Posted by Pete Hague on 06 May 2012
Most people with an interest in things space-related will be aware of the recent announcement of a new company called Planetary Resources, set up to mine near Earth asteroids. Whilst I think that any expansion of human activity into the solar system is probably a good thing, I have some reservations about this scheme, and where it may ultimately lead.
I can't see any obvious technological reasons for them not to be able to do what they intend to do (although so far they have been fairly cagey as to exactly what technology they will be using.) My main doubt is that anybody will want to pay for the contents of these asteroids.
The company first plans to sell water retrieved from the asteroid. This is a useful resource in space, as it can be split into hydrogen and oxygen, which happens to be the most potent chemical fuel combination that has ever been put into practical use. The company hopes that being able to provide fuel on orbit, in much larger quantities than could affordably be shot up from Earth, will fund subsequent asteroid exploitation.
Perhaps it will. But it is by no means a certainty. Fuel that is on orbit is no use for launching off the surface, it is only useful for moving about once in orbit. They could perhaps make some money by boosting satellites from LEO (low Earth orbit) to GTO (geosynchronous transfer orbit) - but that seems unlikely as it would depend on a requirement for much larger geosynchronous/geostationary satellites than are currently in use. I see no evidence for such a requirement.
The primary market they hope to address is interplanetary spaceflight. They are counting on somebody, probably NASA, mounting an expedition to Mars. Sending large, manned spacecraft out of Earth's gravity well requires hundreds of tonnes of fuel, and as can be seen from the size of the Saturn V rocket, blasting this off from the surface requires very large (arguably impractically large) launch vehicles.
No doubt an on orbit fuel depot would be very useful in such a mission - but is NASA going to fund one? Is NASA still going to exist by the time the fuel depot is available? Everyone is talking excitedly about 'commercial' spaceflight, whilst ignoring the fact that only significant customer for human spaceflight, anywhere in the world, is national governments - none of which seem to be bothered about investing heavily in space.
Let us assume there is a massive turn around in political culture in the US, NASA funds a Mars mission, and the fuel depots turn a profit. What next? Planetary Resources hope that rare metals mined on the asteroids can be sold on Earth. The metals they have in mind are ones which fetch a high price, because they are as I said above, rare. They stop being rare if you flood the market with them, of course, but I am sure the smart business types behind this venture have thought of that.
What they apparently haven't thought of is that these are elemental metals, and outside the cores of nuclear reactors, none of our terrestrial industrial processes actually consume elements. Any metal you can mine for an asteroid that is needed in a new electronic device can almost certainly be mined more cheaply from an old discarded electronic device. It feels that the company is attempting to address a problem which doesn't actually exist. We are not short of metals, merely refined ones. I am not convinced refining them from asteroids has any benefits over refining them from Earthly ores and from WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment.)
Rapture of the nerds
But there is, perhaps, a reason why some of the people behind Planetary Resources think there will be a shortage of these metals in the future - the Singularity.
For those unaware, the Singularity is a pseudo-scientific religious belief that exponentially accelerating growth in technology is a permanent law of human development, rather than an empirical observation specific to certain times, places, and fields of endeavor. Moore's law is a usual starting place, along with a few carefully cherry-picked, subjective datings of "paradigm shifts", to justify this. This forever increasing growth will lead asymptotically to a point where technology becomes impossible to understand or predict (magic, basically.)
What happens then is a matter of technological theology; a common interpretation of the Singularity is that a transhuman AI will appear, it will give rise to an even smarter AI, which will give rise to a chain of exponentially smarter AIs over a short time period, and essentially a technological God will be born. Some think that human minds will be uploaded into the ever more complicated machines of the post-Singularity era, making the event sound even more like conventional Abrahamic religion.
(It may sound like I am constructing a straw-man here. I'm really not - and I strongly recommend that the reader verify for themselves what the Singularity people believe.)
Peter Diamandis, co-founder of Planetary Resources, is a true believer of the Singularity, to the point where he has also founded a "Singularity University" as a kind of seminary for the new religion. This doesn't necessarily mean everything he does is as dubious as the concept of the Singularity - however in the statements released so far by Planetary Resources, there is repeated mention of "exponential technology", specifically in the context of what problem gaining access to the rare metals inside asteroids is supposed to solve. To me, this is a red flag. It seems that the company predicts vastly increased demand for the metals they wish to mine, based on the requirement of those metals during the nerd rapture. I do not think this is a solid base for a very long term business plan.
What is property?
Let us assume that, against the odds, the asteroid miners find enough people to buy their output that they can stay in business. Even then, things aren't that rosy, because at some point we are going to have to discuss who owns the asteroids.
If someone wishes to exploit natural resources on Earth, they generally pay the country whose territory the resource is in for the right to exploit it. Clearly, asteroids are not in anybody's territorial boundaries - the use of satellites for decades has clearly established that national borders do not extend into space. The likelihood is, that planetary resources will not pay anybody for the right to exploit asteroids. This is an unsettling idea - it established a "might makes right" rule for the solar system. If you can grab it, its yours. Conflict is almost inevitable.
So lets say a system of licenses is established, to stop people scrapping over especially juicy and/or accessible space rocks. Who administers it? Given that Planetary Resources is currently the only asteroid mining outfit around, and is based in the US, it will be the US who hands out the first exploitation license. Again, we have a problem. By the above logic, by claiming the right to hand out exploitation licenses, the US is effectively claiming territory. Other countries probably aren't going to be happy about this. The situation may be considered analogous to the aggressive territorial claims China is making in the potentially oil rich South China Sea - and the understandably prickly response of other nations with claims in the same Sea. Again, conflict is almost inevitable at some point.
But if Planetary Resources, or the US government, gets to the asteroids first, who cares? Nobody else can do anything about it, can they?
Fighting in space, specifically in Low Earth Orbit where most conflict is likely to occur due to its accessibility, is a terrible idea.
Imagine a satellite is struck by a weapon, and blasted into pieces. These pieces fly off on their own orbits, and can go on to strike other satellites and shatter them. If the rate at which fragments are created by collisions exceeds the rate at which these fragments burn up in the atmosphere, a feedback loop can be created and lead to a runaway increase in orbiting debris. This may allow the density of debris to become high enough to make space flight essentially impossible for a long period of time. Such an event is termed a Kessler syndrome after the NASA scientist who first described the effect.
Five years ago, the Chinese government tested its first anti-satellite weapon, by destroying one of its own defunct satellites. The amount of debris produced was, by some claims, 25% of that which had existed before the test. In the years since, the ISS has been threatened by some of this debris (and orbiting debris from other sources) to the extent that the crew were sent into the attached Soyuz capsules, ready to immediately evacuate if the space station were hit.
It is unknown for certain how close the debris situation is to the tipping point where a Kessler syndrome is possible, but some models suggest we have already passed that point but the effect simply takes some time to kick in noticably.
So, even if LEO were cleared of debris tomorrow, it could be entirely repopulated by the destruction of 5 satellites of the small size (750kg) of the one destroyed in the Chinese test, and that alone could potentially lead to a Kessler syndrome. A heavy lift rocket such as Ariane 5, Delta IV, Proton, or the upcoming Long March 5 could lift 20 or more such sized satellites into orbit at once - and if the intent is merely to create debris, the satellites could be designed to explode on their own rather than require a tricky orbital interception. If the ISS could be disrupted to the same degree as the target of the Chinese satellite test, at ~400 times the mass it would instantly increase the on orbit debris by a factor of 100. Planetary Resources would probably put many comparably sized installations into space.
Because creating unmanageable quantities of orbital debris is so easy, then it is an option for anybody who 'loses' a conflict over asteroid rights if they had the technology to contend in the first place. They could deny the victor access to space out of spite, and threats to do so would become bargaining chips. But if even one such threat were carried out, space would become inaccessible to all for a long time.
The only solution that I can think of is for asteroid rights to be held in a trust for all of humanity. I have no illusions about the likelihood of such a thing happening though.
I would like to be proved wrong; that there really is a viable Mars mission on the cards in the next decade or so, that asteroid mining can make money (and by some trickle down mechanism never explained by the founders of Planetary Resources, make us all richer). And I hope that humanity can exploit space without degenerating into a futile orbital war. But I don't see anything yet to convince me that these things can happen.
Posted by Fred on 06 May 2012
Interesting post Pete.
There is one point I would make regarding loss of resources. Despite there being almost no proceses that consume elements, no reclamation process is ever going to be 100% efficient, there will always be losses. So after a large enough amount of time recycling won't help much. I have absolutely no idea how far off this point is however so you may be right about them flooding their own market.
Posted by Pete on 06 May 2012
Extracting elements from discarded electronics has an energy cost, as does extracting them from asteroids. The most promising ones are composed mainly of Iron and Nickel, things we aren't exactly short of on Earth.
Given the additional costs of working in space, is it really going to save energy extracting these rare metals from asteroids?
Posted by Fred on 06 May 2012
Recycling can only last so long, as each run through the process has losses involved. Eventually it will be more energy efficient to get the materials from space, I just don't know how long that would be.
Posted by Pete on 06 May 2012
Where would these losses be to? The environment. The Earth's biosphere is a closed system and elements can't go anywhere. Whatever happens, it just seems simpler to recover metals from the environment and waste than to get them from space.
Posted by Other Pete on 07 May 2012
Pete is right; if the physicists ever manage to make fusion work and give us electricity "too cheap to meter", then we can extract all kinds of elements from seawater (such as gold and uranium).
Or undersea / sea floor mining, but that's arguably a more hostile environment than outer space.