We built this city on rolling rocks

I was a couple of minutes into the video before I stopped, blinked, and actually realised what I was watching. ‘Wait, really?’ This kind of thing has been a staple of science fiction for so long, but no this is serious. The company Planetary Resources genuinely are aiming to mine asteroids. Someone is actually doing it!

By a strange coincidence, I was just reading about asteroid colonisation during a spare moment the other day. Now I know it’s massively premature to start talking about colonisation, but think about it for a moment. With the level of technology humanity currently has available to it, asteroids are an attractive target. Sure, they’re just big floating chunks of rock, but as a source for raw materials, they’re just ideal. No deep gravity wells to have to deal with, and no ugly mining operations on the surfaces of any other worlds. Just all of the solar system’s leftover debris being harvested for the scraps that didn’t make it into planets. Not to mention the potential reduction of any scarring done to Earth’s surface by continually exploiting the resources here. Asteroids contain all of the raw materials needed for colonisation. Copious amounts of metals, water ice, a small but useable amount of solar radiation for power. Logically, a world like Ceres may become a human colony long before Mars does.

I remember once, over a cup of tea, a friend of mine was explaining to me how he didn’t see the point in space travel. He went on to explain how humanity should just divert the funding for space travel into more telescopes and facilities instead. As if the problems of the world somehow didn’t really apply to him. The trouble is that Earth’s resources are steadily being drained. Like it or not, all of us use a plethora of rare elements in our daily lives (whether those daily lives involve mobile phones, flatscreens, or infrared telescopes). Tantalum, Germanium, Lithium, Indium… If you’re reading this on a laptop screen, chances are all of these rare metals are literally right under your nose right now. The infographic to the left here (which, by the way, you should click to gargantuanate so you can see any details) was put together by New Scientist a few years ago, to show how rapidly we’re running out of all of the resources we take for granted. Basically, in about 50 years it won’t really matter what shiny electronic wizardry we’re capable of making. We won’t have enough available materials to make any of them. As Ian O’Neill points out on Discovery News, the whole prospect of asteroid mining is not without a huge number of difficulties. I’m not convinced any of them are insurmountable though. No human exploration has ever been easy, and pushing our limits is the best way to learn.

Now I don’t know about anyone else, but I like the idea of deconstructing a few drifting hulks of space rock a lot more than the idea of tearing up more of Earth’s crust. The asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter contains around 3×1021 kg of mass. Three quintillion metric tonnes. And there are countless other asteroids scattered across the whole solar system. The ones which Planetary Resources intend to start with, near to Earth, are quite plentiful. Numbering in the thousands, it’s far from empty out there. As well as replenishing Earth’s dwindling resources, asteroid mining could be the key to exploring, and perhaps eventually colonising, the rest of the solar system — the company also intends to set up orbital fuel depots with the water found in these asteroids, which may be used by other space explorers like NASA or ESA in their explorations. Even for a fee, it would work out cheaper than getting materials into orbit from Earth’s surface.

For the same reasons why California became so popular in the mid 19th century, the asteroids are attractive for their wealth of precious metals. I’ve seen statistics stating that a single asteroid may contain more Platinum than has ever been mined here on Earth. Frankly, provided you pick the right asteroid, that may well be true. Perhaps this might be what’s needed to kick off some serious solar system exploration. The full repurcussions of all of this on Earth (especially on all manner of global economies!) remain to be seen, but one thing’s for sure — There’s a fortune out in those rocks. Should asteroid mining develop into a large scale industry, it would become easily wealthy enough to look into ventures into the rest of the solar system. Logically the best place to start would be in the asteroid belt, where the huge abundance of raw materials trapped in asteroids may be quite readily accessible. As some have suggested, with a shallow gravity well to allow full access to all the resources there, a tiny world like Ceres may end up being a very rich world indeed.

The promo video for Planetary Resources, for anyone who hasn’t yet seen it, is here:

In short: Asteroid mining? I’m all for it. How exciting!

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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