Asteroids. Mine, all mine, I tell you!

Oh dear. People have been talking about mining asteroids since the 1960s, when Gerard O’Neill thought we were all going to move to orbiting space colonies. The idea was mad, but he got to have his ashes sent to the Moon on the strength of it.

In the era of private space ventures funded by Silicon Valley megaprofits, it is predictable that this idea would, er, fly again. Its latest manifestation, says the BBC, involves “film director and explorer James Cameron as well as Google’s chief executive Larry Page and its executive chairman Eric Schmidt.” Well, if the man who gave his name to PageRank is up for it, what can possibly go wrong?

Answer, plenty. Their initial plan (bit.ly/everynewsmediumonEarth) seems to centre on mining asteroids for precious metals. There is in fact no way that such driven people as Schmidt and Page would waste their lives in this trivial fashion. The next stage in the plan is to use asteroids as a source of rare Earth

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elements. This sounds better, if you say it quickly enough. But it might be easier just to negotiate with the Chinese for the

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things. In fact, this proposal is really saying that it simpler to send a spaceship to an asteroid to hunt these minerals than it is to reopen the US mines that produced them until they were closed for polluting their environment.

In any case, if the founders of Google can do this, so

can China.

But in fact, it is impossible to think that either of these ideas are the whole story behind this plan. The

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technology to mine asteroids is bound to be developed, because it is more or less the technology needed to divert asteroids, enabling us to avoid the fate of the dinosaurs. But as O’Neill foresaw, there is no point mining stuff in gravity-free outer space just to drop it into the Earth’s deep gravity well. The logistics and the economics will never play. Instead, it makes sense to use these bits of rock to fashion space stations, space probes, space labs, space telescopes and all sorts of other space structures, in free space or in Earth orbit. I am sure that Page and Schmidt appreciate this. The scheme to

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bring stuff back to the Earth is doubtless only page 1 of a long business plan that will evolve over time to embody the use of the Earth’s space environment in situ, not the introduction of space resources, at least en masse, to the existing Earth system.

About Martin Ince

UK-based science and higher education journalist, big strengths in universities and university ranking, futures, media strategy and training, Earth and space sciences
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