The Washington Times recently published “Congress OKs Space Act, paves way for companies to own resources mined from asteroids”. According to that article,
“The stuff of science fiction is about to be U.S. law after Congress approved the Space Act on Monday, paving the way for private companies to own any natural resources they manage to mine from asteroids.”
Could it be that “thar’s gold in them thar asteroids”?
“With potentially trillions of dollars at stake, futurists said the bill is a bold statement of American leadership, keeping the burgeoning private spaceflight industry free of heavy government regulations . . . . ‘This bill encourages the private sector to launch rockets, take risks and shoot for the stars,’ said Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican and chairman of the Science Committee.”
According to NASA, it currently costs about $10,000 to put each pound of payload into orbit around the earth. I’m guessing that it costs at least $5,000 per pound to retrieve each pound of payload from orbit and cause it to land safely somewhere on earth. That’s about $15,000 for each pound of payload sent into orbit and subsequently returned to earth.
The cost-per-pound of sending mining ships to the asteroid belt (located between Mars and Jupiter) would be several times the cost of putting payloads into earth orbit and then returning those mining ships—plus the weight of whatever ore they’d mined—back to earth. I’m guessing the price per pound of space ships and ore recovered would have to run at least $100,000 a pound.
Given the incredible cost of space flight, it’s hard to imagine how rockets will be able to reach the asteroid belt and mine to asteroids for any substance that’s sufficiently valuable by weight to justify space travel to and from the asteroids. I.e., if it costs $100,000 per pound of spaceship and ore, to and from the asteroid belt, whatever ore they plan to mine from the asteroids must sell for far more than $100,000 a pound back here on earth to make the trip profitable.
We’re not going to haul iron ore back from the asteroids. The price per pound for iron ore (or even pure iron) will not justify the incredible costs of not merely transporting that ore back to earth, but also supplying the technology required to slow the entry of iron ore into our atmosphere without having it burn up like a fiery meteor.
For space mining to work, the substance being mined and hauled back to the surface of the earth must have a high price to weight ratio similar to that of high-quality diamonds ($30 million/lb). For example, if you could mine enough colorless, flawless diamonds from an asteroid to just fill a backpack, even that small mass might be worth enough to make space-mining profitable. If you could mine some mineral that was critical to making quantum computers and therefore of extreme value on a price per pound basis, space-mining might be profitable.
For example, Business Insider published a list of 19 items that were the most expensive by weight. Some of that list included:
19. White truffles: $2,000/lb.
13. Rhino horn: $25,000/lb.
11. Heroin: $50,000/lb.
While we might be able to find some of those previously-listed organic substances on the “Planet of Prehistoric Women,” I doubt that we’ll be able to mine any truffles, rhino horn or heroin from the asteroids.
Besides, even if those items could be found in the asteroids, their price on earth (at most, $50,000/lb) won’t come close to justifying the cost of flying to and from the asteroids (at least, $100,000/lb).
- Crack cocaine: $300,000/lb.
Good LORD! I had no idea. No wonder so many people get shot. If the price of crack is really $300,000/lb., it might be enough to justify a trip to and from the asteroid belt. But I doubt that there’s much crack up there. Even if there were, it would still be cheaper to buy your crack on the South Side of Chicago than to mine it in the asteroid belt.
- Plutonium: $1.8 million/lb.
I’d bet we can make money mining plutonium from the asteroid belt. But can we haul plutonium back to earth in quantities large enough to be profitable and still small enough to avoid killing the spaceship’s crew with radiation?
- Taaffeite: up to $9 million/lb.
Taaffeite is a mauve-colored gem that’s less than one-millionth as common as diamonds. Find an asteroid full of taaffeite and haul a few pounds back to earth and your retirement could be fully funded.
- Painite: $135 million/lb.
The rarest gem mineral. Beam me up, Scotty!)
- Anti-Matter: $100 trillion/gram.
On a price/pound basis, $100 trillion/gram works out to . . . umm . . . well . . . a lot. You wouldn’t need to find very much anti-matter in the asteroid belt to get rich—but I don’t think you’ll find any at all.
My point is that I don’t expect to find much in the asteroid belt that has enough value per pound to justify the incredible costs of space-mining.
Space mining asteroids might make sense if the cost of space flight were reduced to something comparable to the current cost of commercial air fare. But, given the current costs of space travel, I don’t expect to see any profitable space-mining of the asteroid belt for several generations—if ever.
If so, what’s the purpose and effect of passing a law that encourages private corporations to space-mine the asteroids? They might just as well pass a law that lets corporate space miners to keep everything they mine from inside the Sun. Such laws strike me as absurd. Given that such laws are absurd, I can’t say I’m surprised that Congress passed the “Space Act”.
• Business Insider wrote that the “Space Act paved the way for private companies to own any natural resources they manage to mine from asteroids . . . . keeping the burgeoning private spaceflight industry free of heavy government regulations.”
Anyone seeking to escape “heavy government regulations,” may have travel at least as far as the asteroid belt to do so.
All things considered, if you wanted to escape “heavy government regulations,” it would probably be cheaper to fight another revolution to do so.