Why Asteroid Mining Matters more than MarsThere have long been two camps to the space colonization debate: those favoring the habitation of Mars, and those favoring going to the asteroids. Today we have seen a bold plan that tends to favor the latter. I happen to also think that it is a better plan.
But why does asteroid mining matter so much? What’s the point? Here are my thoughts.
Asteroids are easy to mineAsteroids are chock full of useful resources. Planetary Resources put out this useful stat:
“A single 500-meter platinum-rich asteroid contains the equivalent of all the Platinum Group Metals mined in history.”
Eros, an asteroid with an orbit that takes it close to Earth
And in case you weren’t aware, platinum is not only rare, it is incredibly useful. In fact, asteroids are full of resources that we are quickly running out of here on Earth. We’re not just facing peak oil, we’re past the peak on many of the resources that are used to make our electronics. Said Peter Diamandis, founder of the X-Prize, an initiative to drive commerical space flight:
“Many of the scarce metals and minerals on Earth are in near-infinite quantities in space. As access to these materials increases, not only will the cost of everything from microelectronics to energy storage be reduced, but new applications for these abundant elements will result in important and novel applications.”If nothing else, think about how much easier mining an asteroid would be than a planet. You don’t have to worry about increased pressure as you go down. The asteroids are often loosely aggregated, so a good blast will tear it to shreds and expose deeply-covered rocks. You don’t have to fight a steep gravity when sending resources around the solar system. And there is plenty of water ready for the drinking and shielding (something that neither the moon nor Mars can attest to).
Mars becomes Trivial
By dropping the cost of water and other materials in space, a trip to Mars becomes almost trivial. But to launch all the parts from Earth would be too costly.
We will probably never have a permanent space presence, the 6-man ISS excluded for its tiny size, unless we have some form of cheap water and building materials. That is what Planetary Resources is promising.
Mars Doesn’t MatterThere is an allure to living on a planet. I get it, it’s what we’re used to. But asteroids have everything we need to live, and their gravity well is weak enough that we can escape it with a compressed pogo stick. Living on a planet like Mars is tantamount to cutting yourself off from the rest of the solar system. The systems to get to the ground and back are immensely complex and error prone. Compare the Shuttle to the ISS. The shuttle burned tons of fuel to get itself into orbit, and then precariously sails back to Earth. We have lost two of them, but neither one was lost in orbit. One exploded on liftoff, the other disintegrated during reentry.
Planets add an unnecessary level of complexity to living in space. And it isn’t like replicating Earth-like conditions is difficult. Need gravity? Give it a spin. Need light? Open a window. Need heat? Well, you’ll need that on Mars, too. At least here you can arrange massive free-standing mirrors to warm your structure.
Living on Earth does grant us some resistance to solar radiation. But Mars wouldn’t. the reason why we are safe on Earth is because of our strong magnetic field. Mars doesn’t have that, so charged particles will just bombard the structure without end. You will need as much shielding as on a space station, but you have to fight gravity to build your shields.
Mining asteroids makes sense. I just wish we didn’t have to wait a decade for them to do it.
Photo by : NASA