We are, I hope, entering into a new era of space travel and exploration: private, commercial spaceflight. Space travel was always the domain of governments: mainly the United States and the Russians, but others are now joining the club. For this series of articles, I thought we would take a look at where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going, both near-term and a little bit longer out. Now, we’ll take a look at some of the longer term possibilities, at least 20 to 30 years from now.
The Long Term
There are several different ventures out into space that we might be seeing over the course of the next century. Asteroid mining, space tourism, and helium-3 mining on the Moon are all possible motivations to go into space.
If I could afford it, I would go into space in a heartbeat. And I bet most of you would, too. Space tourism is nothing new. Space Adventures is a company in the US that offers “vomit comet” rides and, for those that had $20 million to $45 million to blow between 2001 and 2009, rides in a Soyuz capsule for a 10-day stay at the International Space Station. There are a host of other companies that are planning space tourism enterprises, most notably Virgin Galactic. Interest in space tourism is pretty strong and this looks like it will be a growing field. Who wouldn’t want to go visit a theme park on the moon? And see the whalers on the moon?
There are many different types of asteroids, but some are thought to be composed mainly of metals and other rocks. Other asteroids are thought to have water on them. The largest asteroid, the dwarf planet Ceres, is thought to have a layer of water ice in its crust, or at least some amount of water on it. While the composition of asteroids is not entirely certain, the prospect of profit is tempting enough that a company has already been set up with the goal of mining a near-Earth asteroid. Planetary Resources, Inc. famously announced these plans in early 2012. And they’ve got some big names with big money behind them: Larry Page, Eric Schmidt, Charles Simonyi, Ross Perot, Jr. (the son of the presidential candidate). James Cameron has even lent his name as a consultant, though I don’t know in what capacity he is consulting.
There are some interesting possibilities with asteroid mining. Obviously, some minerals on earth are extremely rare and hard to mine. Platinum, all the rare earth minerals, gold, silver and so on, all require extensive efforts to extract from the earth. In researching this article, I discovered that current theory holds that all the mineral deposits on Earth were deposited by asteroids and other bodies colliding with the Earth. When you think about it, it makes sense. The Earth was entirely molten when it formed. Any of the heavier metals would have sunk down to the core. Only when the outer crust had cooled enough to solidify would any heavier metals have been able to stay on the surface. So if most of the mineral ore deposits came from other primordial bodies, it makes sense that remaining primordial bodies would have mineral ore themselves.
Planetary Resources has stated that the platinum from a small asteroid could be worth $25 to 50 billion at today’s prices. What I find interesting is the economics of how this would work. If this venture is successful and they’re able to bring back a bunch of precious metals, it might end up crashing the market they are trying to profit from. It’s basic supply and demand economics. There is a limited supply of gold on Earth, thus demand is high for a relatively limited quantity of gold. If a large amount of gold enters into the market, demand will decrease, which means price will decrease. If the price decreases enough, the profit made on the gold mined from asteroids won’t equal the cost invested in obtaining it.
Even knowing that, I still think this will be a good thing for humanity in the long run. More and more of our technology uses minerals that are incredibly rare on Earth. As we expand and grow, we need more and more of them. So the more we have, the better off we will be.