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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 ›
Scientists find routes using arches of chaos that can lead to much faster space travel.
- Researchers discovered a route through the Solar System that can allow for much faster spacecraft travel.
- The path takes advantage of "arches of chaos" within space manifolds.
- The scientists think this "celestial superhighway" can help humans get to the far reaches of the galaxy.
Humanity could be making its way through the Solar System much faster thanks to the discovery of a new superhighway network among space manifolds. Don't get your engines roaring along this "celestial autobahn" just yet, but the researchers believe the new pathways can eventually be used by spacecraft to get to the outer reaches of our Solar System with relative haste.
The celestial highway could get comets and asteroids from Jupiter to Neptune in less than a decade. Compare that to hundreds of thousands or even millions of years it might ordinarily take for space objects to traverse the Solar System. In a century of travel along the new routes, a 100 astronomical units could be covered, project the scientists. For reference, an astronomical unit is the average distance from the Earth to the Sun or about 93 million miles.
The international research team included Nataša Todorović, Di Wu, and Aaron Rosengren from the Belgrade Astronomical Observatory in Serbia, the University of Arizona, and UC San Diego. Their new paper proposes a dynamic route, going along connected series of arches within so-called space manifolds. These structures, coming into existence from gravitational effects between the Sun and the planets, stretch from the asteroid belt to past Uranus.
The most pronounced of these structures are linked to Jupiter by its strong gravitational pull, explained UC San Diego's press release. They influence the comets around the gas giant as well as smaller space objects called "centaurs," with are like asteroids in size but exhibit the composition of comets.
This animation shows space manifolds over a hundred years. Each frame of the animation shows how the arches and substructures appear over three-year increments.
Credit: Nataša Todorović, Di Wu and Aaron Rosengren/Science Advances
"Space manifolds act as the boundaries of dynamical channels enabling fast transportation into the inner- and outermost reaches of the Solar System," write the researchers. "Besides being an important element in spacecraft navigation and mission design, these manifolds can also explain the apparent erratic nature of comets and their eventual demise."
A closer image of the manifolds showing colliding and escaping objects.
Credit: Science Advances
The researchers discovered the structures by analyzing collected numerical data on the millions of orbits in the Solar System. The scientists figured out how these orbits were contained within known space manifolds. To detect the presences and structure of the space manifolds, the team employed the fast Lyapunov indicator (FLI), used to detect chaos. The scientists ran simulations to compute how the trajectories of particles approaching different planets like Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune would be affected by possible collisions and the manifolds.
While the results are encouraging, the next step is to figure out how these arches can be used by spacecraft for much speedier travel. It's also not clear how similar manifolds work near Earth. Also unclear is how they impact our planet's run-ins with asteroids and meteorites or any of the man-made objects floating up in space near us.
Check out the new paper "The arches of chaos in the Solar System" in Science Advances.
A new episode of "Your Brain on Money" illuminates the strange world of consumer behavior and explores how brands can wreak havoc on our ability to make rational decisions.
- Effective branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- Our new series "Your Brain on Money," created in partnership with Million Stories, recently explored the surprising ways brands can affect our behavior.
- Brands aren't going away. But you can make smarter decisions by slowing down and asking yourself why you're making a particular purchase.
How Apple and Nike have branded your brain | Your Brain on Money | Big Think youtu.be
Brands can manipulate our brains in surprisingly profound ways. They can change how we conceptualize ourselves and how we broadcast our identities out to the social world. They can make us feel emotions that have nothing to do with the functions of their products. And they can even sort us into tribes.
To grasp the power of brands, look to Apple. In the 1990s, the company was struggling to compete with Microsoft over the personal computer market. Despite flirting with bankruptcy in the mid-1990s, Apple turned itself around to eventually become the most valuable company in the world.
That early-stage success wasn't due to superior products.
"People talk about technology, but Apple was a marketing company," John Sculley, a former Apple marketing executive, told The Guardian in 1997. "It was the marketing company of the decade."
So, how exactly does branding make people willing to wait hours in line to buy a $1,000 smartphone, or pay exorbitant prices for a pair of sneakers?
Branding and the brain
For more than a century, brands have capitalized on the fact that effective marketing is much more than simply touting the merits of a product. Some ads have nothing to do with the product at all. In 1871, for example, Pearl Tobacco started advertising their cigarettes through branded posters and trading cards that featured exposed women, a trend that continues to this day.
It's crude, sure. But research shows that it's also remarkably effective, even on monkeys. Why? The answer seems to center on how our brains pay special attention to information from the social world.
"In theory, ads that associate sex or status with specific brands or products activate the brain mechanisms that prioritize social information, and turning on this switch may bias us toward the product," wrote neuroscience professor Michael Platt for Scientific American.
Brands can burrow themselves deep into our subconscious. Through ad campaigns, brands can form a web of associations and memories in our brains. When these connections are robust and positive, it can change our behavior, nudging us to make "no-brainer" purchases when we encounter the brand at the store.
It's a marketing principle that's related to the work of Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and economist who won the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. In his book "Thinking Fast and Slow", Kahneman separates thinking into two broad categories, or systems:
- System 1 is fast and automatic, requiring little effort or voluntary control.
- System 2 is slow and requires subjective deliberation and logic.
Brands that tap into "system 1" are likely to dominate the competition. After all, it's far easier for us as consumers to automatically reach for a familiar brand than it is to analyze all of the available information and make an informed choice. Still, the most successful brands can have an even deeper impact on our psychology, one that causes us to conceptualize them as something like a family member.
A peculiar relationship with brands
Apple has one of the most loyal customer bases in the world, with its brand loyalty hitting an all-time high earlier this year, according to a SellCell survey of more than 5,000 U.S.-based smartphone users.
Qualitatively, how does that loyalty compare to Samsung users? To find out, Platt and his team conducted a study in which functional magnetic resonance imaging scanned the brains of Samsung and Apple users as they viewed positive, negative, and neutral news about each company. The results revealed stark differences between the two groups, as Platt wrote in "The Leader's Brain":
"Apple users showed empathy for their own brand: The reward-related areas of the brain were activated by good news about Apple, and the pain and negative feeling parts of the brain were activated by bad news. They were neutral about any kind of Samsung news. This is exactly what we see when people empathize with other people—particularly their family and friends—but don't feel the joy and pain of people they don't know."
Meanwhile, Samsung users didn't show any significant pain- or pleasure-related brain activity when they saw good or bad news about the company.
"Interestingly, though, the pain areas were activated by good news about Apple, and the reward areas were activated by bad news about the rival company—some serious schadenfreude, or "reverse empathy," Platt wrote.
The results suggest a fundamental difference between the brands: Apple has formed strong emotional and social connections with consumers, Samsung has not.
Brands and the self
Does having a strong connection with a brand justify paying higher prices for their products? Maybe. You could have a strong connection with Apple or Nike and simultaneously think the quality of their products justifies the price.
But beyond product quality lies identity. People have long used objects and clothing to express themselves and signal their affiliation with groups. From prehistoric seashell jewelry to Air Jordans, the things people wear and associate with signal a lot of information about how they conceptualize themselves.
Since the 1950s, researchers have examined the relationship between self-image and brand preferences. This body of research has generally found that consumers tend to prefer brands whose products fit well with their self-image, a concept known as self-image congruity.
By choosing brands that don't disrupt their self-image, consumers are able not only to express themselves personally, but also broadcast a specific version of themselves into the social world. That might sound self-involved. But on the other hand, humans are social creatures who use information from the social world to make decisions, so it's virtually impossible for us not to make inferences about people based on how they present themselves.
Americus Reed II, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told Big Think:
"When I make choices about different brands, I'm choosing to create an identity. When I put that shirt on, when I put that shirt on — those jeans, that hat — someone is going to form an impression about what I'm about. So, if I'm choosing Nike over Under Armour, I'm choosing a kind of different way to express affiliation with sport. The Nike thing is about performance. The Under Armour thing is about the underdog. I have to choose which of these different conceptual pathways is most consistent with where I am in my life."
Making smarter decisions
Brands may have some power over us when we're facing a purchasing decision. So, considering brands aren't going away, what can we do to make better choices? The best strategy might be to slow down and try to avoid making "automatic" purchasing decisions that are characteristic of Kahneman's fast "system 1" mode of thinking.
"I think it's important to always pause and think a little bit about, "Okay, why am I buying this product?" Platt said.
As for getting out of the brand game altogether? Good luck.
"I've heard lots of people push back and say, "I'm not into brands,"" Reed II said. "I take a very different view. In some senses, they're not doing anything different than what someone who affiliates with a brand is doing. They have a brand. It's just an anti-brand brand."
Powerful branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- Powerful branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- "We love to think of ourselves as rational. That's not how it works," says UPenn professor Americus Reed II about our habits (both conscious and subconscious) of paying more for items based primarily on the brand name. Effective marketing causes the consumer to link brands like Apple and Nike with their own identity, and that strong attachment goes deeper than receipts.
- Using MRI, professor and neuroscientist Michael Platt and his team were able to see this at play. When reacting to good or bad news about the brand, Samsung users didn't have positive or negative brain responses, yet they did have "reverse empathy" for bad news about Apple. Meanwhile, Apple users showed a "brain empathy response for Apple that was exactly what you'd see in the way you would respond to somebody in your family."