13 July 2007

Space Mining and Carnival #11

Space Carnival #11 is up at Space for Commerce blog.

It is another fine collection of space postings, but my favourite is this posting on asteroid mining from the fine space blog, Colony Worlds.
With most of these invaluable asteroids tens of millions of miles away from the nearest colony world, asteroid miners will find themselves heavily dependent upon supplies for food and water. Their isolation will also make them prime candidates for space pirates, not to mention feuding powers from Earth, Mars and the Jovian systems.

Unless these outposts are protected by a space fleet, they may soon find their boring schedule filled with being invaded by unwelcome guests.

Another danger of asteroid miners will be radiation. Since most (if not all) asteroids lack a magnetic field, asteroid outposts will be at the mercy of the Sun's wrath, not to mention cosmic rays from abroad. Although outposts will probably have magnetic shields surrounding their bases, this does not guarantee that the rocks that they mine upon are free from being radioactive.

....asteroid miners also face the dangers of micrometeorites piercing holes through their suits and stations, or (even worse) encountering a meteor shower from an incoming comet.

Future outposts will probably have to rely upon the eyes (and scientific "ears") of astronomers to warn them of the dangers of nearby comets, although they may have to "take a gamble" when dealing with incoming space pebbles as armor may prove useless against these solar bullets.

But despite the fact that these dangers surround future asteroid miners, there presence in our star system will be desperately needed. Asteroids have the potential of supplying invaluable resources, and the purity of metals could be worth up to $500,000 a ton.

In fact, it is possible for an asteroid mining venture to net US $21 trillion or more from a single asteroid. The terrestrial value of mineral resources contained in the asteroids is incalculable. Compared to the payback, the expense of mounting a commercial venture fades to insignificance--after the payback, that is.

When will we see asteroid mining start? Well, it will only become viable once the human-presence commercial in-orbit economy takes off. Only then will there be a market. And that can only happen after NASA ceases acting as a near-monopolist launch provider and thwarter of competition, and reverts to being a customer instead.

A developing in-space economy will build the technical capability to access NEAs, almost automatically. And regardless of the legal arguments about mineral claims in outer space, once the first resource recovery mission is successful, what's the bets on a surge in interest similar to the dotcom-boom and biotech-boom?

The first successful venturers will develop immense proprietary knowledge, and make a mint. And some as-yet unidentified (but almost certainly already discovered) NEAs will be the company-making mines of the 21st century.

In fact, most of the expensive ventures that Luddites are always whining about--orbiting solar platforms, moon bases, Mars missions, space stations, etc., become instantly affordable with "pocket change" once asteroids start sending their wealth earthward.

People such as Paul Allen, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and other high rolling tycoons may have just caught a whiff of the possibilities.

Most politicians are relatively clueless, however--which may be a good thing. While the nations of Earth might warrant a healthy tax chunk of some of the profits from space mining and enterprise, there is not a nation on Earth that should control all of space and all space assets.

So far, the only Earth nation that has demonstrated space weapons intent and capability is China--with its irresponsible kinetic kill of one of its obsolete satellites having created dangerous space debris in orbit. The US has many projects and plans for using space as part of coordinated defense. Military spy satellites themselves are vital to US defense plans. Russia, like China, would like to control space, and no doubt would, if it could.

The next few decades will be critical, in determining whether the future of space will be free to enterprising individuals and groups, or closed by nation-states with the military clout to lock everyone else on Earth.

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