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Interplanetary Gold Rush

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Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, has said he expects to see the first delivery of cargo to Mars using his new Interplanetary Transport System as early as 2022, with the first manned mission following two years later. A manned mission to Mars may sound implausible, but so did just about everything else that Musk’s company has achieved in the last fifteen years.

He founded SpaceX at the turn of the millennium, with Nasa rudderless and the end of the Space Shuttle programme in sight. The idea of commercial space transport was widely viewed as outlandish, and Musk a spendthrift eccentric. In less than a decade, however, SpaceX became the first business to successfully build and launch a liquid-propellant rocket into orbit. Two years ago, the company piloted a reuseable first-stage rocket back to Earth, something never achieved before by any national space programme.

According to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, space is the ‘province of all mankind’, yet in 2015 Barack Obama legislated for US companies to engage in non-terrestrial resource extraction. Earlier this year, Luxembourg began to create frameworks for asteroid mining companies to base themselves in the duchy, an offer already taken up by the likes of Planetary Resources. Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs published a report declaring that ‘space mining could be more realistic than perceived,’ with the financial and technological barriers lower than the psychological ones. 

That isn’t to understate the technical challenges. The irregular shape and unevenly distributed gravity of asteroids less than 30 miles in diameter makes landing on them difficult. And until we have robots with fine sensory-motor skills – machines at present are a lot better at playing chess than picking up paperclips – it’s hard to imagine how mining might work.

But once the problems are overcome – and the trends in computational power, machine learning and autonomous vehicles indicate that may be only a generation away – the prize is analogous to the Californian Gold Rush, only much bigger and with fewer competitors.

The downside, from a business perspective, will be immediate oversupply, with elements such as platinum, iridium and gold so suddenly abundant as to crash their price. A platinum-rich asteroid 500 metres in diameter could contain nearly 175 times the annual global platinum output, and 1.5 times the known world reserves of platinum group metals. One of the largest known asteroids in the solar system, 16 Psyche, is a floating chunk of iron, nickel, copper and other rare metals, including gold and platinum. Its value? Around ten thousand quadrillion dollars; annual global GDP is $74 trillion.

So how would investors – or in the case of SpaceX, Elon Musk – get a return? One solution would be to follow the example set by the diamond industry after the discovery of South Africa’s abundant reserves: artificially restrict the supply, and sell mined space commodities at a price marginally below the cost of production of any mine on Earth, keeping the drills of our home planet permanently switched off. Customers would have a cheaper product, mining would no longer contribute to climate change, and resource scarcity would no longer be a problem. This is the scenario that Peter Diamandis, the CEO of Planetary Resources, must have in mind when he says that ‘the first trillionaires will be made in space.’

But there is an alternative model of collective ownership that would see the price of precious metals and minerals, all with multiple applications, drop close to zero. Combined with the emergence of general artificial intelligence and ever-cheaper renewable energy, it would be the basis of what’s become known as ‘fully automated luxury communism’.

SpaceX is a private company, and Musk is venturing his own capital, but his space exploration programme – like so much of the modern tech industry – wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for decades of public investment in scientific research. The money spent on the International Space Station totals around $150 billion; the Apollo programme, calculated in today’s prices, cost around $125 billion. The risk was socialised, so should the gains be.

As outlandish as it sounds, space exploration, like AI and renewables, is an important terrain on which a rising left must fight. The technology is changing, as are the legal frameworks; we need a politics which understands the possibilities of the future and puts them at the service of social justice and abundance – the province of us all – rather than private profit and scarcity.

Comments on “Interplanetary Gold Rush”

  1. Sal Scilicet says:

    The future’s assured. It’s the past that keeps changing. [Old Russian proverb.]

  2. Phil Edwards says:

    So that’s why they call it fully-automated luxury space communism! (I’ve also seen “fully-automated luxury gay space communism”, but that would probably take another post.)

  3. Harry Stopes says:

    “Mining would no longer contribute to climate change.”
    I realise the medium calls for brevity, but I feel that this sentence skates over a significant set of problems with ‘fully automated luxury communism,’ which is that it is too vague on how exactly FALC will avoid continuing damage to the planet. In the case of space mining, surely building and powering the space rockets will contribute to climate change,as will smelting the ore, making the computers etc. But I look forward to seeing how these problems are dealt with in the book.

    • FoolCount says:

      Logic was never very big among the futuristically inclined science fiction enthusiasts. Anyhow, I would not worry too much about effects of space mining on climate change. Or on commodity prices for that matter. Nor should my children, grandchildren and grandgrandchildren.

    • John Cowan says:

      When you are trying to move material from space to the Earth, what matters is throughput (how much material you can move in a given time) and not latency (how long it takes for a particular chunk to reach its destination). That being so, it makes sense to use highly efficient low-thrust propulsion like ion rockets. Ore smelting and metal separation should definitely be done in space, where the sun can be concentrated to provide effectively unlimited energy density.

  4. Wernard Billiams says:

    There is a great deal to be said for utopian-strategic thought about a future whose horizon is just coming into view. Perhaps the first movers have a decided advantage in setting the terms on which those who follow them most discuss these issues.

    I hate to repeat what is a banality to those on the anti-capitalist left, but there are profound *intellectual* problems that are not obviated by the march of moore’s law that must be confronted: above all, who is the revolutionary agent, what holds them together in hegemonic formations, and how can these movements overcome the logic of inter-state neoliberal competition; and by through what allocative mechanism can we effectively organise a socialist economy based on democratic self-management?

    Dreams of the future are enervating, and give us much-needed hope, but they tend to presuppose that which is to be explained: getting from here to there. I know there’s a story about automation, technological unemployment and super-abundance, but much of this remains sketchy and remote. Still, looking forward to the book, and the political and intellectual project of FALC.

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