Mining the Skies

In August last year I wrote:

Concerned about resource scarcity? There’s plenty more up there. Last year, scientists confirmed that there was water on the moon. And there are metals and hydrocarbons abundant in asteroids. Metallic asteroids  possess copper, silver, gold, and all other such elements as well, though not in abundances anywhere near as large as those of their primary constituents.

It’s an age old trope, going back to John S. Lewis’ book on the subject, and one of my greater interests.

I know that Earth is finite. I know that in some limited sense Malthus — my great intellectual nemesis, albeit one who has been proven wrong and wrong again and again — could be proven right. Earth’s resources are limited simply by the fact that Earth is a limited space. If we don’t leave Earth behind, and we continue to expand we will hit Earth’s limits, if not by the end of the century (unlikely, in my view) then by the end of the millennium.

But my key message on this subject is this: Malthus will only ever be proven right if we screw up. It’s a big expansive universe, and we are smart, flexible, ingenious creatures. We don’t know how big, but the amount of resources out there seem far, far beyond the scope of the human imagination. Malthus will always be there with us, a shackle around our necks, forewarning us not to be too gluttonous, or to expand too far too fast, and to maintain an awareness of our access to resources, particularly water and sustenance. Forewarning us, I might add, of the dangers of our own arrogance. But resource pressures are something we can always conquer without resorting to any kind of nasty authoritarianism.

For just as I expected — and not a moment too soon — a cohort of the wealthy are putting their economic weight behind the idea of going out and getting more resources.

From the Telegraph:

Power players including Eric Schmidt, the Google chairman, and James Cameron, the film director, are planning to mine the final frontier: space.

They are among the backers of a new venture that will reach for the riches lying elsewhere in the solar system. Planetary Resources will be a “space exploration company to expand Earth’s resource base” according to scant information released ahead of the start-up’s launch in Seattle on Tuesday.

“The company will overlay two critical sectors – space exploration and natural resources – to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP,” was the bold claim. “This innovative start-up will create a new industry and a new definition of ‘natural resources’.”

Mr Schmidt and the internet giant’s co-founder Larry Page are listed alongside Mr Cameron, the director of Titanic and Avatar, among the venture’s investors and advisers.

The company was founded by Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis. “Since my childhood I’ve wanted to do one thing, be an asteroid miner,” Mr Diamandis told Forbes earlier this year. “So stay tuned on that one.”

While the costs of space travel are high, the hope is that riches contained in asteroids would make the sums worthwhile. Studies suggest that gold and other metals in the earth’s crust originated from asteroids that collided with the planet during its early life.

This is not the end of the road, but the start.

In any new industry there will be failures, some dramatic. Solar energy is a wonderful principle, but Solyndra was a terrible company.

But it is a pleasing start. Human civilisation just took a step in the right direction. And the ghost of Malthus just took another crashing blow.

43 thoughts on “Mining the Skies

  1. Capital Raising … cough cough scam!

    Reminds me of Australia’s Gold rush where Directors raised cash from hopeful investors in remote parts of Australia. Camels got diverted at the Black stump…. to a port with the first ship to Monaco.

    • The difference here is that this is attempting to perfect a crucial robustifying technology for future generations, to quell the chances of Malthusian crises.

      I say that as someone who will not be investing, however. If I was Peter Thiel or Warren Buffett, on the other hand, I would probably invest.

    • Amusing.

      Is there some inconsistency in my thinking?

      I don’t discount the possibility, although I’m loath to use that silly “consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds” quote.

      On the other hand, if we hooked up with legit alien creatures, I would oppose colonising their space and worlds, because that would surely lead to blowback, though we should defend our space and worlds tooth and nail.

      However I am sure that peaceful co-existence will be the last thing on the minds of the greater masses, etc.

  2. Either there is some purpose to human existence or there is not. The natural world and our selves seem to point to there being some purpose…why we perceive beauty and feel awe. Yet the predominant culture in which we live tells us there is nothing but form and matter. Given this we I think feel anxiety which we try to silence by getting ingrossed in entertainment etc. which usually causes us more anxiety. If human life has no purpose and death is the end then there is really no point living. Like a bird entering a well lit hall through a window which then leaves by the same window..we will die and we are heading towards our inevitable death each breath we take. If this is the reality of the human condition why fight aliens for survival, and what does the continued existence of humans entail? All our achevements seem to make us better consumers than the average animal. We can move faster and sleep in 5 star hotels…but in total what have we really made better? When the earth is destroyed and humans all die out will the Cosmos be poorer? What makes humans worth saving, it is not that we eat gourmet food and have the ability to fly above the earth.

    • Culturally we are a very developed species. Musically, philosophically, and even (sometimes) ethically.

      I think the most important feature that makes us worth saving, though, is that being alive as a human being is more often than not a pleasant feeling.

      The matter in our bodies, if we all died out, would go back to the Earth. We would be trees, birds, rocks, lichens, etc, as we once all were. Being human is fun.

    • Geez. How fucking depressing. If there is no “point” to life, whatever the hell that even means, why not live just for the sake of living. I mean why not? What else are you going to do?

    • @robc: To remain in the domain of finance, I would give this guy’s quote ( ):

      We are trying to persuade people that no human has yet grasped 1% of what can be known about spiritual realities. So we are encouraging people to start using the same methods of science that have been so productive in other areas, in order to discover spiritual realities.

      He may be right, or not. In my view, from a purely epistemological point of view, both atheists and “believers” are wrong, in that they have a “positive” belief regarding a certain state of the world, a belief that is not substantiated by facts. Agnostics are wrong as well (from this epistemological point of view), as the typical agnostic, in my view, is a person that is careful not to stray (in either direction) too far from his assumed “middle ground” position (hence, dogma).

    • People have been trying to figure out ‘the purpose of human existence’ for a long time. Perhaps it’s a linguistic trap.

  3. I knew there was a reason for this movie. Like Smoking Starlets drives cigarettes, so is the need for capital from a hopeful public.

    If the mass of the Earth increases, through the addition of materials, will this speed up or slow global warming?

    • As JJ eludes below, and what I was trying to get across, is the Earths orbit changes.

      Do the millions of tiny shooting stars lowly increase our mass. like a pond filling slowly with sediment?

      What effect has this had on our planets Orbit? If the moon is slowly moving further away, what will this do to the planet and life?

      It does not matter to me. I won’t be around

      • To be honest, the quantities involved are almost certain to have next to no effect at all.

        For example, the planet’s weight has been shed by a similar proportion since we invented satellites. We would have to start bringing down asteroids in very huge quantities to have a serious gravitational impact, i.e. if we mined the whole of Mars (11% of the Earth’s mass) and brought it all down to Earth.

        • Dynamics dictates that any weight change will certainly have an effect, and must have had, over the millenia. We simply do not hear speculations, and I could argue for a decreased orbital path, or an increased. But bearing this in mind should certainly be part of our equations. Be damn tough to lose the moon…

        • The entire moon is 1% of the mass of the Earth. If we mined the whole moon, and brought it down to Earth, it would have a great difference in terms of what life on Earth would be like (tides, etc), but a 1% shift probably wouldn’t make a great deal of difference in terms of long term orbital stability.

          Everything does have an effect, but the Earth’s mass is very large, and varying it by the levels related to asteroid mining (orders of magnitude less than 1%) will not make any significant difference, at least according to Newton’s equations.

        • Thanks for the assurance. I would tend to agree not much would occur. Makes me wonder what the tides were like when the moon was closer in. If we do not escape this closed environment system though, we will over run it. I once read that if we put all the people on earth into a crowd, they would stand inside the city limits of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

  4. 1.We may be the pollen of mother earth, spreading life throughout a lifeless universe. Find solace in that
    2. If we increase the weight of earth, we affect the orbit. Be careful.

    • @Jj It isn’t the change of weight that affects Earth’s orbit, it is the change in momentum. If the ships from wherever arrived from the side of Earth it is moving toward, it would slow down and vice versa.

  5. Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations 1776 talks about the price of silver and how the price was affected (Silver bought less labour) by the increased production of Peruvian mines. But Corn kept its price relative yo labour.

    So go long Agricultural Land. They can’t bring that rom another world!

    • Good idea, Buddy. And this at least, is Malthusian (because as far as I can remember, Malthus didn’t talk about rare earth elements and iPads, but about food). Of course, getting those elements from the skies might help with food as well. I assume we could build a terraced skyscraper using iron ore, and have cows graze fields (made out of lunar soil) on each level (slightly joking now, but I assume anyway that in a not so direct way even those minerals should help with food).

      • Fair points. Or we could go one step further and pull in another sun, like on Star Wars. No night time. Just 24/7 sun and growing seasons.

        Maybe we should be thankful for what God gave us. Imagine we stuffed it all up in the pursuit of endless growth and profits.

  6. Pingback: How asteroid mining could add trillions to the world economy – The Week Magazine | Your Daily Business News Portal

  7. Pingback: How asteroid mining could add trillions to the world economy | Business news

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