a primary goal, the entrepreneurs must be regulated.

      Regards

      Gordon Roesler

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    3. Gordon Roesler

      Visiting Researcher & Senior Project Engineer, Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Kevin Orrman-Rossiter

      Kevin,

      Thank you very much.

      I hope we can do it all: value, explore, AND provide for our needs.

      Regards

      Gordon Roesler

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    4. Albert Rogers

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Kevin Orrman-Rossiter

      "I don't expect to meet natives on the asteroids, Martian and lunar environments,"
      Neither do I, but I nevertheless think that human exploration of Mars violates the Prime Directive (of Star Trek). There is probably, but not absolutely certainly, no life on Mars. But almost for certain it does not use DNA or RNA, and even if it did, then if it uses the same 3-codon -> amino acid code as Terran life does (yes, all of it) then we are bound to conclude that living things on Mars have an ancestor in common with Terrans. Unfortunately, unless every exporatin vessel to Mars is scrupulously sterilized, by far the most probable explanation of such a momentous discovery, would be mere contamination by an earlier expedition.

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    5. Albert Rogers

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Gordon Roesler

      Here's a proposal: Design a solar powered heat engine, and a lightweight deployable parabolic reflector to power it, and machinery to keep it in geostationary orbit, while training the mirror on the Sun, and pointing an energy transmitter at a receiving station. Oops, what about clouds? Assume a solution to that. What's the catch, after we've solved these considerable challenges?

      Well, to do it usefully, you'd need to be providing a gigawatt or so of power. Uh-oh, a gigawatt of accurately focussed radiation? Isn't that easily adapted to being a Death Ray?

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  10. Debra Davis

    Researcher

    The idea of interplanetary harvesting absolutely astounds and appals me!

    Have we humans not learned anything from the impact of over harvesting of resources on planet earth?

    What in heavens name will the repercussions be if we start messing with resources on other planets??? I for one shudder to think what they might entail.

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    1. Ron Chinchen

      Retired (ex Probation and Parole Officer)

      In reply to Debra Davis

      Debra, I understand your concerns given the state we have the world in at present. But realistically that is because we have over exploited our world through unrestrained avarice and over population. We also only began to seriously realise the problems we had caused in the last century or so and unfortunately we cant now turn back the clock without enforcing serious population control.

      In space though, we are talking about vast areas and huge resources unlike anything humans have even conceived…

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    2. Gordon Roesler

      Visiting Researcher & Senior Project Engineer, Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Debra Davis

      Debra,

      I agree that what we are doing to Earth is putting us all in jeopardy.

      One difference between over-harvesting Earth and harvesting resources from asteroids is that Earth supports life. If we can transfer our resource needs out into the solar system, we can protect this life-giving orb.

      Regards

      Gordon Roesler

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  11. Alexander Rosser

    Philosopher

    Hi Gordon, great article.
    Question. If launch costs are $7m/tonne using conventional technology - rockets off launch pads, why have alternate technologies not been explored? (Apart from piggy-backing on freight planes).
    For example, I envisage a launch ramp consisting of an evacuated tube on the side of a mountain (Kilimanjaro?) powered by electricity (or even steam!). Store the energy in giant capacitors or fly-wheels pumped up by a modest power station. Initial capital cost might be high but not insuperable, offset by much much lower launch costs. I would appreciate a comment or link to an analysis.

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    1. Gordon Roesler

      Visiting Researcher & Senior Project Engineer, Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Alexander Rosser

      Alex,

      Some of these ideas have been explored, mostly with theoretical studies:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_gun
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-rocket_spacelaunch

      Elon Musk's company SpaceX has brought launch costs down to $7M/tonne (other companies charge much more). With the development of his Falcon Heavy launcher, they will drop further, to $2M/tonne. Still high but moving in the right direction.

      Regards

      Gordon Roesler

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  12. Andrew Glikson

    Earth and paleo-climate scientist

    Gordon

    Any reality test based on up-to-date science will indicate space mining belongs to the world of science fiction, for the following reasons:

    (A) In so far as you accept the major tenets of climate science, as communicated by the bulk of the peer review literature and the world's major research institution, you will know that civilization can only survive if it can maintain arable soil and water for agriculture,

    Namely ONE CAN NOT EAT ASTEROIDS!

    The remaining world resources therefore need to be focused on re-forestation, construction of water supply systems and replenishment of soils.

    (B) Since Earth has abundant iron ore, aluminium, copper, tin etc. resources for civilization to use over thousands of years, space mining would be concerned with rare and precious metals, mostly used for advanced industries, i.e. electronic and so on. Such industries could hardly survive if civilization runs out of food and water.

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    1. Gordon Roesler

      Visiting Researcher & Senior Project Engineer, Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Andrew Glikson

      Andrew,

      You've left out one resource that is required to feed the world's growing population, and that is ENERGY. Energy is required for harvesting, processing, storing and distributing food. It is a major cost driver for food. Read the book "Endless Appetites" by Alan Bjerga to understand the energy-food price connection.

      Energy is also a key to water availability. An extreme example is the US state of California. In that state, 19% of all electrical energy is used to move water.

      Harvesting construction materials from asteroids would enable the cost-effective construction of space solar power installations. These can provide significant amounts of energy, without greenhouse gases, without radioactive waste, and without mining activities.

      So perhaps one can eat asteroids after all!

      Regards

      Gordon Roesler

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    2. greg fullmoon

      being and doing

      In reply to Andrew Glikson

      Suppose the dudes doing the planning and scheming in all this aren't that concerned at the drag of resources amongst the remainder on and of the planet.

      Generally ambition is a strong element in a lot of psychopathic types. Also the pathology of corporations is basically psychopathic. All legal entities are considered 'persons in law', as opposed to natural persons such as those having this conversation. Natural persons are often empathetic and compassionate to their fellows, some even in a Universal…

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    3. Albert Rogers

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to greg fullmoon

      Bram Stoker had Dracula, and Mary Shelley had Frankenstein, and some modern writers fear we will be ousted when Artificial Intelligences learn how to reproduce. But Paul the Apostle had an interesting phrase "We struggle not against flesh and blood, but against Principalities, and Powers, and the Rulers of the Darknes of this world."
      I have been told that he was talking about the supernatural subordinates of the Evil One, but in this case I agree with you, Greg, a corporation, bank, or even nation or church is not a person, or if it is, it is a member of the parasitic Undead.

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  13. Andrew Glikson

    Earth and paleo-climate scientist

    Gordon,

    Indeed you are correct.

    The most abundant and reliable source of energy comes from space - it is called the SUN. It is many orders of magnitude more economic to construct solar-thermal collectors on Earth, as is being done in the deserts of California and in Spain, than to build them on asteroids.

    Once the relative economics of terrestrial mining and solar energy collection, vis-a-vis asteroid-based installations, are worked out, the idea will come down to Earth

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    1. Gordon Roesler

      Visiting Researcher & Senior Project Engineer, Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Andrew Glikson

      Andrew,

      I hope you're right. The two greatest challenges to the widespread solar power are its intermittency, and the water demand to clean the panels or mirrors.

      Even if those were solved, there are still some advantages to basing the solar power stations in space. The economics will have to work themselves out.

      Regards

      Gordon Roesler

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    2. Albert Rogers

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Andrew Glikson

      Actually, Andrew, the most renewable and sustainable energy resource comes from supernovae that died before our Sun was born. A mere molten ball of the well known constituents of the Earth, by Kelvin's calculations, could not have started cooling more than a hundred million years ago. We know now that it was 4,500 million years ago. The 18th century was using all they could of the solar derived resources, and they had a very highly developed wind technology for ocean travel. They fact that there is no"renewables" interest in sail powered merchant or military shipping tells us a lot about the adequacy of wind turbines.

      The fact that the US Navy has capital ships that need no refueling for years, and can travel under the icecaps, shows that nuclear power is the real alternative.

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  14. Fred Moore

    Builder

    The Gen Y approach to space as outlined in this article can be seen for what it is in this Joke: >>

    Two friends were playing golf when one pulled out a cigar. He didn't have a lighter, so he asked his friend if he had one.
    "I sure do" he replied and reached into his golf bag and pulled out a 12 inch Bic lighter.
    "Wow" said his friend. "where did you get that monster?"
    "I got it from the genie".
    "You have a genie?" he asked.
    "Yeah, he is right here in my golf bag".
    "Could I see…

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    1. greg fullmoon

      being and doing

      In reply to Fred Moore

      A superlative exposition of the writers gift.. There are always survivors who carry forward something of what went before. When one's space is invaded the resultant cultural synergy is at some point codified in law once the piracy stage is passed.

      So if they're out there already, and our guys could already be there, we just don't know... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8eWF-Clblnk

      then property rights based on possession might get some folk off to a fantastic start..

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  15. Jack Bloomfield

    Retired Engineer

    This article should have been dated April 1.
    We have many pressing sustainable energy supply problems on Earth to solve before venturing into the vagaries of inefficient space mining and manufacturing.

    Any venture capital available for such a high risk project such as "space mining" would be better directed at the urgent requirement for us to reduce consumption of polluting fossil fuels.
    Development of a sustainable non polluting energy source for use on Earth is top priority.

    Spaceship Earth's life support system requires our most urgent attention now!
    "Pie in the sky" dreams can wait.

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    1. Gordon Roesler

      Visiting Researcher & Senior Project Engineer, Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Jack Bloomfield

      John,

      The idea was to do both at the same time! Obtain resources from asteroids and the Moon that HELP to offload our energy burden, and protect Earth!

      There's one other priority that doesn't receive enough attention: protecting Spaceship Earth from collisions. You may recall the small meteor that injured 1,000 people in Russia in February. There are much larger objects out there, that can wipe out entire cities. The same technologies we'd use for off-Earth resource recovery would be critical to preventing catastrophes from Earth-impacting objects.

      You probably have car insurance and home insurance. How about some Earth insurance?

      Regards

      Gordon Roesler

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  16. John Clark

    Manager

    It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the underlying premise is that we have over exploited earth, but that's OK, because we can mine other planets, thereby avoiding the results of over exploitation. The usual suspects will no doubt raise their living standards, but those outside the loop will continue to be excluded.

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  17. Fred Moore

    Builder

    They're petrified in Korea, there's sex abuse in Afghanistain. There's hurricanes in Florida,And Texas needs rain The whole world is festering With unhappy souls. The French hate the Germans,The Germans hate the Poles; Italians hate Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch,

    And I don't like anybody very much!

    But we can be tranquil And "thankfill" and proud, For man's been endowed With a mushroom-shaped cloud. And we know for certain That some lovely day Someone will set the spark off, And we will all be blown away! They're petrified in Korea, There's strife in Iran. What nature doesn't do to us Will be done by our fellow man!

    Isn't that the main reason for Space Exploration .... Come on Aussie

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  18. Ken Fabian

    Mr

    Recalling a doco on repairing Hubble I'm not convinced that mining asteroids is going to be an achievable commercial enterprise; dealing with a couple of dozen screws turned out to be a major exercise. In space some things some things may seem easier but a lot of basic activities are lots harder.

    Much as I like the idea I think that space remains harsh and difficult to work effectively in and the high minimum infrastructure requirements for a viable project mean it's not going to get there by…

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    1. Fred Moore

      Builder

      In reply to Ken Fabian

      "Building Bridges is not going to get there by increments, only by doing it BIG from day one"

      INCREMENTAL LAUNCH techniques for bridges, a la the Woniora bridge in Sydney's south, is the most cost effective way of building the most difficult bridges on the planet.

      The conquest of Space is just a VERY difficult bridge to the stars and for cost effectiveness and success, it DEMANDS the same Incremental Launch techniques as Terrestrial .

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    2. Gordon Roesler

      Visiting Researcher & Senior Project Engineer, Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Ken Fabian

      Ken,

      It sure won't be easy.

      My own vision is to do the whole thing robotically. Others, such as Shackleton Energy, which is focusing on using lunar water for propellant, intend to use astronauts. Their view is that robotics haven't progressed far enough yet.

      Thanks for the input

      Gordon Roesler

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    3. Gordon Roesler

      Visiting Researcher & Senior Project Engineer, Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Fred Moore

      Fred,

      I completely agree with you. Incremental is the only way.

      Regards

      Gordon Roesler

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    4. Ken Fabian

      Mr

      In reply to Gordon Roesler

      Gordon and Fred, I still think the minimum infrastructure for a successful asteroid mining venture will not be minimal and, like those bridges requires the planning and funding of the entire project from day one - no one section or part of the project is likely to be viable by itself.

      For manned ventures beyond Earth orbit that's a bigger project than a moon mission. A working orbital facility seems like a minimum requirement, whether the actual mining has human operators or is entirely remote…

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    5. Ron Chinchen

      Retired (ex Probation and Parole Officer)

      In reply to Ken Fabian

      Ken I think it will be slow to start, but realistically, if we are going to seriously enter space, we will have to not only get our minerals from the asteroids but also build machinery in space to refine and construct. It would be vastly cheaper and technologically easier to develop off world construction plants, because of the Earth's gravity issue. And yes the majority of the work will no doubt be robotic. Once effective refining and construction plants are established in space, and that's the hard part, then of the rest, the Universe is your oyster. And it will be far far easier to 'build bridges' in space once you're established there, again because there is no gravity, corrosion, weather etc other than the solar winds.

      The big issue as I see it, is that it will be two worlds, divided by a gravity well. Too expensive to send much up, to expensive and perhaps dangerous to send things down. I suspect humans will find it far easier to build in space than here on Earth

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    6. Gordon Roesler

      Visiting Researcher & Senior Project Engineer, Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Ken Fabian

      Ken,

      My touchstone is the timeline for the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
      1815--architect Francis Greenway proposes a bridge
      1855--Bessemer patents process for inexpensive steel production
      1900--bridge design begins
      1915--BHP opens steel mill at Newcastle, New South Wales
      1924--bridge construction begins
      1932--bridge opens

      I think the economic development of space will proceed like this. Such timescales are daunting but they seem typical of large engineering projects. Another example might be commercial aviation:
      1903--first powered flight
      1918--first scheduled air mail flight in US
      1953--first scheduled nonstop transcontinental US flights
      2012--commercial air line revenues continue to grow at 4% in US, 5% worldwide

      Regards

      Gordon Roesler

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  19. Ron Chinchen

    Retired (ex Probation and Parole Officer)

    When I was a young boy, I remember being told about World War 2 and the just finished Korean conflict. I remember we had ice boxes and ice deliveries to keep food cold, a big twin tub washing basin with a hand operated wringer to squeeze water out of clothes. A dunny man who collected our dunny cans once a week. Of each evening listening to serials on the radio as the only form of evening entertainment

    I remember reading about Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon travelling into space, of rocket ships…

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    1. Gordon Roesler

      Visiting Researcher & Senior Project Engineer, Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Ron Chinchen

      Thanks, Ron. I think you're right--the urge to explore will drive this thing despite valid concerns about equity.

      I hope we can do four things at once: raise the human spirit through exploration; create a new economic sector "out there"; improve the lives of disadvantaged billions on our planet; and reduce contamination of our atmosphere by sourcing energy from space.

      Best wishes

      "Flash" Gordon Roesler

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  20. Andrew Glikson

    Earth and paleo-climate scientist

    It is fine to dream science fiction stories, while on Earth, as in statements by leading climate scientists:

    “Burning all fossil fuels would create a different planet than the one that humanity knows. The palaeoclimate record and ongoing climate change make it clear that the climate system would be pushed beyond tipping points, setting in motion irreversible changes, including ice sheet disintegration with a continually adjusting shoreline, extermination of a substantial fraction of species on the planet, and increasingly devastating regional climate extremes” (James Hansen, NASA's chief climate scientist, 2012).

    "We're simply talking about the very life support system of this planet”. Joachim Hans Schellnhuber, Director of the Potsdam Climate Impacts, 2011.

    And as indicated by the world's academies of science, NOAA, NASA, Hadley-Met, Potsdam, CSIRO, BOM, IPCC and so on.

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  21. Ron Chinchen

    Retired (ex Probation and Parole Officer)

    Since the writings of Jules Verne and even before, those identified as hard core science fiction writers, have written fiction that has become in later generations fact. Predictive science fiction is so often the inspiration to create fantasy into reality. A large number of scientists confess that they became scientists and sought to advance science in a particular direction because of reading as youths the writings of many of the Science Fiction masters. One generations inspiration is another generations reality.

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  22. Albert Rogers

    logged in via Facebook

    "Harvesting space resources will raise living standards worldwide, without further damaging Earth"
    I doubt it very much. Consider how little the Spanish people got from the "discovery" of America. Sure, some folk (even like me) got to leave and perhaps live more spaciously. But the folk wh didn't leave? Not so much. I even figured out that geosynchronous solar power collecting satellites could get sunlight for 22 hours of the 24. But training their energy beams on a small receiver target, while keeping the collector pointing at the sun, is more dificult. And to replace a coal burning station, it'd need to tranmit a gigawatt of power. That's called a Space Death Ray Machine.

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    1. Gordon Roesler

      Visiting Researcher & Senior Project Engineer, Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Albert Rogers

      Albert,

      Suppose that gigawatt came down in an area of one square kilometer--a small chunk of desert somewhere. Then the microwave intensity is no greater than the Sun's power--a kilowatt per square meter. Even if the beam wandered into a populated area, a person standing in the beam in bright sunlight would get just slightly too warm; if he stood in the beam at night, the warmth would be pleasant.

      To help living standards be raised worldwide, there needs to be an internationally agreed scheme of taxation of the recovered resources. If that's put in place before recovery proceeds very far, the miners will simply factor it into their calculations.

      Here in Australia, two mining companies--BHP and Rio--pay 25% of all the company taxes collected. About $19 billion. So everyone in Australia is benefiting from their activities.

      Regards

      Gordon Roesler

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  23. Andrew Glikson

    Earth and paleo-climate scientist

    (1) I speciallize in the study of the effects of asteroid impacts on planetary bodies and am more than interested in scientific investigations of planets and asteroids. As a geologist I also have a good idea of the potential for metal resources on Earth - which is very high.

    (2) When it comes to grand space schemes of the kind conceived here, we are talking about hundreds of $billions and more.

    (3) Asteroid mining could only target precious and rare metals. However, potential reserves for…

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  24. Albert Rogers

    logged in via Facebook

    We have some extraordinarily successful "space technologies", We, that is, scientific humanity everywhere. There is an X-ray telescope called Chandra. There are commercially successful broadcasting and relay satellites. I can receive messages from a computer with an electronic female voice, which knows to astonishing precision where I am, and various ways to get to where I want to be. But all of the really worth while space technology is robotic. I strongly suspect that even the optical space telescope, Hubble, could have been replaced with corrected optics by sending up a new one, less expensively that by sending up humans to fix it.

    However, if there is anything that humans can do in space, by far the best way to promote that is NOT with "astronauts" or wealthy joy-riders, but by seriously investigating ways to make use of the most compact fues known, i.e. nuclear fission or even fusion.

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    1. Gordon Roesler

      Visiting Researcher & Senior Project Engineer, Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Albert Rogers

      Albert,

      On that last note, using nuclear fission or fusion can greatly improve the architecture for space resources exploitation. There have been two recent news items. One says NASA is showing renewed interest in the fission engine technologies developed in the '50s and '60s:

      http://gizmodo.com/5992441/how-nasas-nuclear-rockets-will-take-us-way-beyond-mars

      (That article has an error, though. The rockets don't use Plutonium-238, they're nuclear reactors.)

      The second article discusses a project to power rockets using small magnetically-imploded fusion pellets:

      http://www.washington.edu/news/2013/04/04/rocket-powered-by-nuclear-fusion-could-send-humans-to-mars/

      Either of these technologies, fully developed, could help make the interplanetary economy a reality much more quickly.

      Regards

      Gordon Roesler

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  25. Fred Moore

    Builder

    Wikipedia History of the SWW

    By 2014 the SWW (Space Wide Web) was formalised as a concept for a logical extension of the successful WWW.
    By 2015, the number of LowEarthOrbit bridges was increased to 255 and the number of 5Kg packets they could each handle increased to 10 per hour due to 'Capture On Apogee' launch vehicle technology based in over 70 small launch sites across the globe.
    By 2020 The 5Kg packets became more sophisticated with various fuel, oxidiser, metalic, plastic and organo-metallic…

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  26. Gordon Roesler

    Visiting Researcher & Senior Project Engineer, Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at UNSW Australia

    Well, it looks like NASA is taking steps to support commercial activity in space resources. A low-cost NASA mission, to launch in 2017, will attempt to actually harvest water ice from one of the Moon's craters:

    news.discovery.com/space/making-water-on-the-moon-130412.htm

    And Deputy Administrator Lori Garver has indicated that NASA is open to commercial participation in an attempt to capture and retrieve an asteroid:

    http://www.spacepolitics.com/2013/04/16/garver-role-for-private-sector-in-nasas-asteroid-mission-plans/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=garver-role-for-private-sector-in-nasas-asteroid-mission-plans

    It is critical for government space agencies to cooperate with businesses, if space resources are ever going to be of benefit to humanity. It's too complex an undertaking for any agency, even NASA, to go it alone. For more on this, visit my blog:

    newspacerules.blogspot.com

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