Wealth Beyond the Horizon: The Coming Asteroid Mining Boom
Humanity’s drive to explore, to branch out and extend our reach and our grasp over the natural environment, has been with us since before we were technically human. Early hominids crafted new technologies to improve their lives and expand their power. Many adventurous souls set out to explore beyond the horizon, simply because it beckoned. Following these pathfinders were those with more practical motives. They sought new resources, free land, a space of their own and goods to bring back for trade and profit. Humans built huge ships to cross the oceans, again for the sake of discovery itself as well as for the vast riches uncharted territories held. In modern times, the inspiration is no different. The horizon has simply been pushed out beyond the Earth.
As President Kennedy said, “we choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Many nations have already spent vast sums reaching and exploring space, for no other reason than discovery itself. Now we have reached a point in our technological development where practical considerations can come to the forefront. Space does not merely offer a new goal to be reached — it offers unimaginable elemental riches, with resources that become ever more scarce on Earth every day. Those who seize the opportunity to unlock the vast resources beyond the atmosphere will find themselves wealthy beyond measure, as well as providing a great boon to humanity at large.
Astronomers have confirmed that the Solar System has a composition quite similar to Earth itself. Thus, the same materials we find so valuable here at home, from gold to helium, are present in vast quantities throughout the planets and the asteroid belt. In fact, according to Space.com’s “Asteroid Mining: Key to the Space Economy” by Mark Sonter, near-earth objects may offer purer and more easily refined metal ores than even the most productive Earth-based mines. Moreover, they orbit close enough to Earth that they may cost sufficiently little to exploit so as to make them competitive with current terrestrial mining efforts.
The free-market will also give a tremendous boost to asteroid detection abilities, averting potentially cataclysmic destruction. As the recent Siberian explosion so rudely reminded us, meteorites can still strike anywhere and cause tremendous damage. Though NASA and others already track many near-earth objects, making such tracking profitable would dramatically increase the odds of detection. Private asteroid-mining companies will also have the capability to divert such threats, and turn a tidy profit in doing so. Many of the so-called potentially hazardous objects represent the greatest economic opportunity precisely because they are so close to Earth. The same proximity that makes them dangerous also makes them easy to access and thereby obtain their elements.
With population growth and economic expansion putting a strain on all of Earth’s resources, space beckons entrepreneurs more and more. Even water grows more scarce by the day, and the Solar System contains far more water than Earth itself. Phosphorous for agriculture; platinum-group metals for computer chips; helium for high tech industry; all of these and more lie out there in orbit around the sun, ready for the taking if any savvy, daring adventurers show the willingness and the ability to take them.
Of course, space mining and resource gathering present many problems to potential explorers and developers. It will require a huge initial investment, and the cost of obtaining elements will offset the potential value of the elements obtained. In the words of Tim Worstall, writing for Forbes about Asteroid 2012 DA14, “The value of any lump of rock is not the value of the metals trapped within it. It is the value of those trapped metals minus the cost of untrapping them.” This potential cost, however, has not deterred billionaires such as Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos from investing in the technology necessary to build a space industry. SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and the new firm Planetary Resources all have their eyes on the profits spinning through the Solar System. Some companies will surely fail, of course, but those that succeed will become the new demigods of the world economy.
Bringing back large quantities of gold and rare-earth metals could potentially send a shockwave through Earth-based markets. A large influx of resources all at once would cause the value of such resources to plummet. Speculators and entrepreneurs will have to take care with how they introduce the resources back on Earth to avoid potential economic catastrophe. However, such has always been the case with the discovery of new resources. Spain’s bounty of silver from South America wound up bankrupting the country, as they brought so much silver back it completely devalued their currency. With proper foresight, planning, and legal implementation, entrepreneurs and governments can coordinate to avoid the worst of any economic backlash. That said, a drop in resource prices would drastically reduce the cost of goods that depend on those materials, making everything from consumer goods to medical equipment more available to society at large.
Eventually, advanced orbital industry will make the space industry self-sustaining. Moving equipment and materials into orbit costs tremendous amounts of money. With the proper infrastructure, companies would extract necessary resources from space itself and not need to spend money launching them into orbit. In time, firms could even manufacture components in space, allowing for orbiting shipyards and further reducing the cost of launching ships from the surface. According to one Guardian article by Ian Sample, one company has its eyes on doing just that. One of Deep Space Industries’ long-term ideas “is to build a space-borne manufacturing facility that takes in asteroid material, processes it into usable alloys and other substances, and makes objects with the material via a 3D printer.” Once we have reached that level of development, we will have the ability to push the horizon out even further, taking a serious look at colonizing Mars, the Galilean moons, and other prime Solar System real estate. Space will likely become the breakaway industry of the 21st century. After that, limitless possibilities await.