Will asteroid mining be an outer-space gold rush?

Break out your prospecting gear and space suit.

  • There are enough resources in asteroids that some are valued in the quadrillions.
  • Mining these asteroids will soon be technically feasible, resulting in what some consider to be a space-age gold rush.
  • It's unclear what impact this sudden influx of wealth from outer space will have on our lives, but its certain to be profound.

In September, a Japanese spacecraft called Hayabusa 2 deployed and landed two rovers on a small asteroid named Ryugu, which is named after an underwater palace in a Japanese folk tale. In the story, a fisherman rescues a turtle, who, in return, allows the fisherman to ride on his back to the underwater palace. There, he retrieves a small, jeweled box as a reward, which he brings back to his village.

Like the fisherman in the folk story, Hayabusa 2 will retrieve something from this asteroid: samples of the asteroid itself, which is hoped to contain metals like nickel, cobalt, and iron, as well as a variety of other elements. If the survey confirms that the asteroid is composed of what astronomers predict, then the true treasure of Ryugu might be a bit more than a jeweled box. Its mineral wealth might be $82.76 billion.

There is a lot of money floating around in space. Neil DeGrasse Tyson famously declared that the first trillionaire would be an asteroid miner (although Jeff Bezos is gunning for that position at the moment). Just to give a sense of the potential value out there, the value of Earth's annual extracted metals and minerals is about $660 billion. Ryugu represents a large chunk of that, right? Well, there are far more valuable asteroids out there, too. In the asteroid belt, there is an asteroid named 16 Psyche that is worth an estimated $10,000 quadrillion. Let me write that number out: $10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. That's more than the value of everything produced on Earth in a year. Hell, according to one calculation, that's 2,000 times more valuable than the Earth itself.

Like I said, there's a lot of money floating around in space.

Currently, we don't have the technology to access 16 Psyche and other insanely valuable asteroids like it. That's why we're sending small spacecraft to relatively small asteroids like Ryugu to get hard evidence about whether its worth the effort. It seems like the private sector has already made up its mind, however.

Image credit: JAXA

The image, taken by one of the Hayabusa 2 probes, shows the surface of Ryugu in the bottom right and reflected sunlight in the top right.

A new frontier

Asteroid mining has been likened to a space-age gold rush, only there's a few crucial differences. First, gold is just one of the many valuable minerals we can expect to find. While gold is an important and valuable resource, what we really need are the many other minerals we can find in space. Most of the valuable minerals in the space dust that formed the Earth have been sucked into its core, locked away forever (unless we want to destroy the planet). What we mine today comes from the finite deposits of comets and meteorites that struck the planet's surface over its history. Those materials will eventually run out, and, even if we get another "delivery" from outer space, it might render the whole economic endeavor moot. We need precious metals to build smartphones, but we also need living human beings to buy smartphones.

Second, regular people aren't going to be able to pan for precious metals on the surface of an asteroid. There is a handful of corporations dedicated to asteroid mining operations, notably Planetary Resources. To date, the company has launched a couple of satellites that will survey likely candidates for mining from Earth's orbit. Ultimately, however, their vision of asteroid mining will consist of sending out space probes, and developing fully automated mining and processing facilities on or near their target asteroid. They also plan to construct a fuel depot in space, where water extracted from asteroids can be split into hydrogen and liquid oxygen for jet fuel.

Image credit: Planetary Resources

An artist's rendering of the ARKYD-6 satellite, launched by Planetary Resources. The satellite is specifically tuned to search for water on near-Earth asteroids.

How will this affect Earth?

As stated earlier, today most of the mineral wealth on Earth comes from a finite supply delivered by comets and meteorites. Part of what makes these minerals valuable is the very fact that they are finite. What's going to happen when a $10,000 quadrillion asteroid is mined for its resources?

Well, the short answer is we don't really know. Once this science-fiction story becomes fact, it's going to fundamentally transform our economies in ways we can't really predict.

There is some concern that the vast amount of mineral wealth available in space will cause commodity prices to drop precipitously, tanking the economy. This likely won't be an issue. Only a handful of companies will have a foothold in space, and because of their oligopoly, they won't flood the market with, say, platinum. That would drive the value of platinum down so low that they couldn't make any money. As an example of how this will likely play out, we can look at the diamond market. Diamonds are actually quite abundant on Earth, but the De Beers organization has such a monopoly on the market that they only release just enough diamonds to satisfy demand. Since the "supply" was artificially made to always meet demand, De Beers could ensure their continued profits. (Note that the De Beers monopoly has since been broken up).

So, the economy won't collapse. But this also means that inequality on Earth will become more extreme. Right now, a handful of billionaires are betting on asteroid mining, and, if it pays off, they're the ones who will reap the benefit. The rags-to-riches conditions of the gold rush aren't going to be replicated out in space: there will be no Space Dream to match the California Dream.

On the other hand, mining operations will likely take place in space and correspondingly grow and develop in space. As more mineral resources are found in space and less on Earth, mining operations here won't be as appealing, which is a profoundly good thing. Mining is incredibly damaging to the environment, and in developing countries, mines are often worked by child labor. On a theoretical asteroid mining operation, most of the work would likely be automated, and any pollutants would be shot off into outer space.

The most optimistic perspective on asteroid mining is that it will propel us towards a post-scarcity society, one where the incredible abundance of water and minerals and asteroids will enable virtually limitless development. Gathering water from asteroids, in particular, would represent a tremendous boon. Unfortunately, selling water to thirsty humans isn't likely what's going to happen; instead, it'll be used to make rocket fuel for further asteroid mining ventures.

As with any dramatic economic change, the real impact is difficult to see right now. Some argue that due to the expense of getting into space, setting up mining facilities, and hauling material back to Earth, asteroid mining will never be profitable. But if it is, it will change human civilization forever.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.