This article was written by Anthony Lipmann. All views and opinions are strictly his own.
It would appear that wherever I go the subject of mining asteroids follows me like a stalker. My short answer, if anyone is listening, is that we need to get mining right on earth first.
But this is not enough to satisfy the prospectors and, literally, lunatics, who are working to nudge an asteroid into a lunar orbit and get to work.
For a taste of what is out there in the ether I would recommend the recent Audible-produced You Tube video, catchily entitled ‘How Asteroid Mining Will Save Earth’. As psychologists will tell you, a saviour complex can lead to problematic outcomes.
In the You Tube polemic an unnamed bearded Australian tells us about John Davies Rockefeller’s ‘timely exploitation of a then untapped natural resource – oil’ which made him three times richer in inflation-adjusted dollars than Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates. The next trillionaires, he tells us, will be asteroid miners and they will save mankind along the way too.
I do realise that if mankind had relied solely on me to advance the human race, we would still be without wheels, Columbus would not have got the funding, and we would certainly not have wasted any money going into space.
Having said the above, I think I have learnt some truths during a lifetime spent in the world of resources. The first thing is that those who make the money are not always those who reach the goal, but who pave its way. This was true of Andrew Carnegie who made money not out of the railways but the steel the rail men bought from him.
The second truth about resources is the banal fact that price and clever science do not always go together. If we suppose for a moment that asteroid mining becomes technically achievable (without turning space into an intergalactic tailings dam) then the extra supply of platinum and gold will instantly have the effect of lowering prices. There is nothing intrinsically precious about platinum, other than its rarity in nature. Make it less rare and I am not sure there will be a concomitant development of applications to meet the supply.
An example of this syndrome is provided by the history of silver and the Conquistadors. So great was the influx of silver and gold into Europe from the New World in the 16th century that, far from making the home nation rich it caused inflation of about 1-1.5% per year. In other words too many people with too much money were chasing too few goods. For ‘New World’ read ‘Asteroid’. For’ home nation’, read ‘planet earth’. By the end of the 16th century there had been three bankruptcies of the Spanish monarchy.
The third truth is that of obtaining investment. My observation of this is that fund raisers, in the form of junior miners with a prospectus and a mining licence, but nothing much more, are ready to extrapolate almost any known fact or story in order to weave a tale to part investors from their cash. There are rules to do with this, but I have never seen them put into practice in order to send the garbage back into the mine where it belongs. We had direct experience of this in a market about which we knew a little – rhenium. After the price hit $12,500 per kg in August 2008 almost anyone with this element lurking in their ore spun a story to suggest the untold wealth that would accrue with just a little mining, leaching, smelting, or whatever. A particular mine in Australia called Merlin (no magic there) raised many millions claiming it would produce 7mt per year (at that time 15% of world primary supply). Not a gramme has so far reached the market. For Australia, read asteroid.
There are apparently three types of asteroid out there, C-Type (carbonaceous) with presence of H2O for rocket fuel. S-Type (silicaceous) with some iron and nickel. And then there is M-type with iron, nickel and lots of pgms, Au and Ag in the core, just waiting to be collected so long as you can find a way to smash up the outer carapace. [One commentator on the You Tube video posed the question as to whether the definition of adding to earth’s mass, by bringing back ore to earth, actually counted as un-mining?]
Two asteroid factoids are that apparently a single 30 metre lump of asteroid might have $30 bln of platinum while a 500 metre rock would contain half the world’s present known reserves of pgms. With those kind of numbers UK shouldn’t be sending missions to the EU but to space.
For me what the whole sorry asteroid theme tells us is more about ourselves – and, in this at least, it has value. It tells us for a start where the money is coming from – the largest funder is based in The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, one of the EU's smaller states and yet capable of supplying its commissioner, Jean-Claude Juncker, a state not unknown for its sweetheart deals for big business. It also tells us that we would rather set our economic telescope to the horizon and declare ‘no ships’ than to look at what is under our noses.
That, if we care to look, is the blight of very real suffering on parts of planet earth in places such as the Congo which supply elements in a generally environmentally unsound manner so that we may have the pleasure of turning on our lights or powering an environmentally friendly electric vehicle.
We need to remove the asteroid from our eye first before we mine the one in the sky. The ones up there are just a sad distraction.