Last week I had a minor conniption on facebook about the spate of talk about Asteroid Mining in the news.
Alright–I’ll admit–it was more than just a conniption and probably earns the monicker of rant.
The reasons I got so ticked off were twofold. First, there was the basic ignorance about the technological foundations that were needed for any future attempt at asteroid mining that were displayed by a number of different bloggers and online news agencies. Second, there was the shoddy writing masquerading as science journalism that displayed a remarkable ability to ignore any of the actual facts of the matter at hand and to avoid any kind of critical thinking.
So.. let’s get into the story.
This all started with an announcement by Planetary Resources that they existed and their goal was to eventually go mine asteroids for various things. Solid coverage of this event can be found at Forbes Magazine Online, which had a pretty thorough description of the event. It was also noted on one of the Blogs at Discovery Magazine.
This latter article was referenced by Blaghag (Jen McCreight), who is a skeptical/atheist grad student in biology who I’ve been reading since her cleavage-induced refutation of one of Iran’s religious clergy went viral a few years ago. Jen’s take on the idea was one of excitment, but also still very much on the level as she noted that “I’m just jealous that I don’t get to live forever and see how this plays out.”
In other words, she recognized that the scope and scale of this venture were not something that happens overnight.
Other responses to this announcement were a lot less measured. One of my other favorite blogs–Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish, which I read constantly for its political coverage–totally seemed to gloss over any technical complications. In fact, the opening title and intro sentence of the piece was: Asteroid Miners… may soon be a reality…despite the fact that it linked the aforementioned Forbes piece, which had the title of, “Billionaire Asteroid Miners to Boldly, Slowly Go Where No Man has Gone Before.”
Note the temporal change. On the one hand, you have a piece that talks about a possible future development that will take a lot of time to accomplish and which clearly notes that there aren’t even time frames labelled for the second and third major stages of the project.. (the ones that will involve massive technological developments that might not ever be accomplished.. and are clearly beyond the scope of today’s technology.. but more on that later…). On the other hand, you have a followup article (the Sullivan piece) that implies from the beginning that a massive technological change that would have massive economic and technological impacts upon society is just around the corner.
That’s just fucking ridiculous on so many levels.
This kind of attitude was not found just in Sullivan’s piece, but also in other followup articles like this one, which describes how the asteroids that people want to mine are worth a cold $20 trillion, at least… Clearly, the article continues, being able to mine such a rock–blithely done by robotic spacecraft–would make Planetary Resources the wealthiest corporation on the planet… “Beating Apple with Ease” in terms of its corporate valuation…. All it would have to do is “catch one rock…”
There is a catch, it admits…
This “catch” is not, however…
a) That there is absolutely no zero-g mining equipment in existence;
b) That the designs for zero-g mining equipment–much less automated robotic mining equipment that can land, set up shot, and do everything necessary to extract minerals from atmosphere-less, unstably rotating rocks in space has not even been conceived yet;
c) That, realistically, you would have to smelt and/or process metallic ores at the asteroid itself, because shipping large amounts of unprocessed ore would be horrifically expensive (since metallic ores usually have less than 10% concentration and so 90% of the unrefined ore would be wasted cargo)–and that NO ONE HAS ANY IDEA OF HOW TO CREATE ZERO-G SMELTING/PROCESSING EQUIPMENT–hell–we don’t even build such things for non-stationary crafts that we have on earth yet;
d) That you’d have to transport this metal from the asteroid to earth orbit–which will require huge amounts of fuel that you have to hope are located on these asteroids (mainly water)–but also that this transportation operation opens up the question of mistakes that could damage the planet–or at least the hairless apes on it–by means of the huge slugs of metal being shot across interstellar space towards the earth. I mean, if
something goes wrong with the trajectory, or the robotic rocket ferrying this chunk of metal breaks down along the way–there’s the possibility of 100+ ton metal spitballs with 300 kiloton impacts making life just a bit more risky.. (300kt is not superbad.. it’s only like 20x the strength of the blast at Hiroshima … as pictured here for my current city of residence…);
e) Or that despite all the processing and transportation issues–the process of bringing valuable metals back down onto earth is not 100% clear. Are you going to drop them from space as big rocks? They’ll burn up and splinter in the atmosphere…(and/or make life unpleasant for whomever is under them..).. On the other hand, if you decide to haul them down by going up in space shuttle type craft (none of which are running anymore)–it would cost $500 million a trip. This means tha for each trip–you’d need to have signficant quantities of platinum just to break even–using 100% pure Platinum/Palladium metal (since it usually comes together like that)–you’re talking about a minimum of a 14.4 metric ton payload just to pay for the shuttle… and much, much more to actually make a profit….
None of these things is the catch, however… (although the last point is related to the catch…)
Instead, this article thinks that the catch has nothing to do with the technological hurdles that exist in spades–but rather that the ONE problem is that the huge reserves of super awesome metals couldn’t all just be brought down at one time–or else the market prices would plummet–which would totally destroy their profits..
This is true. If you bring down 1000 tons of platinum a year–when our current yearly production is only around 110-130 tons–you are going to cause the prices of platinum to plummet. In fact–I figure a 10 fold increase in the supply of platinum would probably reduce the price of platinum by nearly that much–so instead of $1500/troy ounce.. it’d be more like $150/troy ounce…
So.. bringing down mass quantities of the metal reduces your actual worth… So what about just bringing down a year’s worth of supply?
Well, the Asteroid’s supposed worth comes from 170,000 tons of platinum.. well.. at least $8 trillion of the $20 trillion value of it does.. Bringing down a year’s supply means that this one asteroid would take around 1500 years to be used up.
Does anyone believe that you can do economic planning over that kind of time frame?
Beyond these purely economic problems, there are also technical problems that begin to crop up with hauling the metal down to earth.. and here things really start to look bleak…
In particular, the idea of hauling the metal back down onto the planet by means of a space craft presents a major issue. As noted in point e), you’d need at least 14.4 metric tons of 100% pure and refined platinum/palladium metal to pay for the trip of sending up a space shuttle to haul this cube of metal back to earth. Now–the return payload weight of the shuttle is actually, coincidentally, 14.4 metric tons.
In other words–to use our current technology–you cannot actually bring metal down to the planet and make a profit.. because it costs as much to bring it down as it is worth.
Of course, one might say, we will invent cheaper means of sending up spaceships and have larger space ships with greater payloads, etc etc…
Okay–show me the money then. Currently, the Planetary Resource corp–funded by billionaires is talking about using standard/pre-existing rocket technology and there isn’t any talk about doing fundamental research on designing an entire new range of lift-off vehicles. The cost of such kinds of fundamental research is not something that even the richest corporations or individuals today can fund.. we’re talking $trillions or $10’s of trillions for development, testing, and production…
But remember–these Asteroid Miners are just around the corner–and are totally going to surpass Apple…
All of this is what ticked me off. The utter lack of any serious comprehension of the science.. of the basic MATH that is involved in all of this, not to mention the fundamental and flawed belief that huge technological hurdles will automatically just fall into line quickly and without massive efforts.
These people are both highly innumerate and utterly ahistorical in their approach to the the world and its affairs… and it’s pissing me off!!!!
…or at least it did that day…
I’m much better now… can’t you tell….