Talk of mining asteroids and planets for commodities needed for industries on Earth has been escalating lately. Both private space companies and federal agencies regard the mining of water and precious materials from stellar bodies as a new industry in the offing.
Exactly what commodities or, perhaps, rare-Earth metals will be found in any quantities on planets and asteroids is not unknown. But assuming bond-fide mining of precious commodities becomes a reality, space businesses foresee a day when reusable rockets will continuously ferry precious materials from mines on the moon or Mars to processing plants on Earth.
Neil deGrasse Tyson, the celebrity astrophysicist, predicted in 2015 “the first trillionaire there’ll ever be is the person who mines asteroids for their natural resources.”
Witness that 85 percent of NASA’s budget is earmarked for commercial contracts, and the space agency wants to establish a permanent presence on the moon, using reusable rockets and landers. The moon is only three days travel from Earth, and its orbital movements are precisely known.
Jack Burns, the director of the NASA-funded Network for Exploration and Space Science, recently The New Yorker advances in engineering could turn the moon into a way station for launching rockets and satellites farther into the solar system, to Mars and beyond, as the weak gravity on the lunar suface is far easier to escape from than Earth’s gravitational pull. What’s more, Burns talked with The New Yorker about the feasibility of lunar construction projects, referring to his organization’s telerobotics lab, which suggests automated construction will someday be possible, as well as the 3-D printing of the tools required for construction and maintenance.
NASA has already named nine companies to be part of its Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, companies — some as large as Lockheed Martin, others as small as 16-person Masten Space Systems — approved to provide transportation services to locations in space.
In The New Yorker article, Burns likened the government’s support of commercial space exploration to the dawn of the airline industry, pointing out that in the 1920s the first airline companies survived only because the government paid them to deliver the mail. It was not until later, when ordinary people became passengers, that the airline industry became economically viable.
Burns predicted, “I think we’re looking at something similar with space exploration.”
Mike Consol (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor of Real Assets Adviser. Follow him on Twitter @mikeconsol to read his latest postings.