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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.
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.
Image credit: JAXA
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.
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.
Image credit: Planetary Resources
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.
- Asteroid mining will happen sooner than you think ›
- Get Ready for the Asteroid Gold Rush - Big Think ›
When it comes time for humanity to pick a new home, where will we go?
- Regardless of whether you think the Earth will suffer some catastrophe or not, most individuals believe that humanity will eventually have to live on another planet.
- There is no nearby planet that can support human life, however; we'll have to pick a good candidate and terraform it.
- Each celestial body presents its own unique challenges and requirements. Some need more carbon dioxide, others need less; some would become water worlds, others more Earth-like; and so on.
Whether you're feeling optimistic or pessimistic about humanity's long-term chances on Earth, most of us agree that we should colonize other planets. Whether that's out of humanity's sheer pioneering spirit or the pragmatic survival instinct to spread out so that a catastrophe on Earth doesn't wipe out the species, establishing a colony on a nearby planet seems like a must.
Trouble is, our neighboring celestial bodies are constantly bombarded by deadly radiation, lack water or oxygen, rain sulfuric acid, swing from extreme heat to cold, and possess many other inhospitable characteristics. No matter where we go in our solar system, we'll have to engage in one of the largest projects imaginable: terraforming. Depending on the environment we want to transform into a more Earth-like one, the nature of this project will vary tremendously. Here's some examples from some of the most likely candidates for terraforming in our solar system.
An artist's depiction of Mars' gradual transformation via terraforming.
Mars has always been an appealing target for terraforming, as it is arguably the most Earth-like planet in the solar system. It goes through similar seasons to Earth, has a relatively similar atmospheric composition, its day-night cycle is extremely close to our own, it possesses abundant water in the form of ice, and it lies in the Sun's habitable zone.
But the biggest problem with Mars is that it has no magnetosphere. Without an envelope of shielding magnetism, solar wind will blow away any atmosphere before it can accumulate. Proposals to create the right kind of atmosphere on Mars — like Elon Musk's flashy idea of nuking the polar ice caps to release stored CO2 and water vapor, thereby heating the planet up — won't work long term without a magnetosphere to protect the planet against solar wind. With Mars' current, flimsy atmosphere, between 1 and 2 kilograms of gas are lost to space every second. Not to mention that the lack of this protective magnetosphere also exposes the planet and all life on it to deadly radiation from the sun.
One proposal is to place a gigantic magnetic shield in orbit between Mars and the Sun to recreate the effects produced by, for instance, Earth's rotating iron outer core. This would be an incredible engineering task, likely requiring regular maintenance and fuel to keep the magnet powered. But it would be the first step to ensuring that Mars could be made habitable. Even prior to that point, Mars gradual growth of an atmosphere would make future exploration on the red planet easier and easier.
An artist's depiction of Venus if it were terraformed.
Compared to Mars, Venus has very little going for it. The surface temperature is 462°C, or 864°F; it has the opposite problem as Mars, with an atmosphere more than 90 times as dense as that of the Earth; and it's got no breathable oxygen. Not to mention that it's covered in volcanos and rains sulfuric acid. On the other hand, it's our closest planetary neighbor, and its gravity is about 90 percent that of Earth's compared to Mars' 38 percent, meaning our muscles and bones wouldn't atrophy while living there.
While Venus also suffers from a lack of a sufficiently strong magnetosphere, it's abundance of atmosphere means that concern can be put aside for a while in our hypothetical terraforming project. Venus's major problem is its excess of CO2, which makes the surface of the planet too hot for life and too heavy for humans.
One approach would be to use autonomous robots to expose Venus's underground deposits of calcium and magnesium, resulting in a chemical reaction that would store CO2 in a magnesium carbonate. This would need to be supplement by a bombardment of those elements mined from asteroids as well in order to remove enough carbon from the atmosphere for human life.
There are a variety of other methods, but they all rely on removing CO2 from the atmosphere rapidly. Seeing as how our inability to do that on Earth may be one of the biggest reasons to find another planet, Venus may not be the ideal target for terraforming in the future. An alternative to terraforming, however, would be to build a floating city in the Venusian clouds, a feat that isn't too far-fetched technologically.
A full-color image of Callisto as captured by NASA's Galileo spacecraft/
NASA/JPL/ DLR(German Aerospace Center)
Many of the Jupiter's Galilean moons are attractive targets for terraforming due to their high abundance of water, but only Callisto lies far enough away from the radiation belts generated by Jupiter's magnetosphere. On Earth, we're exposed to about 0.066 rems of radiation per day. In contrast, Ganymede receives 8 rems of radiation per day, Europa receives 540 rems per day, and Io receives a whopping 3,600 rems. Callisto, in contrast, is exposed to about 0.01 rems per day, which humans can tolerate.
The process of terraforming these moons would all follow essentially the same recipe. First, heat up their icy surfaces either through giant mirrors, nuclear devices, or some other method. Then, let the radiation from Jupiter split the resulting water vapor into hydrogen and oxygen — the hydrogen will be blown into space by solar wind, while the oxygen will settle close to the surface. Use bacteria to convert the moons' ammonia into nitrogen, and there's a breathable atmosphere.
Of course, these planets would be completely covered in oceans hundreds of kilometers deep, and Callisto wouldn't have its own magnetosphere to keep that atmosphere in place long term, but their abundance of water makes it an attractive target nonetheless. More concerning is the possibility that life already exists beneath the Galilean moons' icy surfaces, in the warm waters by thermal vents. If we were to discover such life, would it be ethical to disrupt the only alien life we have ever known?
A composite image of Titan in infrared as seen by NASA's Cassini spacecraft. Because Titan's atmosphere is so hazy, viewing it in the wavelengths of visible light is not possible. Using the infrared spectrum enables us to see through the clouds to the moon's surface.
The appeal of terraforming Titan lies in its vast reservoir of resources. Its hydrocarbon reserves (such as petroleum) are several hundred times greater than all known reserves on Earth. It's covered in a wide variety of organic compounds, particularly methane and ammonia, as well as a great deal of water. And its atmosphere is primarily nitrogen as well — a composition that scientists believe resembles that of early Earth's.
Together, these ingredients would be of significant benefit to any terraforming project. If Titan's atmosphere does resemble early Earth's, then transitioning to an atmosphere that resembles modern Earth would be (relatively) straightforward. One proposal would be to position mirrors in orbit to direct focused sunlight onto the moon's surface. Since the surface ice contains many greenhouse gases, this could warm Titan up considerably, releasing water vapor and consequently oxygenating the atmosphere. It also spends most of its time within Saturn's magnetosphere, protecting its atmosphere from the solar wind.
But perhaps more so than any other body in our solar system, Titan could already have extraterrestrial life owing to its abundance of organic chemicals. And, if all of Titan's ice were melted, it would become an ocean planet 1700 km deep, or over 1,000 miles deep, making the establishment of fixed, permanent structures a challenge.
There are challenges common to all of these potential candidates for terraforming. The big one, of course, is getting there. Many of these targets are incredibly distant. For a comparison, it took Voyager 1 a little over three years to get to Saturn, where Titan, the most distant candidate, is located, and a ship with all of the necessary equipment, people, and resources would be significantly slower than a lightweight probe. Then, there's the issue of establishing a semipermanent colony while the long work of terraforming goes on. It's difficult to speculate about the capabilities we'll have at our disposal when terraforming a planet becomes a feasible project, but it could be hundreds, possibly thousands of years before any of these planets are completely terraformed. And these are just some of the known issues: a project of this scale is bound to have unexpected problems and consequences. Despite these major challenges, the vast majority of humanity believes that establishing a second home in our solar system is a necessity — the question is, which will it be?
The author of 'How We Read' Now explains.
During the pandemic, many college professors abandoned assignments from printed textbooks and turned instead to digital texts or multimedia coursework.
As a professor of linguistics, I have been studying how electronic communication compares to traditional print when it comes to learning. Is comprehension the same whether a person reads a text onscreen or on paper? And are listening and viewing content as effective as reading the written word when covering the same material?
The answers to both questions are often “no," as I discuss in my book “How We Read Now," released in March 2021. The reasons relate to a variety of factors, including diminished concentration, an entertainment mindset and a tendency to multitask while consuming digital content.
Print versus digital reading
The benefits of print particularly shine through when experimenters move from posing simple tasks – like identifying the main idea in a reading passage – to ones that require mental abstraction – such as drawing inferences from a text. Print reading also improves the likelihood of recalling details – like “What was the color of the actor's hair?" – and remembering where in a story events occurred – “Did the accident happen before or after the political coup?"
Studies show that both grade school students and college students assume they'll get higher scores on a comprehension test if they have done the reading digitally. And yet, they actually score higher when they have read the material in print before being tested.
Educators need to be aware that the method used for standardized testing can affect results. Studies of Norwegian tenth graders and U.S. third through eighth graders report higher scores when standardized tests were administered using paper. In the U.S. study, the negative effects of digital testing were strongest among students with low reading achievement scores, English language learners and special education students.
My own research and that of colleagues approached the question differently. Rather than having students read and take a test, we asked how they perceived their overall learning when they used print or digital reading materials. Both high school and college students overwhelmingly judged reading on paper as better for concentration, learning and remembering than reading digitally.
The discrepancies between print and digital results are partly related to paper's physical properties. With paper, there is a literal laying on of hands, along with the visual geography of distinct pages. People often link their memory of what they've read to how far into the book it was or where it was on the page.
But equally important is mental perspective, and what reading researchers call a “shallowing hypothesis." According to this theory, people approach digital texts with a mindset suited to casual social media, and devote less mental effort than when they are reading print.
Podcasts and online video
Given increased use of flipped classrooms – where students listen to or view lecture content before coming to class – along with more publicly available podcasts and online video content, many school assignments that previously entailed reading have been replaced with listening or viewing. These substitutions have accelerated during the pandemic and move to virtual learning.
Surveying U.S. and Norwegian university faculty in 2019, University of Stavanger Professor Anne Mangen and I found that 32% of U.S. faculty were now replacing texts with video materials, and 15% reported doing so with audio. The numbers were somewhat lower in Norway. But in both countries, 40% of respondents who had changed their course requirements over the past five to 10 years reported assigning less reading today.
A primary reason for the shift to audio and video is students refusing to do assigned reading. While the problem is hardly new, a 2015 study of more than 18,000 college seniors found only 21% usually completed all their assigned course reading.
Maximizing mental focus
Researchers found similar results with university students reading an article versus listening to a podcast of the text. A related study confirms that students do more mind-wandering when listening to audio than when reading.
Results with younger students are similar, but with a twist. A study in Cyprus concluded that the relationship between listening and reading skills flips as children become more fluent readers. While second graders had better comprehension with listening, eighth graders showed better comprehension when reading.
Research on learning from video versus text echoes what we see with audio. For example, researchers in Spain found that fourth through sixth graders who read texts showed far more mental integration of the material than those watching videos. The authors suspect that students “read" the videos more superficially because they associate video with entertainment, not learning.
The collective research shows that digital media have common features and user practices that can constrain learning. These include diminished concentration, an entertainment mindset, a propensity to multitask, lack of a fixed physical reference point, reduced use of annotation and less frequent reviewing of what has been read, heard or viewed.
Digital texts, audio and video all have educational roles, especially when providing resources not available in print. However, for maximizing learning where mental focus and reflection are called for, educators – and parents – shouldn't assume all media are the same, even when they contain identical words.
Humans may have evolved to be tribalistic. Is that a bad thing?
- From politics to every day life, humans have a tendency to form social groups that are defined in part by how they differ from other groups.
- Neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, author Dan Shapiro, and others explore the ways that tribalism functions in society, and discuss how—as social creatures—humans have evolved for bias.
- But bias is not inherently bad. The key to seeing things differently, according to Beau Lotto, is to "embody the fact" that everything is grounded in assumptions, to identify those assumptions, and then to question them.
Ancient corridors below the French capital have served as its ossuary, playground, brewery, and perhaps soon, air conditioning.