PLANETARY PROSPECTING: EXACTLY WHY DOES EVERYONE WANT TO MINE ...

As most regular readers here are aware, over the past few years there has been a push, both in media coverage, and in reality, for mining local celestial bodies: asteroid mining. There have been a spate of articles and press releases about this or that private company developing this or that reusable booster, or robotic technology, and even NASA has joined the fun with articles about actually going out there, and grabbing and snabbing an asteroid, parking it in orbit around the Moon, and mining the daylights out of it. (These usually ignore the pesky little problem of what are they going to do with the asteroid once they've denuded it of wealth.) Said articles in some cases have even been accompanied by artist's drawings of the NASA plan to build large "space cups" that will simply catch the roving rocks like a gold ball (no two or three putts allowed).

The real question that has always bothered me, and I'm sure it has bothered a lot of other readers here, is how is all this going to be cost effective, a problem that the following article, shared by Mr. S.D., makes abundantly clear:

Space prospecting: How Planetary Resources selects its asteroid mining targets

So again, how is all of this going to be cost effective? After all, just the technology to prospect for the "right" asteroid to mine is quite expensive. You or I are not going to go to our local Wally World and pull a satellite off the shelf(at least, not yet), and launch it into space(another expensive prospect), and then maintain the facilities and highly skilled technicians that have to watch the satellite and interpret the data it sends back. We've also heard stories about the vast amount of wealth out there to be had, if we can just get to it and mine it.

But again, if it's not cost effective, why bother? The article above informs us that planetary prospectors, besides looking at things like the asteroid's velocity, rate of spin, proximity to Earth, and so on, are also looking at its probable contents, nickel, cobalt, or even lowly iron. But I don't recall hearing any news recently about "peak cobalt" or the looming "titanium shortage" unless "they" have been lying about those things too. So again, why go out there for your cobalt, when it is much cheaper to mine it here?

As we've been watching these stories develop over the years, and following them on this website in the occasional blog, the problem of "cost effectiveness" has always nagged at me and, as I suggest, probably has with most of the readership here. I've said, clearly and unequivocally, that chemical rockets would not seem to be a very cost effective way of mining anything out there. And then there's the problem of what to do with
"it" once you've mined it(another question that these types of articles typically ignore). The implicit assumption has been that it would be brought back to Earth and somehow brought to the surface (yet another very expensive proposition), again, with the current off-the-shelf equivalent of the wood-and-canvas Wright Brothers technological equivalent of the space age: the chemical rocket and space shuttles. I've speculated, along with many here, that the mere talk of mining anything in space is perhaps an indicator of other not-so-public technologies that would make such mining feasible and cost effective. And, if you've a few spare billion in pocket change, on the way to proposing to "nuke" Mars (as Mr. Musk has recently done), you might want to drop a few hundred million in the development of rather different propulsion methods on a much more covert basis. But again, a billion here, and a billion there, and pretty soon - as the old Senator Evrett Dirksen(I believe) once said - you're talking some serious money.

On top of this, I wonder(thanks to a fascinating lunch and discussion recently with a friend in the oil business) just exactly what type of accounting space mining will use? Suffice it to say, that's a subject for another day, but from what I've gathered thus far in my meager attempts to research petroleum industry accounting practices, one of those methods makes eminent sense, and the other is rife with possibilities for, well, fraud.

All these considerations suggest that either the return on investments from asteroid mining must be far greater than initial investment - and some estimates do put the wealth "out there" in the trillions if not quadrillions of dollars (a handy thing to have laying around out there if you're trying to get rid of all those quadrillions of dollars in bad derivatives paper) - or there is(here comes the high octane speculation) something else entirely in play.

That "something else" might be indicated by one very odd statement made in this otherwise "set piece" article, a statement so odd in the context of a rather dry presentation of the general problems of planetary prospecting that it sticks out like a sore thumb, especially in an article that repeatedly suggests the whole problem of "cost effectiveness" and "return on investment":

In the future, Planetary Resources plans to go after metallic (M-type) asteroids containing metals like Iron, Cobalt, and Nickel — which can be used to build structures in space, without having to haul the metal up from Earth’s surface. (Emphasis added)

That, it would seem to me, is a rather large admission, for while such plans to use local celestial bodies to "island hop" from one to the other, building facilities and ships as we go, have been around for years, the mention in the context of mining, of commerce, suggests that it might have been taking place on a small and covert scale for some time.

After all, Ben Rich, who is known to have said "We found an error in the equations and now we can take ET home," might just as well have said "We found an error in the equations, and now we can mine the stars."

Or to put it "country simple": it would seem that returns on investments and cost effectiveness would mandate very different technologies than the wood and canvas of chemical rockets.

See you on the flip side...


24 thoughts on “ PLANETARY PROSPECTING: EXACTLY WHY DOES EVERYONE WANT TO MINE ...”

  1. “Why is this something that can be bought? The duty of escaping is to extend human civilization. They’ll naturally want the cream of civilization. Sending a bunch of rich dudes across the cosmos,” he snorted. “What’ll that do? Hmph.”
    The Dark Forest – Cixin Liu

  2. I think, given the recent, very-fast updates in robotics, semi-AI and something which is also bursting through the roof at present–miniature-to-nano based 3D Printing, mining ore on the front-end of a small space craft and pushing it the the back-end module housing the 3-D Printer only to haul the “new piece” off via another small vehicle to a nearby space station for assemblage would actually not be very difficult, at all, especially by the time 2020 gets here…this, BTW also has suggested to me of late that “their” “printing” of “their” new robotic army, enforcers and worker-bots is already here…

  3. Because on paper they’ve sold 200+ ounces of gold for every ounce they physically can deliver and time is running out?

    When the paper gold market dies it would call into question all other paper markets (bonds, currency, etc).

    Now if they can satisfy all the demand for gold, refill their own coffers and say “See. We told you everything was fine.” then they get to keep the other paper scams going.

  4. The asteroid mining proponents are always touting the vast quantities of ordinary metals and precious metals that will be available for us to mine from asteroids (google it and you’ll see what I mean). One metal-rich asteroid oftentimes has a decade’s supply of Earthly consumption in it. I could be wrong, but the economics of asteroid mining don’t seem to pencil out though.

    Let’s say you go out and capture an asteroid with a humongous amount of gold (or any other metal of your choice) – say more gold than is extracted on Earth in 10 years or some such amount. What happens to the price of gold on Earth when everyone else hears you will be vastly increasing the world’s supply of gold in six months when you get it mined and return it to Earth? Econ 101 tells us the price is going to drop precipitously. How much will it fall? Who knows, but there’s a very good chance you’ll go bust. Your success was your own undoing.

    1. econ 201 tells us to not worry. debeers and rothschilds figured out supply and demand problems of this nature decades ago. has anyone’s concern for the price of diamonds ever proved accurate?

      in terms of roi, one might consider other minor problems that us plebs are not yet privy to the solutions of – say how to feed humans in a manor that allows them to survive past a few weeks, months or even years without serious deterioration? is this another reason to mkultra poison holistic doctors in germany?

      geez you’d think sidney gottlieb et al are wrenching power away from neolibs, neocons or whoever.

      1. Good point on the De Beers monopoly of the diamond so-called market. Shiny rocks marketed on starlets ear lobes & in Hollywood weddings. Perfect example of managed perceptions being alchemized in to never ending stream of kachings.
        The industrialization of space with highly advanced technologies designed to space environments and in house economies[actually off-world hidden economies].
        There is of course an interface with terrestrial economies; but highly controlled[as is earth’s].
        Of course, 99% of humanity is still in the mushroom culture – in the dark while being fed buls**t.

        1. Well part of the game – it has already started up – are investment schemes which will probably be hard to distinguish from ponzi schemes, thanks to strict control over information. You would have thought that people would have learned their lesson after the South Sea Bubble back in the 1700s, but it seems that every generation has its share of “suckers”

  5. Two aspects:

    On the romantic/SF side, I am sure that half of the space ‘venture capitalists’ (Musk, for example) harbor in the back of their minds the possibility of finding exotic artifacts/wreckage. This is an old SF staple. Think of “Babylon 5”, where (to their woe) bad-guy interests had found and dug-out an old ‘Shadow’ vessel. The Solar System has been around for a looong time. Who knows what is drifting out there? The mining meme is just a way to justify going out there and looking around…

    The second aspect requires a twisting of minds. Think of both the Solar System and Earth itself as just ‘gravity wells’. No matter what the propulsion system (unless propulsion is essentially ‘free’), going-into or coming-out-of a gravity well is expensive. Economics will dictate a ‘minimization’ of these costs.

    Solar system-wise, this will cause an ‘Asteroid Belt civilization’ (and perhaps a Kuiper Belt civilization’) to spring up and self-build. Once they discover what Earth will pay the shipping costs for, a trading system will build up. (Earth, of course, may eventually-view ABc as a threat, and we get another interplanetary war.)

    Earth-area-wise, I suspect ‘action’ will evolve around an orbit somewhere between the Earth and Moon. Possibly a Lagrande point. Useful materials will be processed on the Moon, and catapulted up to be ‘seized’ by roving space-tugs. (1/6 the gravity well.) A sprawling facility in that orbit will operate somewhat like a Fedex or UPS trans-shipment location. Earth will only send-up high-value material like computers and solar arrays. Earth itself will become not a backwater, but less of an economic center. (This post is neglecting all the Breakaway Civilization aspects.)

  6. As I see it, the ultimate goal served by overt/covert operations of this kind, planetary and extraplanetary tripping over themselves, is to engage in a rat race search for the remains of the big prize_ the tablets of destiny. Nobody could believe such a fantastic tale but a scifi nut job or someone believing it’s their destiny to recover? One does not exclude the other.

  7. Many years ago during the 80’s when we should have been mining the asteroid belt, there was a few stories in “Discovery” Magazine. That discussed the advantages of mining space. The biggest one is it’s O2 free vacuum. The exotic alloys that could be produced by a solar furnace and then quenched in the unbeleivable cold,would yeild amazing material break throughs. Plus, the sun is ever present source of power.. Sounds like a win, win to me. Problem being is who’s doing it now? And how much public money did they use to line their private accounts?

    1. As you suggest Aridzonan one of the understated aspects of this (presumable) wildly expensive project could be materials engineering. Which as suggested in these pages could also be lurking behind the CERN experiments. Specialized materials engineering would imply off-world industrial facilities, though not necessarily the transport of huge amounts of material back to Earth. But without excluding such transport, either….

      1. The materials engineering aspect of CERN blew me away. Very good point about the materials aspect of what can be found on asteroids. Also can’t forget about forming in zero g means an altered (more perfect?) lattice structure.

  8. Space mining a meme from science fiction well when you go space mining you exploit all of the asteroid. The so called waste can be used to build things as well housing protective shielding for spacecraft you name it. Yea these people have to have something better than the glorified firecrackers they’re supposedly using for space propulsion now.

  9. One has to wonder just where that 8.5 trillion dollars the Pentagon can’t seem to locate actually went to. That’s half of the national deficit seemingly lost into thin air (or even thinner space).
    Any corporate officers who lost half their companies value would be drawn and quartered. Why haven’t we drawn and quartered our totally corrupt politicians?

  10. Abaddon, Appolyon, the ‘Lawless One’ and Lucifer always reminded me of a rogue comet or asteroid.

    “I saw a star fallen from heaven to the earth…Then out of the smoke locusts came upon the earth.”

    Is just me or is this line talking about space critters, God help us if asteroid mining means we’ll have to buy extra large fly swatters to deal with space critters.

  11. It might not only be about mining metals but the interest in asteroids could have an archaeological interest too. If we go back to “The Cosmic War” theory then those asteroids (or rather chunks from an exploded planet) might also contain some valuable information regarding that planet and whatever civilization was once there.

    1. If the asteroid belt is indeed a former planet that harboured an ancient civilization then you can see why theyre landing satellites on them such as Rosetta. Some of the pictures have documented what appear to be artificial structures and of course the link has conveniently been lost on occassions like all missions that stumble across things that aren’t for wider public consumption. Why we the public put up with this charade when we fund these programmes is beyond me.

    2. This is why I like this site. The people herein get down & dirty; looking deep into & behind these manufactured Potemkin “reality” facades. For those of us who can’t “see:; others will lead us the way.

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