With two private companies, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, proposing to set up asteroid mining, the prospect of accessing limitless wealth beyond the Earth has caused a bit of media speculation about what that could mean.
The question arises, could asteroid resources be used to create the greatest dreams -- and perhaps the worst nightmares -- of science fiction?
Wealth in the sky beyond the dreams of avarice
NASA's Near Earth Object Program's website, quoting the 1990s-era book "Mining the Sky," suggests that there is in the asteroid belt alone enough wealth to provide everyone on Earth $100 billion. Asteroids can be used to build structures on space. Comets can be exploited for water and volatiles. Platinum group metals can be mined to develop high-tech products. One estimate of the value of one asteroid, Amun 3554, a less than mile-wide Earth approacher, is about $20 trillion.
Asteroid wealth to fund interstellar travel
Space.com recently speculated that an influx of asteroid wealth could be used to fund a program of interstellar travel, with perhaps the first crewed star ship leaving Earth by 2100. With NASA working on warp drive concepts and with the hunt for extra-solar Earth-like planets proceeding apace, ironing out all of the problems attended with interstellar travel may be just a matter of funding. The article suggests that the first real-life model of the starship Enterprise might cost somewhere in the range of $1 trillion, an immense amount now, but pocket change in a world where asteroid mining is taking place and the solar system is being economically developed and settled. The dream of "Star Trek" could well be financed by the efforts of free-market capitalists.
Asteroid wealth to fund a death star
Rand Simberg, a space blogger and self-described "recovering aerospace engineer" suggests, with perhaps tongue fully inserted in cheek, another science fiction movie that could become reality thanks the asteroid wealth. Noting the successful White House petition to build a Star Wars-style "Death Star," rejected by the administration partly for fiscal reasons, Simberg seeks to prove that the cost of a moon-sized terror weapon, while immense, would not be quite as great as the White House claimed. Then he suggests that a combination of asteroid wealth, space-based manufacturing and construction, advanced technology and perhaps an excess of megalomania on the part of future politicians could make a Death Star possible. Why anyone would want a moon-sized terror weapon capable of destroying entire planets is another question entirely, but given the flow of wealth from asteroid mining, such things are perhaps economically possible.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.
- Science, Social Science, & Humanities
- asteroid mining
- interstellar travel