With its project to mine asteroids, Planetary Resources Inc. hopes to bring back to Earth a wealth of important materials. But, when the current value of these resources is based on their rarity, how can this operation be sustainable? The concept of abundance is key, whether it’s asteroidal resources or energy production on earth. The results of abundance will be transformative, and the various players of the new private space industry will have a major impact on the revolutionary changes to come.
Following a dream into Space, developing the technology to get the job done, plus finding an array of applications for the resulting innovations, is an admirable plan.Since the April 24 announcement of Planetary Resources’ ambitious project to mine asteroids, a number of intriguing debates and critiques have arisen. Some of them are very interesting, like legal ownership of extraterrestrial land through international laws, military and geostrategic aspects, or the technical feasibility of such a venture. But one worth sharing here, because of the implications in many areas, is the economic question regarding supply and demand for the resources in question.
If you are about to mine asteroids and bring back to Earth huge amounts of rare resources, like platinum group metals (palladium, platinum, osmium, iridium and rhodium), worth trillion of dollars, you will automatically drop the price on the market. So the question one may ask is how Planetary Resources could make a profit from mining asteroids.
Tim Worstall an expert on metals and rare earth, wrote an interesting article on the subject for Forbes. He points out that these metals “have such high values because of their rarity against the value we can extract from their use. A huge increase in supply doesn’t change the value we can extract from their use, but a huge increase in supply will definitely change their rarity and thus collapse their price. Which means that mining asteroids for these resources only works in economic terms if you either don’t mine very much of them or you don’t bring them back to Earth. Neither of which will make you much money to defray the enormous costs. Which leaves the company in something of a bind. If they cannot create the technology to mine these metals in large quantities, then they cannot make any profit. But if they do create the technology to mine them in large quantities then they also cannot make any profit because large supplies won’t be worth very much.”
Regarding the supply and demand paradox there is something very important to link to the ideas coming out of Planetary Resources: the concept of abundance. If we do have access to such quantities of resources, it will definitely change the way we see scarcity. And thinking about it from a linear supply and demand perspective, by contemporary definitions, is (or probably will be) out of date. As Planetary Resources co-founder Peter Diamandis pointed out recently at the 2012 TED conference, scarcity is contextual and technology is a resource-liberating force. What was scarce at one point in history, like aluminium, one of the most valuable metals on the planet in the mid-1800s, became abundant through the discovery of electrolysis. This process made aluminium cheap enough that today we throw it away without thinking, and the economy is still working. (Well, only kind of, but not for that reason.)
Abundance at work
Now, if you look back at history, you will see that many things that were scarce in the past became easier to produce over time, through the development of science and technology. And if you transpose it to the main areas of basic need for every human being on the planet like clean water, food, shelter, access to energy, education and health, a lot of things are moving from scarcity toward abundance today, through the exponential growth of technology. And these are the same factors we will need to address if we want to have human colonies in Space or on other worlds.
To see why this is a key element in understanding the future, you can think about energy. It is estimated that 16 terawatts of energy hits the Earth's surface every 88 minutes. That's 5000 times more energy than we use in a year. Advances in solar-generated electricity are growing rapidly. Last year, for example, in India the cost of electricity from solar fell to just half that of diesel-generated electricity. Future generations of solar panels will have the means to provide electricity to the most remote places on earth at a minimal cost, making access to energy affordable for everyone. It is easy to understand how important such improvements in the technology will be for Space exploration, too.
If you had almost free access to energy, it would also mean abundant clean water. We often hear about the upcoming water-wars, but advances in nanotechnology and clean water production are about to come on-line and could eventually solve the problem. (As an example, innovator Dean Kamen’s Slingshot water purifier is about to be tested in the developing world and, if all goes well, the Coca-Cola company has said it will implement the device globally.) The stakes of an abundant water supply are just as high in Space. Mining asteroids for water will allow the production of drinkable water and breathable air, and will improve and provide direct and cheap access to propellant materials.
Many more innovation and abundance revolutions are already taking place on Earth, most of them through the rise of cheap, dematerialized and demonetised computing and telecommunications technologies, like cell phones and smart phones. Singularity University, a non-profit learning institution in Silicon Valley, founded by Peter Diamandis and Ray Kurtzweil, aims to "assemble, educate and inspire a cadre of leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies and apply, focus and guide these tools to address humanity’s grand challenges.”
Such a group, and many more around the planet, through the combined use of those technologies, will bring around 3 billion more people into the global conversation in the next 8 years. With a total of 6 billion, or more, connected humans, living in a world of abundance, with almost free access to water, food, energy, health, education, and the power to be heard in the political landscape of their country, you can only dream about what humanity would be capable of. What will they do to help improve and accelerate the evolution of society through science, technology and, maybe even more importantly, social transformation, when they can collectively think, plan and work on a common goal about our future as a civilisation, instead of the narrow country-based point of view?
Space 2.0: A Revolution Underway
Even before we reach the potential “age of abundance” and all of its possibilities, while Planetary Resources is progressing with its asteroid mining plans, other teams of scientists, engineers and dreamers are working all over the world to bring in the era of Space 2.0, through private and commercial development. One of them, and probably the most famous, SpaceX, just launched its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule on May 22, 2012. The successful completion of the mission made SpaceX the first commercial company to dock a Spacecraft to the International Space Station.
Elon Musk, CEO and CTO of SpaceX, always dreamed as a child of space exploration. Now, after making his fortune with the internet, he has started three game-changing companies—Solar City, Tesla, and SpaceX—each of them with the goal of solving what he sees as humanity's biggest challenges: energy, transportation and Space travel, in order to become a multiplanetary species.
If his life can teach us something, it is how powerful dreaming about science fiction and following an interest in science can be, bringing this boy all the way to the creation and ultimate success of the first private space venture in human history, doing what, until recently, only large nations could do. Not content to stop there, he plans to go all the way to Mars in the near future.
Among other ventures to keep an eye on is Bigelow AeroSpace Commercial Space Station. A private orbital Space complex currently in development, it will be constructed of both Sundancer and BA 330 expandable Spacecraft modules, as well as a central docking node, propulsion system, solar arrays, and attached crew capsules. Initial launch of Space station components is planned for 2014, with portions of the station available for leased use as early as 2015.
Stratolaunch Systems, founded by Microsoft Co-Founder Paul Allen, teaming up with Burt Rutan (SpaceShipOne and Two, and winner of the Ansari X PRIZE), aims to create airport-like operations for Space travel. The company will use a gargantuan twin-boom aircraft to launch a rocket and Space capsule on missions to send commercial and government payloads, and ultimately paying passengers, into orbit. The company is aiming for the aircraft's first test flight in 2015, with the first operational launch in 2016, company officials said. Once the launch system is proven to be safe and reliable, manned flights will follow.
Moon Express, a privately held seed-stage company formed by a group of Silicon Valley and Space entrepreneurs like Naveen Jain, Barney Pell and Robert D. Richards, has set itself the goal of winning the Google Lunar X Prize, and ultimately mining the Moon for resources of economic value. On June 30, 2011, the company held its first successful test flight of a prototype lunar lander system called the Lander Test Vehicle (LTV) that was developed in partnership with NASA. On September 11, 2011, MoonEx announced that it had set up a robotics lab for a lunar probe named the “Moon Express Robotics Lab for Innovation” (MERLIN). At the end of April 2012, the company submitted its mission design package, meeting a checkpoint called for by NASA.
Blue Origin is a privately funded aeroSpace company set up by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. In 2009, the company was awarded $3.7 million in funding by NASA under the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program for development of concepts and technologies to support future human Spaceflight operations. They received another 22 million during the second phase of the CCDev program.
One of the most amazing and mind-blowing examples is Copenhagen Suborbitals, a non-profit organization working towards suborbital, manned Spaceflight. Founded in 2008 by Kristian von Bengtson and Peter Madsen, the project has accomplished a successful sea launch of a test hybrid rocket, carrying a full-scale human model. Based in Denmark and working on open source principles, funding for the project comes from donations and sponsoring. The organization is working with the stated goal of showing how Space flight can be done outside governments and large corporations. The approach used by the group is to minimize complexity by using the simplest possible solutions, such as solving problems with mechanical solutions over electronic solutions and working to avoid paperwork by using lightly regulated technology.
And just this past week, a new company, called Mars One, announced its ambitious deadline to begin colonisation of Mars in April 2023. It will be a one-way ticket for the first humans willing to go along and establish a settlement - talk about risk taking!
Many more are working or planning on getting into the game, as this list attests. What this shows us, maybe, is how much private Space exploration has been blooming all around the world over the last few years. And this is just a glimpse into what Space exploration is about to become, creating a new ecosystem for what Kevin Kelly calls the Technium: the lifelike network of codependant technologies that surround us. The revolutions and innovations coming out of it will have a huge impact on humanity. Through its robotic extension and exploration of the Universe, we may become, one day, a multiplanetary civilisation. The technium will keep exploring and evolving, discovering new horizons, life forms, opportunities and dreams...
Connecting such a view with all these Space ventures could bring us back to the beginning of the cycle of life. Our dreams for exploring Space and other worlds is, in a way, what the panspermia hypothesis suggests: that “life exists throughout the Universe, and is distributed by meteoroids, asteroids and planetoids.” The poetry in such a view is that, in the same way life on Earth reproduces, planets and asteroids reproduce with each other, seeding life on new worlds. By following our destiny as a Space civilisation, we could be helping the Universe and ourselves to send spores all over the solar system and beyond, making space exploration, and companies like Planetary Resources and SpaceX, more important and beautiful than ever. Sharing this dream with younger generations and the general public, through these kinds of space programs, could be the best tool to bring together people from different countries, religions, beliefs, cultures, experiences and ideas, around a common goal, reducing differences and, in the end, learning to appreciate and build upon what we share: our planet and our resources.
About the author: Clément Epié is a Curious Mind enjoying exploration, learning, sharing; meeting cool, different, visionary, fun or curious humans, to talk about Life, people, science, technology, education, travelling, photography or anything you may think of that would be fun, interesting to share, learn and play with.
Photoblog: https://www.flickr.com/photos/photonquantique/ Twitter: @clementepie
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To find out more:
"ABUNDANCE", a video by Jason Silva, inspired by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler’s book Abundance: The Future is Better than You Thinkhttps://vimeo.com/34984088
New Study Says Asteroid Retrieval and Mining Feasible With Existing and Near-Term Technologieshttp://www.parabolicarc.com/2012/04/19/new-study-says-asteroid-retrieval-and-mining-feasible-with-existing-and-near-term-technologies/
"Who owns asteroids or the moon?", New Scientist https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21428670-200-who-owns-asteroids-or-the-moon/?ignored=irrelevant
Mars One plans human colonization of Mars by April 2023https://www.digitaltrends.com/cool-tech/mars-one-ventures-bankrupt/