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Space mining is going to seriously disrupt Earth's economy (wired.co.uk)
36 points by walterbell on Jan 20, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 56 comments

Pretty much the whole of human activity is spent on managing scarce resources in one way or another. Most things that have reduced this "burden" have been to the betterment of society (on the whole, of course there have been local winners and losers) so there is no reason to believe that some new form of scarcity reductions will not also follow this trend.

I think the major flaw most people make in this area is assuming that the current situation is the optimal and any disruption is inherently bad -- e.g. gold has always been scarce so it must always be scarce. Bastiat talks about this phenomenon with his "that which is seen and that which is unseen" theory one could argue.

--edit-- Bastiat link -- http://www.econlib.org/library/Bastiat/basEss1.html

Yep. Metallic aluminum used to be so difficult to extract (in spite of being the third most common element in the Earth's crust) that it was a precious metal. Then we discovered the Hall/Heroult and Bayer methods of extracting aluminum, and it became one of the most important metals of the 20th century leading to advanced aviation and a thousand other uses. Steel used to be comparatively scarce, expensive to produce, and variable in quality. Once we discovered the Bessemer process, we had the [edit: Second] Industrial Revolution.

Strictly speaking, the Bessemer process was developed in the 1850s, and the traditional dates for the Industrial Revolution is ~1750-1850.

True enough. I was thinking of the Second Industrial Revolution (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Industrial_Revolution). I just didn't phrase myself that well.

Totally true, but it’s really, really important to stay alert and watch disruptive economic shifts like a hawk.

The first thing keep in mind when radical improvements arrive is that spectacular new things have been dropped at our feet before, and killed a massive shitload of people. Not everybody wins when things get generally better. Some people lose, and when the individual tales of losers are closely examined, sometimes they have lost through incredibly bitter narratives no less.

Some cavemen were probably left crippled only to die a miserable caveman death by trying to mount horses, some people were gored by non-collapsible steering columns in early car accidents, some people were smeared across mountain tops by early planes without hazard avoidance instrumentation.

Things get better, but indivuals still pay for it.

Next you'll be saying that computer viruses could exist, or that bitcoin's blockchain could suck up way too much energy.

You could easily put AI in this space... the resource it's going to disrupt is information.

but We''l adapt around it, our lives will change and we'll move on.

Study: The politics of space mining – An account of a simulation game

Citation: Paikowsky, Deganit. Tzezana, Roey. Acta Astronautica Volume 142, January 2018, 10-17.

Link: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.actaastro.2017.10.016

DOI: 10.1016/j.actaastro.2017.10.016

Abstract: Celestial bodies like the Moon and asteroids contain materials and precious metals, which are valuable for human activity on Earth and beyond. Space mining has been mainly relegated to the realm of science fiction, and was not treated seriously by the international community. The private industry is starting to assemble towards space mining, and success on this front would have major impact on all nations. We present in this paper a review of current space mining ventures, and the international legislation, which could stand in their way - or aid them in their mission. Following that, we present the results of a role-playing simulation in which the role of several important nations was played by students of international relations. The results of the simulation are used as a basis for forecasting the potential initial responses of the nations of the world to a successful space mining operation in the future.


• The realization of space exploitation will disrupt world politics.

• The simulation highlighted the political tensions and different interests.

• Inclusive international process is needed to reach fast adaptation.

• Creative mechanisms are needed to allow sharing of new global wealth.

Isn't it way too expensive, just like recovering tons of gold from the bottom of the sea from sunken ships?

Yes. What these predictions assume is that there will be a massive orders-of-magnitude reduction in the cost of space transportation. The moon rocks brought back from Apollo missions are estimated to have cost NASA over $50K per gram (see https://www.space.com/11804-nasa-moon-rock-sting-apollo17.ht...). Gold is only $40/gram currently.

I'm not sure Apollo is the best benchmark. The primary goal was to send the astronauts there and bring them back. Just changing the primary goal should result in a huge reduction in the cost per gram. You'd just send a tiny excavation rover and have it fill bins for the return trip. Followup trips might even skip the rover and just use the one already there. There is a huge amount of room for efficiency and cost savings especially if you leave the humans home.

Though, Moon rocks are a bit of an outlier. They don't have much value outside of science and as a curiosity. You might want to focus on something with more predictable demand. In which case, it may get more complicated than "shovel stuff into a bin".

The $50,800/gram figure seems to be based on the total cost of the entire Apollo project - $50,800 * 382 kilograms of material returned = $19,405,600,000, which is about 4/5 of the total Apollo programme cost listed on Wikipedia.

That seems a little unrealistic to me, because the goal of Apollo was not "bring 382 kilograms of moon rocks back at the lowest possible cost", or anything close to it.

Obviously there are some big hurdles to overcome, but I don't think they're as enormous as "reduce cost by a factor of well over 1,000".

Don't Musk's reusable rockets bring down costs by 80-90% if I recall correctly he and the Google founders also own a space mining company. Space mining might come faster than people realize.

I think there's a lot more going on with recovering gold from shipwrecks than just how much it costs for recovery, governments take most of the loot and it's really hard to find the wrecks in the first place.

I was reading about WWII shipwrecks mysteriously disappearing (they think) for the un-irradiated steel and that's worth a lot less than than a bunch of gold bullion that just has to be scooped up.

Hmm..natural resources are a tiny part of total world GDP, so apart from the practicalities (actually mining the stuff, getting it here), I don't see how the world economy could be "disrupted" by changes here.



Mostly by massively reducing the market price of minerals that are relatively easily obtained through space mining.

Like, the total worldwide value of gold is $7.5 trillion (at about 187,000 tonnes). If mining thousands of tons of gold becomes super cheap, the price of gold would crash even without actually doing the space mining, as people try to exit their gold positions in advance of space miners flooding the market.

Like I was arguing in my other comment, the benefits of gold being a readily available material are "the unseen" in this equation...

> worldwide value of gold is $7.5 trillion

And what's the total value of worldwide assets? If I look at [1], I see that Blackrock by itself has $4.7 trillion under management, and the total "under management" is $139 trillion. Estimates from [2] give guesses of at least $1-2 quadrillion.

So even if you manage to find so much gold that the existing value goes to zero, the impact seems limited to me. And I severely doubt you'd easily get that to zero.

> (at about 187,000 tonnes)

That's a lot of weight to (a) mine and (b) get to earth, and gold is certainly among the highest value-density you're going to get. Just theoretical availability does very little to prices, see Gold in Seawater[3]: "Ocean waters do hold gold – nearly 20 million tons of it."

Currently, returning things to earth is sufficiently expensive that it is uneconomical to return satellites (costing on the order of $300m[4]) to earth, for example for repair.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_assets_under_management

[2] https://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20071029233836A...

[3] https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/gold.html

[4] https://science.howstuffworks.com/satellite10.htm

Minerals, however, do not decompose. A 100 block of gold you could just throw at a specific location and then re-"mine" after the somewhat violent landing, nothing will be wrong with it, aside from significant melting at the edges.

(and in the "nothing wrong with it" assessment, the same cannot be said of the landing site, but there are plenty of places where that wouldn't be a great issue, e.g. one of the huge deserts like the Sahara, Inner Russia/China or Australia). Note that to an extent you can control the blast. So a 100 ton "mining ball" would not nearly have the same impact energy as a 100 ton asteroid, and even compared to the average meteorite it would be on the extreme slow end. There's a "minimum" blast that's essentially unavoidable, but it's not that huge, only a few square kilometers, and slowing things down to that speed is not hard if you take your time. Only if you want to return things intact do you need to go through the expensive process. Obviously doing the above method with an astronaut would be frowned upon.

It's also been studied what happens if you want to go further. If you're willing to wait ~10 years, returning near-earth things to earth by crashing into it is incredibly cheap. If you're willing to wait ~100 years, from almost any point in the inner solar system.


In the longer term I would argue that the economy will move to space. For most production processes weightlessness, and vacuum environment (not to mention infinite expansion space and infinite energy) would help a lot.

Mining/refining is a significant source of pollution on earth. It’s interesting that in talking about economic impacts, we don’t talk about the reduction in “expense” to our environment and health.

If the current mining industries could be replaced with those that do not pollute our living space, there are significant gains to be head in the form of more usable land and better ecological environments.

Additionally, a number of much cleaner technologies are currently very expensive because of the scarcity of resources and pollution involving mining. Lithium for batteries is one example. Disposition of used batteries would remain a problem, but perhaps similar off-world approach could be used there.

The counter argument is that increasing heavy metal load on the Earth's surface from space Mining could be very bad.

Not impossible, but most of the heavy metals that end up in the environment get spewed out during the mining and refining processes that would no longer take place on the earth.

I'd argue space-based energy collection and redistribution to Earth would be equally disruptive. China and the US are still heavily dependent on coal for energy as a single example. Nuclear's dream of "too cheap to meter" never came to pass and I'm sure that would be true of extra-planetary power as well but it would still put huge pressure on fossil fuels and if cheap enough could help further drive the switch to electric vehicles. It also has the added benefit of not requiring trips to the Kuiper belt like in system mining could.

Solar energy collection in space is cool and has pretty much limitless energy potential, but getting the energy back to earth?? Problematic...and yes lasering it back to earth is freaky. :-)

Orbital power is either beamed to Earth, or connected to a supercomducting space elevator. Beamed power is problematic, because it’s either as diffuse as sunlight, or concentrated enough to be a weapon in its own right. And if you can make a space elevator length of superconductor economically, it’s easier to make a ring of PV and superconductors passing through the world’s deserts (and connecting them to each other and to all the cities) — it’s always daylight somewhere in the world.

Absolutely dude, I wasn't trying to hand wave and claim these are solved problems! I was just saying if we're having a thought exercise about potentially disruptive space-based technology that energy would be another interesting one to discuss.

It’s 2035 and Earth’s population has grown dramatically. People are desperate to find alternatives to the dwindling natural resources needed to keep the global economy functioning. We have bled the Earth dry.


In January 2035, a US company becomes the first to successfully mine minerals from space and transport the cargo back to Earth. The haul contains huge quantities of gold and platinum, although it is only a fraction of the resources from the asteroid. The price of gold falls by 50 per cent.

That's anticlimactic. If you were to make a list of "dwindling natural resources needed to keep the global economy functioning" I don't believe that gold would make the top 20. Neither doubling its supply nor halving it would have much impact on the aggregate provision of goods and services within the terrestrial economy.

Platinum group metals are more interesting from an industrial standpoint. Though automobile exhaust system catalysts currently account for the lion's share of industrial palladium demand, and I expect that demand driver to already be past its peak by 2035. There are no doubt other things we could and would use PGMs for if they were significantly less expensive and more abundant. Fuel cells, though they will always have certain disadvantages compared to batteries, would probably be significantly more widespread by now if the cost of platinum were comparable to e.g. silver.

The sorts of disruptions we should worry about are ones that disemploy a lot of people who need a job. Certainly self-driving cars will do that. But how many people work in the production of precious metals?

Once upon a time, asteroid mining would have been highly disruptive to monetary policy, but today currency values are not tied to metals.

How do they want to bring their stuff back to earth? Is there any technology on the horizon that allows us to bring heavy masses to Earth in an affordable way?

I'm curious about whether they will actually bring materials back to Earth. It seems like it would be prohibitively expensive, though perhaps you could construct gliders out of large chunks of titanium and fly them down from orbit cost-effectively, or float small chunks down with balloons.

To me the space-mining industry has always seemed better suited to constructing habitats and vehicles outside of gravity wells like Earth and Mars; part of why it's so expensive to have the ISS is that everything needs to be lifted up from Earth, but if the raw building materials and water (for producing oxygen and hydrogen fuel) were mined from asteroids, then there's less need to go back down to earth for your bulk materials. This would make the second and subsequent generations of mining infrastructure much cheaper to build, and once you've got manufacturing going in space, suddenly the mining becomes a lot easier.

Given a space elevator, there are some neat tricks that help in de-orbiting and orbiting material at the same time. Essentially, you connect two equal masses with a tether, one you want in a higher orbit and the other you want in a lower orbit. With the tether in place, both masses rotate around their common center of mass. When the masses have 'switched' places, you untether them.

I don't recall whether the thethers need to be affixed to the space-elevators to keep them in place.

I don't think a full-blown space-elevator is needed for that: Skyhooks [0] don't need their centers to be attached to it, and the lateral velocities involved are probably best kept away from the elevator body.

If you have a space elevator scaffolding already, just use descending payloads as counterweights to ascending ones.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skyhook_(structure)


> How do they want to bring their stuff back to earth?

> Gravity

Quite. I not an expert at all, but the question "how do we bring it down" is better put "how do we bring it down safely and so that we can easily recover the material".

Throwing rocks down the gravity well is easy, keeping the velocity low at bottom end, or low enough plus aiming accurately at an empty spot, is hard.

I guess if it was a big meteorite you can afford some of the material to burn off. Just be ready for a nuclear explosion like impact on the ground.

Drop it into a net in the ocean?

Everyone is aware that the Crypto bubble is headed for a big crash, we have a derivatives bubble looming that dwarfs all others, the Dow is climbing to ludicrous heights at a rate of 1,000 points a week (which is definitely not ominous at all), society has grown hopelessly dependent on information systems that never cease to amaze with their fragility, and international politics has once again devolved into a game of Nuclear Chicken (only with more players this time). So yeah, let's worry about the economic dangers of space mining.

Way to be pessimistic. Let us focus on the awesome things of our time, like complete eradication of some illnesses through vaccination, information systems connecting us with latencies and speeds never seen before, the availability of knowledge was never better, child mortality down and life expectancy up to levels never seen before. C'mon. I wanna see some enthusiasm for our time and human achievements!

Space Mining..Unless they are mining Bitcoin in space with all that sun energy out there.

Energy is our most obvious problem. Mining in space requires much more energy then mining our sublunary world, just at a time when energy is about to become scarce. This simply doesn't add up.

Solar power in the inner Solar System is abundant and always on.

Yes, but strangely enough, we didn't tapped into it. There may be some difficulties, not even mentioning EROEI.

There is a lot of solar energy in space.

What about the other kind of mining? The cost of running a mining rig is electricity and cooling. Solar panels for one and the vacuum of space for the other. Looks like the cost to launch a small satellite starts at $10,000 (or 1 bitcoin). The cost of the electricity required to mine 1 coin in the US is as low as $3224 (as of Dec. 2017). What would be the hash rate and lifetime to make a microsatellite a cheaper mining platform than terrestrially?

Cooling in a vacuum is a lot more difficult than with an almost endless supply of cooler gas to run over your hardware. The ISS runs liquid ammonia cooling to large sets of radiators in order to keep the station and solar panels cool. I'd imagine you'd need a similar setup if you're putting your cubesats far enough out that they won't need active propulsion to stay in orbit, and if you're using similar consumer hardware.

The vacuum of space is actually a terrible heatsink, because it does not provide conduction or convection. Actually, even low-powered Earth-orbit satellites often have cooling problems. They need large heatsinks to radiate the heat from the sun.

Aren't you off by at least one order of magnitude? According to this site[1]:


launching a 5kg satelite costs 295 thousands USD (please note a fine print under the table, saying "pricing in thousands" )

Also, this is a price for low orbit, for geostationary orbit it's almost $1M.

[1] Yes, we now have online pricing list for space flights :)

None. You can use solar panels for energy on Earth, and atmosphere is better for heat dissipation than the vacuum of space. That $10k cubesat (which, by the way, becomes much more costly once you add all the interesting stuff on it,) will have tiny solar panels, tiny heat radiators, and you cannot add much of a mining rig inside that 10x10x10cm frame. Not to mention that the orbit will decay in about 3-4 months.

I'd imagine the economics are similar to chinese miners who don't pay for electricity. New hardware comes out too quickly and improves too much for any viable longterm use of hardware. (I've seen this argument repeated a bunch on hn, I don't know if its true. I'm not into mining at all).

But if it were up to me, I'd love to see mining in space. More stuff in space is cool!

This assumes the mined resources would be brought back to Earth. Why would we bring resources back down the gravity well? The real value is mining and manufacturing in situ. The real race is to become the first person to build a manufacturing facility in orbit.

Imagine sending a Caterpillar 797 dump truck into space? 13 semi trailers worth of truck that needs boosted into space, landed on another planet, and then re-assembled.

because all asteroids are simply clumps of gold and platinum. -eye-roll-

You're rolling your eyes, but you're not that far from wrong. Earth's geological processes have buried most of the heavier elements in the core, where it's beyond reach. The concentration of platinum-group metals is far, far higher in metallic asteroids than it is in the Earth's crust.

For ruthenium, rhodium and palladium we are probably better off reprocessing nuclear waste. Especially rhodium is rare on Earth btu formed in fairly high yield during nuclear fission.

No, but you can definitely try and only go to those that are.

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