• Peter McAllister

Mining space – why bother?

The answers may come from what is out there and what we plan to do with it.

What is out there is easy – everything and in abundance. Humans have said that before about forests, oil and even whales, so we have to temper our views with that in mind, but from our current point of view that is a start.

Couple of examples – the asteroid 16 Psyche is said to contain enough gold and precious metals to give everyone on earth $93 billion. NASA announced they are building a probe to go there.

NASA’s recent analysis of the moon has shown metal oxides on the surface but might higher levels in craters where meteorite impacts have excavated the surface . Gravity measurements (also used by mining exploration companies on earth) have found anomalies 10’s and 100’s of kilometres deep around the South Pole, suggesting there is a lot out there.

So it is probably around - just waiting for us to find it.

The second thing to consider is what will we do with it? There is probably not much point bringing the gold from 16 Psyche back to earth. The value of gold is underpinned by its scarcity, so unless you plan to drip feed it onto the market as rare space gold over the next billion or so years, you will just turn it into another commodity metal for the manufacture of electronics and paperweights.

But there is other stuff like iron, aluminium, copper, water and the rare earths – the things that we will need as building materials as we colonise near earth space and the solar system. If we can find them up there, we can eliminate the wasteful process of escaping earth’s gravity, and increase our rate of expansion into the stars.

So it is out there, and we can either use it is space or if we are careful, return it to earth. Any foreseeable problems?

Just a couple – firstly many of our technologies for mining and mineral processing require gravity – from separating crushed ore to the flotation of minerals all require gravity to be one of the forces acting on the ore – so there is a bit of work to do there (nothing the ingenious human can cope with).

And now I have mentioned the ingenious human – that could be another issue. In the past few centuries fortunes have been made and lost in minerals and metals. Arguments over rights have become wars, the concept of who owns what (ie in some countries the Government owns everything 6 feet below you and can move you on).

Who referees space is yet to be worked out? The idea of two or three cashed up companies off world, carving it up for themselves, out of sight (and oversight), taking the money as fast as they can for their own benefit sparks an echo of the human colonisation of the earth over the last 1000 years.

Given we can’t take the human out of humanity, chances are that we will end up repeating our behaviours of the past 10 centuries.

What are our chances of doing something different this time?

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