You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Silicon Valley Says Space Mining Is Awesome and Will Change Life on Earth. That’s Only Half Right.

Silicon Valley says asteroid mining will end Earth's conflict over natural resources. It won't.

Bryan Versteeg/Deep Space Industries

It's become clear that there’s just not enough stuff on Earth to go around. We’re constantly fighting over land and water, jockeying for access to our home planet’s diamonds or oil or sugarcane or schools of fish. In the last few years a chorus of voices has arisen to suggest that we could solve these petty human squabbles by looking to space. “Everything we hold of value on this planet, metals, minerals, real estate, energy sources, fuel—the things we fight wars over—are literally in near infinite quantities in the solar system,” says Peter Diamandis, one of the founders of the asteroid-mining company Planetary Resources. He claims we have a “moral obligation to become an interplanetary species,” and that if we harness the resources in space, "the entire human race will be the beneficiary." Naveen Jain, founder of Moon Express, wants to do on the moon what Diamandis wants to do with asteroids. A recent CNBC profile quotes him as saying, “Once you take a mind-set of scarcity and replace it with a mind-set of abundance, amazing things can happen here on Earth.” 

This kind of exultant talk is perhaps to be expected from entrepreneurs describing their companies’ dreams, but Diamandis and Jain are not alone. In a radio interview this April, Neil deGrasse Tyson, the public face of American astrophysics, also voiced his excitement about the potential of space mining. “If you haul an asteroid the size of a house to Earth, it could have more platinum on it than has ever been mined in the history of the world. More gold than has ever been mined in the history of the world. When that happens”—and here his voice takes on the dreamy tone familiar to fans of "COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey," the Fox series he hosts—“the scarcity that has led to human-to-human violence, there’s a chance it could all go away.” Tyson admitted that he was being “a little hopeful”—he has also noted that it is far more likely that any resources found in space will be put to use in space first, not hauled back to Earth (more on that later)—but his comment captures the aura of starry-eyed excitement that surrounds space mining ventures. At Slate, Will Oremus wrote about the terrestrial tech world’s blasé response to the founding of Planetary Resources, and commanded, “Wake up! This is outer space we’re talking about! This is awesome!”

It is awesome. To read about these ambitious plans, and to contemplate the scale of human brainpower and industriousness required to pull them off, fills one with awe. These new companies talk about space in a way that sounds unfamiliar to the civilian ear accustomed to the reverent tone of planetarium field trips; rather than the vastness of space, the companies emphasize its accessibility. Moon Express calls the moon “the eighth continent.” Planetary Resources wants to “bring the solar system into humanity’s sphere of influence.” Experiencing awe is fun. It's even more fun to imagine a world of outer-space abundance in which we don’t have to worry about fossil fuels and everyone can afford a platinum case for their iPhone. And there is great potential for resource extraction in space, though these ventures will carry great upfront costs and plenty of uncertainty about whether they will actually come to fruition. Many deadlines and timeline estimates are fast approaching or have passed already. 

What’s misleading about these projects isn’t that they’re subject to budget problems and delays, but that they come couched in overblown rhetoric about their potential to radically alter human life, to do away with the notion of scarcity and deliver us to a future of plenty and peace. It’s a pattern that has become familiar in Silicon Valley: develop a plan for a business that will do something cool and make a lot of money, but describe it instead as something that will change the world. Return to that platinum asteroid for a moment. There’s one that Planetary Resources has been tracking: It passes near the Earth’s orbit every 23 months and is a half-kilometer by one kilometer in size. A spacecraft could travel to it in around eight months. Diamandis estimates its total worth at between $300 billion and $5 trillion. If it were to be mined at some point in the future, it would drive down the global price of platinum, which might make some items more affordable—luxury jewelry, of course, but also catalytic converters for cars and hard disks for laptops and DVRs—but it would primarily make the investors of Planetary Resources extremely rich.

Allusions to the Wild West abound in the literature of space-mining companies. The Moon Express website talks about “brave pioneers” who explored new territories "with the backing of a monarch or a state.” For these entrepreneurs, space is not a distant emptiness; beyond the frontier, they envision a business-place. And with the exception of a Cold War–era treaty prohibiting national appropriation of the moon, there aren’t laws about ownership in space; its riches are there for the taking, like gold nuggets in a California stream. In a March debate on "Selling Space," at the American Museum of Natural History, Space Foundation CEO Elliot Pulham said that asteroids are clearly up for grabs: “There’s no law that says you can’t snag an asteroid. Knock yourself out.”

It’s certainly true that space is full of valuables. Billions of years ago, during the formation of the solar system, gravity pulled the heavy materials on would-be planets toward their cores, forcing the comparatively lighter rocky material out to the surface. When those planets broke apart, they became asteroids. Some are made of rocky surface fragments, but some are made of the core materials—platinum, gold, silver, palladium—that are rare and precious on Earth. At a press roundtable after the "Selling Space" debate, Tyson explained why this process matters so much to those who would mine the sky: “Nature has pre-sifted the ingredients for you. You go grab yourself an asteroid made from the core of a planet that never survived, and you’ve got this stuff concentrated in the palm of your hand.” This is what Manifest Destiny must have felt and sounded like. Wealth beyond your wildest dreams, and it’s there for the taking. You just have to get there first. 

The “getting there first” will not be simple, or cheap. Most of the asteroids in the solar system are in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. But the orbit paths of some near-Earth asteroids, or NEAs, bring them relatively close to our planet—that is, within around 30 million miles. Planetary Resources has developed what is essentially an outer-space drone: a small telescope-equipped spacecraft, around the size of a desktop computer, that will survey near-Earth asteroids. Once an asteroid is identified and determined to be valuable, the extraction could begin, though that introduces a new set of technical obstacles. Because of the difficulty and expense of getting heavy machinery from Earth into space, some have suggested using 3D printing technology to use materials found in space to create the necessary equipment. Then, some modified version of a terrestrial mining method, like drilling or magnetic separation, could be used for the mining itself. But these extraction processes have been developed for the pressure and gravity of Earth, and they would need to be overhauled to function in the low-gravity, vacuum environment of space. 

If this part of the process sounds unclear, it’s because it is. To give an idea of the scale—in time and difficulty—of these kinds of operations, consider the government’s version of asteroid prospecting. In April, NASA greenlighted a mission in which a spacecraft called OSIRIS-REx will rendezvous with an asteroid called Bennu. OSIRIS-Rex is scheduled to launch in 2016, reach the asteroid in 2018, reconnoiter it for over a year, and then bring back samples for scientific study. The amount of asteroid that NASA plans to collect after all this time and trouble? Two ounces. A major premise of private space mining companies is that they will be able to work far faster and more economically than NASA, and will be willing to take on levels of risk beyond that of a government operation, but the scale and timeline of OSIRIS-REx shows how complex these operations will be, even for the swiftest companies.

Rick Sternbach / KISS
An illustration, from the Cal Tech study, of an asteroid retrieval spacecraft capturing a 500-ton asteroid.

The most far-out proposal in space mining is to "redirect" an NEA toward Earth and into lunar orbit. There, the asteroid could spin safely around the moon, accessible to our planet. A 2012 Cal Tech study determined that this method would be not only feasible, but “essential” for long-term human space exploration. According to the study, it will soon be possible for an unmanned spacecraft to identify a target asteroid—one around seven meters in diameter and 500,000 kilograms in mass—approach it, “loiter” nearby to determine its spin, and ultimately enclose the asteroid in what is described as a “draw-string bag.” (Take a moment to imagine a man-made drawstring bag capturing a giant mass of precious metal hurtling through space. “This is awesome!” does feel like the only reasonable response.) Once the asteroid and spacecraft are connected, a solar-powered propulsion system could fly the asteroid back to our moon and deposit it in lunar orbit. Depending on the mass of the asteroid, this retrieval flight would last between six and ten years. 

This idea, like the other space-mining projects, will require tremendous patience, money, vision, and bluster. So it's no surprise that the futurists of Silicon Valley are behind them: The group of companies founded with the intention of mining space are backed largely by investors who made their names and fortunes in tech. Peter Diamandis is the founder of the X Prize Foundation and of Silicon Valley’s Singularity University, which he co-founded with futurist Ray Kurzweil; Eric Schmidt is one of Planetary Resources’ major investors; before starting Moon Express, Naveen Jain was a senior executive at Microsoft and then CEO of his own startup, InfoSpace; Elon Musk founded PayPal and now has a private space company, SpaceX, currently under contract with NASA to begin carrying astronauts to the International Space Station.

The New Yorker's George Packer identifies the “conflicting pressures” of Silicon Valley as “work ethic, status consciousness, idealism, and greed.” All of these pressures are present in the space-mining race, too. The work required to pull it off is undeniable—as is the idealistic delusion that outer-space extraction would bring world peace. Whoever accomplishes this first will be hailed, from Mountain View to Capitol Hill, as a genius. They will also become unfathomably wealthy, and rightly so: Entering a new, high-risk, high-tech field of business should come with the possibility for enormous reward. These entrepreneurs have evinced as much in less-utopian, off-the-cuff remarks. Diamandis has joked that his company’s financing plan is to buy puts in the platinum market and then announce their plan to bring a platinum asteroid home. Jain imagines coming back from trips to the moon with payloads worth billions of dollars: “I don’t care what people say," he said in an interview with Wired's editor last year. "That’s a shit load of money.”

It’s telling that the foundational text of the space mining industry—1997's Mining the Sky, by John Lewis, a professor of planetary science at the University of Arizona and the chief scientist of Deep Space Industries—begins not with a catalog of the wealth of space, but with a brief history of exploration and military domination on Earth. Here, there isn’t enough, but in space, rather than nothingness, we find “a lively, rich understanding of the unity and lawfulness of Creation, within which the diversity and complexity of local materials and events falls into place.” Thanks to the saving power of technology, the very ideas of “limited resources and finite living space” are “tired old myths,” he writes.

It’s exhilarating, this notion that tech advances could end scarcity as we know it, relegating wars over mineral wealth and energy sources to the list of woes defeated by science, alongside plague and polio. But it’s a dangerous exhilaration. It seems far more likely that new sources of wealth will, in their abundance, be one more thing for us to scrabble over. The space-mining notion is immensely appealing: the sky is full of infinite riches and abundance leads to peace. But why wouldn’t riches from the heavens cause conflicts and problems? Their vulgar terrestrial cousins always have.

The problem with comparing space-mining to the Wild West isn’t just that it won’t revolutionize our economy like Manifest Destiny did. It isn’t even that there’s something suspect in taking the sky—something that feels so shared, so very deeply part of the commons—and turning it into a set of privately held commodities. It’s that this rhetoric gives the industry a kind of up-by-the-bootstraps patina, calling to mind a situation in which anyone with a gold-pan could go and seek their fortune, if one were plucky and lucky enough to set out for virgin territory. This simply does not apply to space mining, an industry where—to an even greater degree than modern-day resource extraction businesses on Earth—the barriers to entry in terms of both technology and capital are so immense that it is only open to entrepreneurs who are already billionaires. 

Would-be space mining companies are often called “crazy,” their plans described as wild schemes. In fact, these companies are not crazy at all. As Jain, of Moon Express, says in a promotional video, "It is not just a fun project. It is also a great business." Space-mining investors may be thinking extremely far outside the box, and willing to take on levels of risk that governments—the only entities with dealings in space until just recently—would never take on. But these are savvy investors, not a bunch of kids with a kooky dream, and they expect an eventual return on that investment.

That might explain why, as the Wall Street Journal reported recently, Planetary Adventures has shifted its focus from precious metals "to a more mundane space resource: water," which "could be processed into fuel to extend the useful lives of aging commercial satellites." Granted, water has been a part of Planetary Resources’s business plan for years: When the company announced two years ago its intentions to mine asteroids, it said in a press release that “accessing water resources in space will revolutionize exploration.” But it never got headlines, for obvious reasons. As John Logsdon of the GWU Institute of Space Policy said after the "Selling Space" debate in March, “It’s not as sexy as platinum but I think the most valuable resource in space is water.”

Harvesting asteroid ice could be very profitable in its own right, but it doesn’t conjure the same Panglossian platitudes as giant chunks of space gold do. That's just as well. It's a more practical approach for the near future. Because of the tremendous cost—both in terms of energy and money—of launching something out of Earth’s atmosphere or back into it, the most efficient use of resources extracted in space will be right there: in space. And that, in turn, should help bring the peace-and-abundance rhetoric back down to Earth. It's like much of what Silicon Valley invents: Not as awesome as the elevator pitch makes it sound, but useful in its own little way.