Asteroid Mining Econ 101


In the Fw:Thinking video about the future of water, Jonathan mentioned the possibility that humans will set up mining operations in space to harvest resources, including water, from asteroids.

Well, I think it's official: The asteroid mining industry now has lobbyists representing its interests in Congress. Let me repeat that: Right alongside the gun lobby, the oil lobby, etc., there is now an asteroid mining lobby. If there is any sure sign that a crazy-sounding business model is for real, this has got to be it.

In April of last year, a company called Planetary Resources held a press conference and announced plans to set up mining operations on near-Earth asteroids. The cash crop of the future asteroid business is probably expensive metals like platinum, and other elements in the platinum family. According to the company's analysis, a single asteroid could yield more platinum group metals than all previous mining efforts on Earth, going back through all of history, combined.

How much faith we should put in the company's PR announcements, I don't know. But clearly, this idea has got some thrust, since Planetary Resources is no longer the only goblin king laying claim to this cave. A company called Deep Space Industries formally announced its own plans to jump into the sci-fi gold rush in January of 2013. Remember that asteroid that came way, way too close to Earth in February of this year? Good ol' 2012 DA14? While everybody else was entertaining panicky fantasies about what would happen if OMG like Michael Bay's Armageddon came TRUE, analysts at Deep Space Industries were putting a price tag on the thing: "$65 billion of recoverable water and $130 billion in metals."

The value in metals we can easily see. Platinum, iridium, rhodium and other elements are scarce and valuable on this planet - a little bit can score a high bid in the market. And even metals like iron and nickel would be useful in space-based manufacturing and other operations. But wait a second here -- $65 billion in WATER? We're talking about an asteroid that was no more than 150 feet wide! Even if it were made entirely of ice, which it isn't, it wouldn't hold more than the contents of a few large swimming pools, or a big iceberg. How could water be that valuable?

Let's think about space exploration in terms of really basic economics. What determines how valuable something is? There are two variables: supply and demand. In other words: How much do people want something, and how much of it is available?

We all desperately need water, probably more than any other physical substance, with the exception of breathable oxygen. So if only demand determined its value, water would be one of the most costly and precious things on Earth. It's not, and the reason is that there's tons of it on the planet, and in most places, it's not that hard to get.

But all questions of supply and demand are subject to distance and locality. So while even something as crucial as water might be a negligibly cheap resource in Florida or Japan, you can find parched desert regions where water is expensive and controlled by strict rationing. And do you know where water fetches the highest premium? That's right: space.

How much does it cost to operate a space mission? It's hard to say how cheap space travel might become in the future, but back when NASA was launching the space shuttle into Earth orbit, it seems like a standard payload ran in the neighborhood of $10,000 per pound. So for people and machines in space that need water, it may make a lot more economic sense to drill for alien ice crystals than to fill the tanks before liftoff. If we're going to be setting up shop in space, whether for human exploration, or just for more mining operations, we'll need all the water we can get, and local economics apply.

One question that interests me is how our future mastery of the material universe could upset one's current understanding of economics. The stuff that's valuable on Earth is only valuable because of local scarcity. Metals like iridium and rhodium are hard to find on this planet, but asteroid mining speculation shows that even elements that are priceless on Earth are not meaningfully scarce in the universe. As our reach extends, and the captured supply of gold, platinum and every other natural substance increases, what will really have value? In a space-faring culture, could it be that the intrinsic usefulness of a substance will outstrip the inflated value created by terrestrial scarcity? On a Kuiper belt trading outpost, will a pint of water cost more than a pound of gold?

In my next blog post, I'll talk a little bit more about HOW we plan to get access to these asteroids and extract their sweet, sweet mineral guts - so check back soon.

Oh, and one last thing: You can literally apply for a job as an asteroid miner here. You're welcome.