Monday, April 23, 2012

Space Resources: Re-igniting a can-do spirit of ambition

It appears that a small cabal of the Good Billionaires -- those who got rich through innovation and who feel loyal to the future -- are about to to fund a new effort worth some excitement and attention. It aims at transforming not just our Earth -- but the whole solar system. And, along the way, this endeavor may help bootstrap us back into our natural condition... a species, nation and civilization that believes (again) in can-do ambition.

Can that be achieved - while making us all rich - through asteroid mining? 

In its Tuesday announcement, Space exploration company Planetary Resources will claim a goal to "create a new industry and a new definition of 'natural resources.'... adding trillions of dollars to the global GDP."

Resources from space? It's not a wholly new concept.  Way back in the 1980s, in his prophetic book - Mining The Sky: Untold Riches From The Asteroids, Comets, And Planets, my friend and colleague John S. Lewis explored in detail the range of minerals, volatiles and other useful materials to be found in all the different types of small bodies we know to be drifting about the solar system, from carbonaceous chondrites to stony or iron meteoroids, to dormant comets which (according to my doctoral thesis) may make up to a third of the asteroids we find out there.*

Back then, as a young fellow at the California Space Institute, I recall many long conversations with John and the few others working in the field, striving to come up with ways to get some movement in this area. Before it became clear that the Space Shuttle would suck up every gram of funding or attention.

 What makes this new effort unique is its high-profile support group. The venture is backed by Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, film director James Cameron, and politician Ross Perot's son, among others.  Moreover, I am pleased to note that John Lewis is, indeed, one of the major advisors for this new company, along with his former students, noted planetary scientists Chris Lewicki and Tom Jones. 

The founders apparently did their homework. (A Cameron trademark.)  They apparently mean business.

== A Long and Hard Road ==

But what kind of business? Is such a grand project feasible? As I see it, there are a several distinct general problem domains.

1) Prioritizing asteroidal science.  Naturally, as an astronomer who specialized in small solar system bodies, I approve of this phase one. (My wife, Cheryl, also did her doctoral work in this area - we're neighbors in the solar system.) 
It also correlates well with President Obama's wise decision to abandon a fruitless return to the sterile Moon, in favor of studying objects that might make us all rich.

In fact, this seems an excellent time for private funding to make a big difference. New thresholds have been reached. The technologies needed for inexpensive asteroid rendezvous missions are coming to fruition rapidly, as we saw at the recent NASA NIAC meeting.  Some, in fact, are downright amazing, opening the potential for missions that cost mere tens of millions, rather than billions of dollars, confirming and characterizing these fascinating - and possibly lucrative - bodies.

2) Shepherding and changing the trajectories of small meteoroids and asteroids.  There are several techniques on the table.  Some of them surprisingly simple, using solar sails.  We might as well get started! And if these guys can give the technologies a boost, more power to them.

3) Legal, safety and environmental impact considerations. Is it even permissible to grab and "own" space resources? The pertinent treaties were left deliberately vague and it may be time to update them, so that investors in wealth-generating processes can be sure of decent return.

Of much more public concern - and sure to dominate the headlines - will be the image of deliberately moving asteroidal bodies toward the Earth. That's sure to prompt a lot of fretting and talk of lurid disaster scenarios. Oh, we'll start small and aim them toward the Moon or Lagrangian Points (e.g. L5), giving plenty of time to discuss issues of law and care in space. But these fellows need to come up with just the right tone of prudence, avoiding the kinds of lines spoken by Michael Crichton's science-hubris villains.  Like: "all contingencies are accounted for - there's no cause for concern!"

Worth pondering on the up-side: these same technologies might someday prove very useful, if we spot something dangerous, on a long-warning collision course toward Earth.  If done right, this is a potential world-saver, not world-killer.

4) Mining, disassembly, smelting and refining in space.  Here we're still in a very tentative, sketching phase. Most concepts involve using large mirrors to concentrate sunlight and process the raw materials. Or else solar energy to drive heat and electro-mechanical processes indirectly. If this can be done robotically and efficiently, all the way off in L1 or Lunar Orbit, then much smaller masses of refined substance could be transported down to GEO... where electrodynamic tugs might bring it to LEO... where cheap, asteroid-made braking shells would deliver the goods safely to collection points on Earth.

5)  Or, better yet, much of the iron and nickel and such could be used up there in orbit to make more cool things and reduce the burden of launching bulk material out of our planet's deep gravity well.  Certainly, storing the volatiles like water and carbon and nitrogen compounds in orbit-made tanks will be a major side-benefit, providing the materials needed most for both life support and rocket fuel. To derive those benefits would entail learning to do many other things in space. Larger habitats and radiation shielding. Possibly solar energy collectors of massive scale, beaming power 24/7 to Earth. Or grand vessels to explore the planets.

6) Economics. It's a lot more complicated than the first calculations might make you imagine. In Mining The Sky, John Lewis calculates that even just one asteroid a kilometer across - of a certain type - might (if smelted down) produce the world's entire steel production for 10 years!  

It gets better. Try the entire world's gold and silver production for 100 years!  That plus a thousand year's production of platinum-group elements.

The good news?  We would be unleashed to do a myriad things with cheap raw materials, while cutting way back on wasteful, inefficient and polluting processes to mine and process the stuff here on Earth.  Much less digging, grinding and greenhouse gas emissions. All that wealth, generated with solar mirrors melting rocks way out in space.  Talk about improving the balance of payments....

One reality check?  Downstream, after this ball gets fully rolling and initial R&D costs are paid off, you can expect the prices of gold and platinum to plummet.  That's a good thing, overall! We have much better uses for gold than leering gleefully over stupid coins and bars. Still, bear this in mind when you start rubbing your hands over how rich you'll get from asteroid mining.

You won't be rich enough to own the world.  Sorry.  Just very very very rich, from doing a whole heap-loads lot of good for us all.

7) Which brings us to the final positive outcome of all this. We'll all benefit.  But the top fellows who are taking the risks, who will reap a lot of the rewards, happen also to be the good billionaires. Archetypes of how capitalism ought to work.  Self-made moguls who got wealthy by helping engender new-better products and services, not by means that Adam Smith himself derided as parasitism.  These guys have proved, time and again, their loyalty to the positive-sum process that raises all boats.  This is the kind of endeavor that will keep them up there as role models, instead of the new feudalists.

It's certainly how I plan to get rich.  By delivering magnificent, daring products that help take us to the stars.

== NOTES ==

A little colorful aside:
In our 1984 novel Heart of the Comet (soon to be re-released) Gregory Benford and I portrayed a dramatized effort to harvest space resources, by sending a human crewed mission to Halley's Comet in 2065, intending to use the controlled evaporation of the comet's own material (an effect long-known) to divert it into orbit near the Earth.
A bit extravagant in its action-adventure aspects (though based on my doctoral work), the book still conveys the best science known about these mysterious and wonderful bodies, including the main process by which some of them evolve into dormant asteroids.
== And Now...Some Science Potpourri ==

Our Interstellar cousins?  Researchers have found two promising stars, called HIP 87382 and HIP 47399, that had the same metal content and were at the same evolutionary stage as the sun, with similar galactic radial velocities, suggesting that they just might have been formed in the same nursery cloud, over four billion years ago.  If so, the idea is that perhaps planets in that cloud cross-fed each other life (due to meteoroid impacts). Possible places to find cousins and compare genealogies in a Galactic 23&Me?  I'm a bit dubious. That is sixteen galactic rotations ago!  A lot of time for smearing.  Still... kind of a cool notion to mull over.

George Dvorsky writes - perhaps a bit too optimistically - about how the project to disassemble Mercury into a Dyson Shell of orbiting solar collectors might be do-able within the lifespan of some kid alive today.

Several start-ups are looking to develop internet services to the four billion people worldwide who have basic mobile phones but no access to the internet.  Example: Mobile-XL is far from being your typical mobile web browser. It is built to work entirely via SMS, the old-style message system. It works on old-style phones that have Java. The only cost is sending and receiving a text message, substantially cheaper than paying for data in most parts of the world. Another startup: with biNu, webpages can load much faster than on a smartphone, and use far less bandwidth. How? Simple, really. Most of the processing is not done on the phone, but in the cloud. "We virtualize the smartphone.”

A mushroom that can eat plastic! Even at the airless bottom of landfills! cool stuff.

The Nikon Small World competition offers startling, beautiful and fascinating glimpses of the sub-microscopic world.

Printable robots?  Or... robots making robots?  As in Stargate?

== And Finally... A Linguistic Anomaly ==

Pompous teacher: “In some languages, a double negative still means negative.  In a few tongues, two negatives in a row cancel and make a positive. But there is no known case in which a double positive makes a negative!”

Answers snide student: “Yeah, right.”


TheMadLibrarian said...

I sincerely hope that Planetary Resources et. al can pull it off in a way that drags all of Earth along in a good way. At the risk of sounding unpatriotic, I'm happy that the Chinese are looking at getting into space. Since the US (government, private industry has finally noticed the gold mine in the sky) seems to be dropping the ball, someone ought to be concentrating on getting us collectively off this rock!

cretu epeastry: crunchy soy-based crust

David Brin said...

STory I worked on: Aliens agreed to stop propping up the incompetent USSR in exchange for the US agreeing to turn NASA into a sham and make no progress in space.

Consider the timing....

Damien Sullivan said...

I have trouble seeing how asteroid mining can make any economic sense under current tech constraints. Delta-vee of near-Earth body to Earth is 5 km/s, or 13 megajoules/kilogram, and that's with an ideal rocket and moving only the stuff you want, like refined platinum or europium. Real numbers are likely to be several times that. At 10 cents a megajoule that'd be $1.30/kg, making iron too expensive to sell on Earth. And this is just the basic orbital physics, never mind the $4000/kg cost of getting equipment to LEO on Russian launchers!

You can't just talk about how much stuff is out there. There's even more stuff in Earth's core, only a few thousand km away! But the *cost* of getting stuff...

I'd think funding new launch technologies would make most sense, enabling other things, followed by space solar power, which I'm not sure makes sense but seems closer to doing so than mining.

David Brin said...

The actual delta V would be handled by solar sail tugs, hovering near the asteroid using sunlight to gravitationally drag the chunk. If this worked (a big "if") then the delta v is not your consideration. Rather it is the sunk cost and interest rates/vs return on the robotic hardware

Ian Gould said...

I suspect that the initial mining effort will concentrate on moonlets - small (one metre diameter or so) asteroids in temporary Earth orbit.

I also suspect that they'll try to process them in orbit to recover volatiles - particularly water and Oxygen - for use on the ISS.

Assuming you pick the right moonlet, that should leave you with several tonnes of ore.

The cheapest way to get that material to the ground, if they can get it to work, would be a velocity-transfer tether.

Then too, maybe they're planning to use a plan similar to that proposed by the Japanese and mine the moon using robots.

matthew said...

The foundry I run currently makes the lowest-cost iron- and nickel-based superalloys in the world. We charge ~$30 / kg (being intentionally vauge here) internally to our own corporation for the simplest of the alloys. Just to give a taste of current economics in the field.
The most interesting (to me) part of this project is in the little details. How to pour metal through a filter in zero g? What will the grain structures look like? Ah, heck, how to burn out a mold in zero g? Obviously, the lost wax method of mold-making is out. Mining hydrocarbons from gas giants to make extruded or printed plastic for the mold master? Going back into a gravity well to cast metal is counter productive for expansion of the company. Oooh, the fun problems to solve. Talk about a dream job. :)

John Kurman said...


Gravity is your friend sometimes. Clearly, you use vacuum casting in zero g, with nitrogen or some other useless gas for the pressure head.

And you 3D print your mold, using silica flour, hydrocal and rice wine. (No wax required, just use a 'trace' function on your model to make your mold).

TheMadLibrarian said...

Part of the fun stuff about metallurgy in microgravity is the alloys you can make without gravitational separation. You can 'foam' metal, combine metals and elements that on Earth would never be miscible long enough to solidify. If you need a gravity substitute, one of the old-school methods is a centrifuge, and forges still work, just add pressure to hot metal. Instead of lost wax, use a soluble substitute and dissolve it out, just expose it to hard vacuum and let it boil away. Robert Forward wrote a great YA novel called 'Higher Education', where street punks were rehabilitated by taking the most salvageable ones and training them for asteroid mining work; he talked about a lot of low or zero gee techniques.

folves nentaild - 'Folding @ home', but with supercomputers

Tony Fisk said...

[Heart of the Comet] ... A bit extravagant in its action-adventure aspects (though based on my doctoral work)...

Wow! Your thesis must have been quite a read! How'd that get through the dessicators of academia?

Apart from novel zero g foundry techniques, is there any problem using a centrifuge for other needs? ('scuse my coriolis)

I can see tomorrow's headlines: wayward cargo vessel break-up showers US with rubber ducks!

TwinBeam said...

Just for contrast, now imagine the much more efficient Wall Street banker approach to asteroid mining.

Who needs rockets? First they'd quietly lobby Congress to revoke the space treaty and establish a method of claiming asteroids as property that lets the banks grab up all claims while shutting out any competition.

Then they'd claim the asteroids' (many $Trillion$) "conservative value" as assets, and quickly loan vast amounts to any government or bank needing cash at essentially zero interest, to get them dependent on the validity of the asteroid claims.

There would be rapid inflation of the dollar, wiping out most of the value of the US debt. Retirement savings would also be wiped out, but Congress would quickly boost Social Security payments and temporarily lower the retirement age to 55 - paid for by more borrowing from the banks at zero interest.

The banks won't care about the inflation - they're still far richer than they were before, and the executive bonuses will be "astronomical"...

TheMadLibrarian said...

Has anyone suggested to the 'whiz kids' that they can make bank and do good at the same time by developing a method for cleaning up LEO? After they get those capture techniques debugged, grabbing an asteroid ought to be cake! What you do with it later, well...

anymete rmsaven - eccentric Ganymede orbit

Paul451 said...

I suspect the first capture will be proof-of-concept and for its scientific value. But if it contains any recoverable volatiles... then they never need to launch fuel again. As long as the equipment is reusable (and a bunch of companies are working on reusable engines) the second and all subsequent asteroids are essentially free.

"The cheapest way to get that material to the ground, if they can get it to work, would be a velocity-transfer tether."

There's a cheaper way...

Who is going to pay them to clear space junk? Tragedy of the commons.

(revelany tarkil: AKA "Lany", space minor.)

Paul451 said...

A year or three ago, a poster called "Symbolset" on Slashdot wrote this, it seemed vaguely familiar and I wondered whether it was from a SF story or SF-author's essay, or is it just an original - instant deja vu - classic. Thought someone here might know...

"Beyond the earth is wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. Fields strewn with diamonds, entire moons made of hydrocarbon, lands to take dominion of to make Alexander the Great appear an insignificant tribal chief. But the people who take ownership of the realms beyond the sky will send men, not robots.

The journey is long. The risks are great. The cost is obscene. The prize is nothing less than ownership outright of the moon and all that lies beyond, to the end of the universe. Someone will go."

While I'm regurgitating other people's cleverness, here's one from NextBigFuture, author forgotten:

"You see, it's not that space is expensive, it's that we are poor, precisely because we don't access space properly."

Tony Fisk said...

Well, since space junk will effect their operations directly, it makes sense for them to do something about it.

(The cynic would suggest that they persuade government to foot the clean-up bill to encourage supplier-side access to the gravy, but these are 'good' billionaires, and I am trying to be naive)

Ian said...

Of course, the flip side of all this is that Australia, Russia, Canada and large parts of South America and Africa would effectively be bankrupted and devastated for a generation or more by the loss of their mining industries.

Ian said...

MSNBC has advance details on tomorrow's announcement.

"Building a commercial empire in outer space may be the long-range plan, but the short-term plan is closer to home: The first step to mining an asteroid is figuring out what's out there. To that end, Planetary Resources' first project is what's known as the Arkyd-101 personal space telescope.

Lewicki hopes the personal space telescope will do for astronomy what the personal computer did for information technology. Planetary Resources plans to put the instrument into Earth orbit to survey the sky for potential targets — asteroids that come close enough to Earth often enough to make them reachable, and have a spectral signal that would make them good candidates for mining. The main target is C-type or carbonaceous asteroids, which are dark and not so easy to detect with existing instruments.

The Arkyd-101 telescope is designed to be launched on any of a variety of rockets, including the Russian Dnepr, the European Ariane, the Indian PSLV or the SpaceX Falcon. It would have arcsecond resolution for astronomical observations, and if the camera were turned earthward, Lewicki said the resolution would be a "couple of meters per pixel," which comes close to the standard for commercial Earth imaging.

The key factor is the cost: Lewicki noted that an imaging instrument like NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer would typically cost hundreds of millions of dollars. "We're looking to go one to two orders of magnitude below that," Lewicki said."

"[Diamandis] and Lewicki are projecting the first launch of hardware in the 18- to 24-month time frame. Once the telescopes are up and running, the team will identify likely candidates for future missions. That would require additional spacecraft in the Arkyd product line, such as an in-space propulsion vehicle and an experimental resource-extraction package.

"Three, four, five years out, depending on trajectory, is when we envision getting up close and personal with an asteroid," Lewicki said."

The focus on C-class asteroids suggests that the first target will be, as I suggested earlier, supplying volatiles including propellants, water and oxygen to Earth orbit.

That in-space propulsion vehicle will likely see use first in boosting satellites into higher orbits and deorbiting space junk - and could use the fuel they manufacture.

David Brin said...

got lead article on science2.0

David Brin said...

got lead article on science2.0

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the excellent post.

However, I take exception to your casual dismissal of a "fruitless return to the sterile Moon". Not only does the moon possess important resources (PGMs, He3, water that could be used for fuel depots as well as ISRU), it's also much closer to home. There is the problem of the gravity well but any destination, including asteroids, has its challenges. Lunar exploration offers an opportunity to develop a different, but no less important, set of technologies with applications on Earth. I assume you have read Spudis' recent pro-moon/anti-asteroid, which I find compelling - but smart people can disagree and still be agreeable.

And that said, I'm a both/and rather than either/or person, so I enjoyed your post and could not be pulling more for PR to make this thing a success.

Paul451 said...

SpaceX is delaying their Dragon flight to ISS another week.

Asteroid the "size of a minivan" exploded over California.

Today is a space day.

locumranch said...

Asteroid mining holds the promise of unlimited resources. It has been a staple of sci-fi since the late forties; it is still a lovely futurist vision; and it is well within our current technological capabilities.

That said, its sociological hurdles are over-whelming as our entire world economy operates on the principle of scarcity.

It therefore follows that our established industries, financial institutions and nation states have little incentive to pursue a technological policy that would destroy their economic claim to power.

And, once the independent extraplanetary arcologies are established (which would hopefully ensure the continuation of the human germline), these independent colonies would be self-supporting (hence the name 'independent').

Being independent, these colonies would then have little incentive to repay the massive sacrifices incurred by the poor Earthies, especially when it is technologically feasible (also cheaper & safer) to exploit a perfected germline rather than attempt to 'uplift' the pox-ridden masses out of a gravity well.

So, let's aid those billionaires by all means, allowing them every promise, tax break, incentive and property right we can think of, giving them the title to a vast extraplanetary empire that most of us will never get the chance to enter, just on the off chance that they will choose to preserve our germline along with their own.


Perhaps some of these extraplanetary technological economies will 'trickle down' on to the grubby groundies and give us the knowledge to improve our own sorry lot, but -- make no mistake -- it would still be up to us to improve our own sordid little gravity well, assuming that 6 to 8 billion humans could agree on anything of importance.


Ian Gould said...

"It therefore follows that our established industries, financial institutions and nation states have little incentive to pursue a technological policy that would destroy their economic claim to power."

Yes just as it logically followed that the gas lamp industry would suppress the electric light; that the telegrpah industry would suppress the telephone; that the coal and rail industries would suppress the internal combustion engine; that the fixed-line phone companies would suppress the mobiel phone; that ...

Well you get the idea.

David Brin said...

Burke Burnett, thanks for your input, but I have to say that you are very unconvincing. Helium 3 is (1) not proved to even be there in the imagined amounts and (2) only has value if/when we get certain types of fusion operating. Nor is there anything else in the accessible lunar areas (rather than the poles.)

There is simply nothing there. Nothing remotely comparable to the rich ores of metals and volatiles available from almost all kinds of asteroids.

There are many rocks far more accessible in delta v... though robotic patience is needed.

Finally, there is guilt by association. Seeing as how the Bushites never missed a single opportunity to use their power to damage the United States of America with every single decision, one is hard put to imagine how the first impression - that the Back to the Moon idea was meant to keep us from accomplishing anything in space - could be anything other than accurate.

Anyone who would ever again trust anyone remotely connected to that clade with anything other than a thrice-doused burnt match would have to be both a moron and insane.

locumranch the notion of space colonies declaring independence is similarly romantic claptrap.

locumranch said...

Case in point:

Just as the Bushites never missed an opportunity to consolidate their power and Microsoft continues to use its market power to stifle competition, Big Gas & Oil has used its market power to stifle, direct or control alternative energy development.

Other failed monopolies, like the American Railroad industry, Western Union (telegraph) & the old octopus that was Ma Bell, have been admittedly less successful, yet they once were giants.

Also, if we are to assume that Asteroid Mining (or lunar mining) can represent a self-contained, self-sustaining or technologically self-supporting extraplanetary enterprise, then we must also assume a measure of technological, social and biological separateness, self-direction, autonomy and independence (aka 'The state or quality of being independent').

The very idea of an 'autonomous tool', an 'independent dependent' or a 'dissociated collective' is oxymoronic at least in a linguistic sense.

And, if we are to assume that the proposed Asteroid Mining colonies are to be entirely subordinate, obligated to, dependent on or subservient to our little gravity-bound biosphere, then we must also assume that these ineffectual colonies will be unable to preserve (or lifeboat) the human germline in the event of an earth-side disaster, even though they may be able to provide us with cheap energy & resources, assuming that we convince them that they need us more than we need them, begging the following question.

Which social unit is more vulnerable in a political, economic or environmental crisis? The worker that produces necessary resources or the master that relies on the resources produced by another?


Ian Gould said...

To return briefly to the issue of Chinam the Communist Party has announced the results of its investigation into events in wukan, the town that briefly rebelled against party rule and caused the party to back down.

The local party chief and the mayor have been expelled from the Communist Party and fined ca. US$45,000. 6 other party members have also been expelled and 12 local government officials have been sacked.

Two people (who have not yet been publicly named)are facign criminal charges.

What's really worth noting here is how the government media is covering this story.

Here's the People's Daily:

"Two former officials from south China's Wukan village have been expelled from the Communist Party of China over corruption and election-rigging charges, provincial authorities announced Monday.

Xue Chang, former Party chief of Wukan, and Chen Shunyi, former head of the village committee, were also ordered to hand over illegal gains of 189,200 yuan ($30,031) and 86,000 yuan respectively, said Zeng Qingrong, deputy head of the supervision department of Guangdong province.

Wukan grabbed international headlines last year when the small village's residents staged three waves of large-scale rallies in four months to protest against village officials' alleged illegal land grabs, corruption and violations of financing and election rules.

In December, after a senior provincial official held direct talks with villagers, order was restored. Re-elections were held earlier this year while the investigation into the villagers' complaints continued.

Zeng said after three months of investigation, authorities found that Wukan's former officials were involved in illegal transfers of land use rights, embezzling collective properties, accepting bribes and rigging village elections.

Six other former village officials were also punished.

Twelve township and municipal officials who collaborated with the Wukan officials in discipline violations were punished as well, including two who were transferred to judicial authorities for suspected law infringements."

Other than omitting the murder of an activist that sparked the protests and the deployment of armed troops around the village, that's a fairly accurate summary of events.

Ian Gould said...

"And, if we are to assume that the proposed Asteroid Mining colonies are to be entirely subordinate, obligated to, dependent on or subservient to our little gravity-bound biosphere, then we must also assume that these ineffectual colonies will be unable to preserve (or lifeboat) the human germline in the event of an earth-side disaster, even though they may be able to provide us with cheap energy & resources, assuming that we convince them that they need us more than we need them, begging the following question."

you may have noticed that as yet no offshore oil platforms have declared independence.

The development of large, self sufficient politically independent space colonies will likely take decades if not centuries.

Science fiction regularly treats US history as a model for space colonies seeking indpeendence, you'll note that it took roughly 180 years for that to happen after the first British colony in Virginia. Latin america took longer still.

Australia took "only" around 110 years.

None of which means that those colonies weren't significant contributors to their colonial masters well before that.

Jumper said...

Fortunately carbon steel should be relatively easy to acquire from low gravity objects. Not so much on our moon. I suspect aluminum is not so difficult to manufacture on the lunar surface, from the surface rock.

What is lacking is the sort of elemental concentrating processes which have occurred near Earth's surface: hot circulating brines working over mega-years concentrating and then selectively depositing various rare-earth minerals. I posit those processes are lacking in asteroids, comets, Phobos, Cruithne, etc. So where? Likely Venus, but the gravity and temperature keep us away for likely some time. Perhaps Mercury is the better candidate for harvesting concentrated seams of rare elements. Not soon, either.

Nitrogen is essential for life, as is H2O. I'd be curious where the best candidates are for that nitrogen.

Jumper said...

The above spammer is pumping a company with the following email:

I propose flooding them with requests to quote delivery prices to the lunar surface.

Anonymous said...

David, thanks for your comments. First, as a card-carrying Obama guy, far be it for me to defend anything Bushian, much less Gingrichian. But the main problem with VSE was the pork-based bloated architecture, not the goal itself. I also grant you that He3 advocate Harrison Schmitt's climate denialism is highly problematic as well since it undermines his argument (why pursue fusion if we don't have a carbon problem?), but that's a whole 'nother story.

But in terms of available resources on the moon (I left out rare earths, btw) "not proved to even be there in the imagined amounts", one could say the same thing for asteroids, no? At least there are Apollo data points for the moon. We should be sampling much more - and likely soon will be (via GLXP teams rather than NASA).

As for He3 only having value "if/when we get certain types of fusion operating", that is half true but misleading. (1) He3 is also used for medical imaging, and we are running short - only so much tritium decay one can harvest. He3 definitely has significant and immediate economic value. And 2, it's very true that D+He3 (or He3+He3) fusion is untested, but for that matter we can't even prove D+T is economically feasible. My understanding is that we can't even start really testing 2G fusion because DOE says we don't have enough He3 and can't get any more, and NASA says we could get you He3 but what's the point because you can't do fusion. Catch 22. Gotta start somewhere.

I think the biggest issues are a. lunar gravity well; b. you have to process a hell of a lot of regolith to get much helium, and c. there are unexplored legal issues. (But on point b., asteroids present the opposite problem of no gravity and the resulting floaty stuff causing a hazard.)

I think we do agree that to make space exploration sustainable it will have to prove it has economic benefits, and in that respect I am cheering PR on about as enthusiastically as anyone. So again I'm both/and: all in favor of asteroids as well as the moon. If we can get rid of the SLS boondoggle that's sucking all the air out of the room, why limit ourselves?

If nothing else, perhaps we can agree that we should do asteroids and moon first before even thinking about Mars, which is just completely beyond our technological scope at present.


P.S. It's very hard to compose a cogent mini-essay in a tiny little box 2 inches wide!

Ian Gould said...

"But in terms of available resources on the moon (I left out rare earths, btw) "not proved to even be there in the imagined amounts", one could say the same thing for asteroids, no? At least there are Apollo data points for the moon. We should be sampling much more - and likely soon will be (via GLXP teams rather than NASA)."

Excellent post David but one quick point: we have a far larger amount of meteorites than of moon rocks.

Admittedly the statistical distribution is going to be somewhat skewed by the need to make it to the ground at least somewhat intact.

LarryHart said...


Just for contrast, now imagine the much more efficient Wall Street banker approach to asteroid mining.

Who needs rockets? First they'd quietly lobby Congress to revoke the space treaty and establish a method of claiming asteroids as property that lets the banks grab up all claims while shutting out any competition.

I heard a Randian libertarian on Thom Hartmann's show just about a week ago who was seriously proposing a libertarian colony on the moon. Although he didn't refer to "Atlas Shrugged" specifically, it seemed clear that the goal was to essentially establish Galt's Gulch.

One essential component for Galt's Gulch to work is that it has to be populated exclusively by other libertarians who won't mooch or loot or otherwise gum up the works. A corollary to that is that there has to be some way to keep undesirables from finding out about the place. Hence the obscure mountain range in the novel. The moon might serve adequately in that regard.

The other essential component that made Galt's Gulch viable was that it just happened to be rich in gold, oil, metal ore, and any other essential resources. Somehow, I can't see the moon fulfilling that function.

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin,

Okay, that line in the main post about "Yeah, right" gets a rimshot, but really that expression is an example of sarcasm, no different from saying "Oh, great!" when you really mean something is terrible. It is not the double-ness of the double positive that turns it into a negative, just the heavily-irony-dripping tone of voice and eye-rolling accompanying the phrase.

LarryHart said...

Jonathan S under an earlier post:

Wanted to speak to remakes. I find the 2004 reboot of Battlestar Galactica to be so incredibly superior to the original, in concept, acting, and respect for the laws of physics (check out the attack on the Regeneration Ship in the Season 4 opener, for instance), as to be barely recognizable as its descendant.

Ok, that's a rare example where the "re-make" is BETTER than the original rather than worse. However, it doesn't refute my point--in fact it doubles down on it. If someone watches the new version expecting to see what they (presumably) liked about the original, they will be disappointed. Or if not "disappointed", at least they will not find what they came for.

If a remake or re-imagining is really so different from the original as to be unrecognizable, then in what sense is it a "remake" or "re-imagining"? It really should just be a whole new thing.

And the Abrams reboot of Star Trek was, I think, done with a fair degree of fidelity, except that at the end, I would have shown Kirk being given early graduation for what he did, then a montage of him reporting to duty on various ships at rapidly-rising ranks, until finally being reunited with everyone else on the bridge of the Enterprise. Mind you, I understand why it ended the way it did - I just would have liked more of a nod to the idea that you had to at least pretend to serve in Starfleet before being given command of a Constitution-class heavy cruiser.

I haven't seen the new Trek film, and I have no intention of seeing it. I'll grant the point to fans that it might be good. I have no interest in getting involved in precisely the way that, were my beloved wife to depart this earth, I would have no interest in filling the void in my life by dating her younger sister.

But to the more general issue of Star Trek--from your description, it sounds as if the movie continues the trend of making the Starship Enterprise into a larger-than-life legend in its own time. This began, perhaps innocently, with ST:TNG making the Enterprise into the Starfleet flagship instead of just one of many ships in the fleet. By the time the series "Enterprise" had its way with history, that one ship was responsible for virtually ANYTHING of historical importance. And worst of all, the characters acted as if they KNEW it, spouting lines about how "Some day there might be some sort of...directive" and drek of that order.

Star Trek (TOS) was about extraordinary adventures of essentially regular folks doing their jobs. Later incarnations seem to have lost that sense entirely.

Acacia H. said...

I think the point of the reboot for Battlestar Galactica was to take a show that had promise and focusing on the elements that actually worked. When you come down to it, the BSG remake is a mash of the original BSG and Terminator. And it worked.

But if you were to create an "original" series that focused on some of the same themes, the computer game "Homeworld" would probably work, seeing that it was an homage of the old BSG while seeking its own path. Unfortunately, I doubt we'd ever see it turned into an actual series due to the conservatism inherent in the entertainment industry. Why spend money for something that might not appeal to everyone when you can just toss out a dating reality show about millionaires and glamour girls who are willing to in essence prostitute themselves on television, or reality game shows where people risk humiliation in the hopes of getting money while surviving the slings and arrows of their teammates?

No doubt this is why the amateurs are so prevalent on YouTube these days. They see there is no way to get their own unique ideas out there through "traditional" means and so are seeking their own path. And maybe in doing so... they may end up becoming the thing that will supplant the conservative entertainment industry that is so scared of taking a chance.

Rob H.

Jonathan S. said...

Well, Larry, it's no spoiler to tell you (as it happens shortly after Cadet Kirk gets smuggled on board the newly-commissioned Enterprise) that a substantial fraction of Starfleet's capability was eliminated trying to fight Nero's 24th-century Borg-enhanced Romulan mining ship. Our Heroes only survived because Kirk was able to persuade Capt. Pike that the intercepted communiques Uhura was translating related to the ship that had killed the Kelvin 25 years earlier. Thus, we do have an excuse for rewarding Kirk with service aboard the Enterprise, as much of the fleet was still under construction; however, I still balk at the sudden promotion from Cadet to Captain. (And one can only imagine how poor Ens. Chekhov feels - when the whole kerfluffle started, he outranked Kirk; Jim was only named first officer by Pike because Pike was a big fan of George Kirk.)

(I'm also unsure why an FTL drive couldn't be used to escape the event horizon of a newly-created black hole, but I'm willing to swallow Treknobabble with the best of them.)

Rob said...

@locumranch are you out of your gourd? I've been tracking Microsoft for the last 13 years, and the last thing you could say about them today is that they continue to "use market power to stifle competition". The gaming console offering has at least four strong competitors, they don't compete in handheld gaming/computing worth anything, and their entire focus has been soft and sideways for 10 years.

Western Union does a fine business brokering money exchange, American railroads, focused on freight, are not on life support, and "Ma Bell" is reconstituted as two or three cell phone companies which operate with Comcast in a trust relationship!

You're not operating from an accurate picture of the world at all...

Ethan Bradford said...

Here's my idea for moving (after perhaps first de-spinning) asteroids: use a concentrating mirror to evaporate material from the asteroid. It depends on there being enough volatiles, but that includes volatiles in compounds that will break down at a few thousand degrees.

Hypnos said...

I take issue with the idea of a pressing need to address scarcity. Scarcity in the contemporary industrial world is a product of the organisation of the economic system, not a result of underlying resource constraints. With a different model of social organisation we could have given everybody on Earth a life free from suffering and want a hundred years ago. In fact, that’s exactly the result socialist utopians expected to get from the industrial revolution.

Instead, we maintained the same lopsided distribution of wealth as in feudalism, created a free market system that reinforces that problem, and then solved the inevitable crisis of overproduction by inventing needs we don’t have to fulfil with useless material goods, using resources that could’ve been allocated to reducing human suffering in the world. The essence of the consumerist society is to prevent wealth from being shared equitably.

Our resources are only scarce if we continue to pursue the consumerist lifestyle. And if we do, mining asteroids won’t bring any more prosperity to the vast majority of human beings than mining all of Earth has.

We can’t solve a social predicament with a technological fix. In fact, the mind-set of technological fixes is what has got us into the problem to start with. As I suggested in another thread the Tragedy of the Commons only arises when a culture/society is predicated on individualism and maximum exploitation of resources for personal gain.

We don’t need engineers and scientists; we need anthropologists and social psychologists.

Acacia H. said...

Actually, consider this: three dimensional printing is going to alter the economic situation on a large scale, and shift valuations away from products and toward ideas, resources, and energy. If we start mining asteroids for resources, then there won't be a scarcity of resources, meaning then that energy and ideas become the primary revenue sources. Asteroid mining would also allow for easy construction (relatively speaking) of orbital solar arrays to provide inexpensive power for regions. All at once, power is not as important. Meaning we will shift to an idea-based economy.

Rob H.

LarryHart said...


With a different model of social organisation we could have given everybody on Earth a life free from suffering and want a hundred years ago. In fact, that’s exactly the result socialist utopians expected to get from the industrial revolution.

Instead, we maintained the same lopsided distribution of wealth as in feudalism,...

You're singing my song! It's as if we found ourselves in the Garden of Eden, but instead of everybody living off of the fruit of the land, that fruit is "owned" by a small minority, and no one else has a method of earning his living except by finding somthing of value to offer those "owners" who already have everything.

Why else would workplace productivity be soaring the past several decades, but none of that value accrues to the workers as it did in the 1940s-1970s. Instead, it all goes to the top of the pyramid.

Acacia H. said...

I'm reminded of the model for communism and why it was doomed to failure: if you have a dozen farmers and one doesn't put in any work but gets an equal share of the food from the work, then eventually the other farmers will stop putting in the effort because they figure they too can get an equal share like the lazy farmer leeching off the system. Naturally, that doesn't work, and you end up with no food at all.

The current capitalist system is similar in that everyone puts in a lot of hard work... but then 99% of the profits is skimmed by the owner/manager and the rest get bare pickings. When times are good there are some bonuses. When times are bad, then workers are laid off to increase profits and the remaining employees forced to work harder... but there are no bonuses for productivity after this point.

The end result will be a loss of employee morale and a decline in productivity as it doesn't matter how much work they put in, the manager/owner will take most of it and dole out scraps in return.

Rob H.

Von said...

@ Asteroid Mining: The quantum leap will also take into account a new off-earth economy and culture. As the Swiss run a small productive country based upon conservative economics and advanced engineering, one might posit that part of the treaty process will establish propitiatory rights based upon technical ability, and a space-based governing body. Space is currently free to whomever might leave the gravity well. However, dogma and mistrust on part of those who funded the initial launch and propulsion technologies (in the first and second world countries) are the entrenched economic bases that might either be helped or harmed though contract or competition. One must also realize the quid-pro-quo comes from the ability to devastate the surface should negotiations go awry; a topic that will vilify our attempts to do well by the planet. Can Private industry gain the hearts of the world? The first launch should be promoting this venture internationally, and lobbying for free access. Winning the hearts of the world, first, is perhaps the only means to achieve this noble goal.

Damien Sullivan said...

Burke: fusion isn't "untested", it's tested and found unprofitable so far in energy terms. And that's the easiest form, D-T. He3 fusion isn't terra incognita, it's something physicists can make predictions about.

AIUI lunar He3 is so diffuse it would be energy-negative to extract it even if we did have useful fusion for it. The only app would be as rocket fuel, if you wanted aneutronic fusion drives. This would be like hydrogen cars: spending energy to get less energy in a more useful form for a niche.

But then, fusion power plants seem likely to have low power density, so actually not that good for space...

BCRion said...

Re: 3He

Yes, the element is very useful in radiation detection technology. Unfortunately, the amount we need for that really is not all that much, and there is a much simpler alternative for that: irradiating a deuterated target in a nuclear fission reactor to make tritium and let it undergo beta decay. Sure, it's not as glamorous as going to the moon to get it, but it makes more sense when you consider the quantities we actually need.

Look, I think Jack (Schmitt) is an approachable guy, very bright, and competitive in shuffleboard (I lost the game I played against him). Took a class from him while I was in college on the topic of space resources. Liked the class, but I can tell you that he's way too optimistic about the prospects of fusion technology. We've got a very long way to go (about 5-10x harder than DT) before we can even start thinking about looking at the concept seriously.

David Brin said...

The rebel space colonies meme has made for lovely adolescent sci fi fantasies and fed the Ayndroid Randroid fetishists, but it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the future. The kinds of people who create working settlements in space will be among our most adult... and not pathetic Orson Scott Card fans.

Saving and advancing humanity... and getting rich thereby...will be their priorities. And it will be a VERY long time before there will be better ways to spend those riches out there, than buying beachfront property on Maui. And just to be sure? We'll make sure they do their breeding and child-rearing here. We'll have their kids.

Sure, if you are talking a thousand years downstream, then big rotating O'Neil cylinders may offer vast colonies with no need to ever go down to Earth. Except the rich Earth will by then still be the best park. With the best universities. And we'll be better and smarter and adolescent fantasies will be seen as what they are. Cool, fun, and something to be outgrown.

David Brin said...

Burke, my apologies for rashly making assumptions. I have been doing that more lately and expect I will get even testier till the election is over. Pre-apologies to you all. (And you seem likely a valuable addition to this blogmunity.)

Still, Jumper answered you. Jumper said: "What is lacking is the sort of elemental concentrating processes which have occurred near Earth's surface: hot circulating brines working over mega-years concentrating and then selectively depositing various rare-earth minerals. I posit those processes are lacking in asteroids, comets, Phobos, Cruithne, etc. So where?"

You got it. The asteroid-delivered metals pounded into the moon and spread as thin as dust. Asteroids themselves were fractionated in a proto-planets that then broke up, hence we have access to chunks of metal rich mantle and core from that smashed world. And volatiles from choked-off comets and carbonaceous chondrites.

Look, I don't mind landing pre-prospector missions on the moon. Twenty or two hundred cheap mini-rovers, controlled by amateurs around the world would jazz up space AND find that He3... if it is there. STill, I just don't see the moon as having the same prospects as asteroids....

...whereas PHOBOS... (probably an asteroid) may be one of the most valuable rocks in the whole solar system.

David Brin said...

LarryHart, even when the sequel is better, it can be resented. Oh the brilliance and creativity that went into the new Galactica... for a premise that sucked big!

The new Star Trek had its charms... though born in horrific tragedy . Spock's knowledge and help had better be worth it. But I agree that putting Kirk in charge of the enterprise at 23 is crazy. I hope in the next one Spock assures us that "the other time-line still exists, next to this one, like a trellis that our new cosmos is climbing along...."

Ethan... selectively using the rock (or smothered comet)'s own volatiles as a rocket thrust has been thought-of. See HEART OF THE COMET!

David Brin said...

Hypnos... you spoke well... and I disagree 95%. We are currently lifting human beings into middle class freedom from want at a faster pace than any other society could possibly have dreamed of. A steep burden of proof falls on those who claim that other methods, tried before, would do better.

Mind you I have LOTS of complaints and feudalism is trying to return. But this grand uplift of billions was driven by tech and resources and freedom.

We need LOTS more of the first! The second is running low. And the last one is in desperate danger.

Jumper said...

A good supply of inert gas would be valuable as fuel for the current generation of ion thrusters. With H2O we are looking at something unsuitable for that. But H2 + O2 is pretty good stuff for propulsion nevertheless. Not to mention selling the O2 along with the water as both are premium if lifted up from gravity wells.

Jumper said...

80% of capitalism is based on free trash disposal.

David Brin said...

This is so cool! Here's the best news report on the asteroid mining venture.

Then go see their web site:


I know some of these guys!

Damien Sullivan said...

"But this grand uplift of billions was driven by tech and resources and freedom."

The resource we really need is cheap clean energy. Space iron and aluminum are unlikely to be anywhere near as cheap as terrestrial sources. More platinum and rare earths would be nice, though even their being cheaper is questionable. But our upcoming crises are peak oil and climate change, not platinum shortages. I'm kind of disappointed they're not going for space solar.

sociotard said...

I had a job interview today. I was thrilled, because I really need something in my field to start building experience. It turns out the lab is very tiny, like presently-3-people-hope-to-make-it-5 tiny.

On the one hand, I think I'm a shoe-in. The guy is Chilean and prefers his employees speak Spanish, and he wants someone with an Engineering degree (got it), to write better reports (and I minored in Writing)

On the other, tiny companies are unstable. and a friend in the industry asked his contacts if they'd heard of the tiny company, and they said "Unfortunately". And the tiny company is too tiny to offer benefits.

So now I'm nervous.

Von said...

@David. Duly noted; by engaging a multi-national front, whose vested interest are in the FAIL-fall, and holding their children hostage on the surface, to assure good conduct and special care in delivering the goods, one might convince all that the insurance is paid in full.

As a Sting song once promoted prior to the fall of the CCCP; "If the Russians love their children too..."

If billions are to be added to the world economy, cutting the little person in on the profits would likely be a wise idea. One might also note that it was not the gold prospectors that made the fortunes, it was the persons selling the pans and pickaxes...and bottles of whiskey when the load-claim didn't pan-out.

David Brin said...

Good luck Sociotard! Everybody send him vibes.

Key question. Does the small company offer employee share vesting? Part of the reason to participate in a shared risk is the potential for shared rewards.

locumranch said...

As most "techies" tend to omit the human being from the technological equation, I'm glad to hear an increasing number of participants question the social implications of technology rather than just pursuing technology for its own sake. Oppenheimer would be proud.

To answer Rob's honest criticisms, the case against Microsoft isn't necessarily cut & dried, but a synopsis of the EU argument is available at

The other (largely defunct) monopolies that I cited were historical references that all started in the USA in the late 1870's. The US Railroad was a privately-owned monopoly that controlled most US interstate commerce from the 1870's to the 1940's -- it even had its own military -- until it was crushed by the up & coming post WW2 automotive industry.

Starting in the the 1870's, Western Union dominated telegraphic communications for more than one hundred years, becoming the first true multinational financial conglomerate. They also created the first privately-owned geosynchronous satellite system (Westar), pioneered the first 'email' & invented the computer network.

The Bell System ('Ma Bell'; the American Bell Telephone Company; AT&T) maintained a monopoly on most North American telephone services from 1877 to 1984 until antitrust legislation forced divestiture effective in 1984, splitting the Mama monster into the seven increasingly monstrous 'Baby Bells'.

As for the other 'shruggers' out there, esp one who ignores the liberties taken by BP & its 'Deepwater Horizon' oil platform including their 31 March 2012 legal declaration of independence, I say that 'our' extraplanetary mining arcologies will have no need to exert overt independence through rebellion when they could do so in little ways.

Like the utilities employee who shuts off your water & power to prove a point, the software company that requires a restrictive 'end user' agreement or the barista who demands proper line etiquette before providing service, our future asteroid mining colonies would and will be in an unique position to demand earthly wealth, status, obedience or respect.

Assuming that they were immature enough to care about such things, that is.


Stefan Jones said...

Eh. I think you're grasping at historically familiar, ideologically familiar straws.

Asteroid miners will be competing against earthbound producers of minerals who will be incentivized to find cheaper and more efficient ways to produce minerals here. This could take the form of mining garbage heaps and tailing piles.

Alex Tolley said...

Regarding ownership of space resources. From what I've read, the treaties apply to governments, not private industry (at least that is one reading) so hopefully if the company does start mining an asteroid, it won't be tied up in legal hell. If Planetary Resources pulls off even a partial success in the next decade, they will completely change the mind-set over the feasibility of asteroid mining and the value of the resources.

source: "Space: The Free-Market Frontier" ed. Edward Hudgins

sociotard said...

Oh, here's a little something for the Wager pile, seen on another forum.

Person A: It annoys me that when a Republican is in office, Republicans say we should respect the office even if we don't respect the man. When a Democrat holds the office, they say the opposite.

Person B: Yeah, but Democrats are just as bad.

Person A: Prove it. Show me the Democrats who said we should respect Obama even if we don't like him. I'll give you a dollar for each one, up to a hundred dollars.

sociotard said...

Okay, I made the monetary bet part up. It's too bad too, because then I looked up a few democrats who did just that.

Tony Fisk said...

Having re-read Flannery's description of how early life forms gathered certain toxic but catalytically useful elements into concentrated ore bodies, it will be interesting to see how they are distributed in asteroids.

Von said...

@ David. Some vibes Sir, and All irreverence aside...

Space is an exciting realm fraught with risks and potential great rewards.

Profit sharing induces loyalty and reinvestment: human invention and return risk-taking.

In my special effects company (a small business where we engineer amazing effects on the fly), when I profit, my crew profits; I share when I profit. I spread it around. When I fail, resources have been wasted, and should have been utilized in a better fashion.

No one is perfect, and working the bugs out on theoretical technical systems is not cheap or fast. Lost Mars robots prove just how daunting getting a little package one way is. People argue and fight when the chips are down, and a good idea might lose its flavor-of-the-month enthusiasm if everyone is not on board.

I speak on behalf of the common person, who is not technically connected, but fronts the investment capitol directly piecemeal or, indirectly through taxes. These stakeholders have to be convinced that Asteroid Mining is not a pie in the sky ambition. The common ranks want to know: “What’s in it for me; is this safe?” PR is perhaps just as important as designing the L1 smelting system or the tension systems to control the captured object's solar sail drogue lines.

Profits may indeed be made, and side benefits / spin offs (such as orbital power transmission, exploration platforms, etc.) will instill a greater potential for profit, and thus risk-venture capitol by private parties. The jury is out on profit, as real feasibility is the true question. Only so many billionaires have money to dump into a personal cause; additional funding will have to come from other sources before their bank accounts are tapped. Space ain't cheap.

As noted by others in this blog, here on earth, rare mineral extraction may be had by other means.

It is known that mineral concentrations arise and crystallize in volcanic vents. Hydro-thermal fissure are the means by which many precious metals are deposited over time. For example the planer formations that were created 60 million years ago in California, spurning the gold rush, were the result of that geologic and tectonic uplift and resultant ancient strato-vulcanism - venting, and later, erosive deposits.

The natural mineral deposition process might be sped up by factors, given an equal or lesser investment in venture capitol.

It might be possible to create or access existing vents (mid-trench) and filter (by centrifuge) minerals that are brought to the surface by waters heated deep inside the Earth. One might use seawater injection to concentrate particulates currently suspended or force deep minerals to the surface continuously by modifying and harvesting artificial concentration sites (like the Salton Sea) as a base for injection re-circulation.

Drill, detonate a deep a H-bomb fracker above the asthenosphere, add water, filter out the heavy atoms rising. Mining lithic plugs in this fashion over extinct volcanoes, using the crater or caldera as a reservoir, might be fastidious also.

It may be easier to deep-mine-collect by cracking the earth, and adding water, than bring back a rock and melt it overhead. Gravity and five oceans of volatiles do have some useful qualities. This theoretical technology might be less expensive and readily possible.

But mining the earth is not really that fun (in comparison). A few billions may be spent on a feasibility study; a step in the right direction, I'm sure most here in this blog would advocate going off-planet is in all our best interest. I went to the site you suggested and read up. Very cool. We shall see.

Clark envisioned space stations in 2001. Didn't happen. I know firsthand, Business is: when one creates and builds something that does not exist, it costs more and takes longer. Ask James Cameron.

Thanks for your time, and valued feedback.

Ian Gould said...

So, just thinking abotu the International space Treaty: if I recall correctly it declares space "the common heritage of mankind" - does that mean we've just claimed the entire universe as the exclusive property of our species?

Sidenote: I'm a bit woozy from the flu bit I' pretty certain that the Space Treaty is binding on both signatory nations nd any corporatiosn under their jurisdiction.

There are probably some countries that aren't signatories though.

I wonder how you go about setting up a coproration in North Korea?

I know this will rankel the libertarians but I'd like to see a system where the first 50 or 100 bodies (leaving out planets and major satellites) that are landed on become the property of the entity that lands on them (with a better definition than "lands on") while the first entities to land on a planet or major satellite get freehold title to ,say, 1% of the body centred on their landing site.

After that, I'd like to see a small royalty charged on the commercial exploitation of those bodes - not enough to discourage development obviously - with the money split between the UN, individudal governments on a per capita basis and a trsut fund also split between coutnries on a per capita basis from which only the interest could be accessed.

Hypnos said...

Dr. Brin,

Perhaps. I don't want to be the one who mistakes cynicism and pessimism for wisdom and I truly hope to be wrong in everything I say. I used to be much more of an optimist before I started studying (and then working) in the energy/environmental field. In parallel, my girlfriend started studying East Africa and colonialism. The result is that I am now utterly sceptical of everything that is bandied as "progress" by Western (Europe and its white settler colonies) culture.

I am from Italy. I emigrated to London because of the lack of opportunities there. I have friends in Spain and Greece. You say millions are being uplifted – yes, and millions are being downlifted. The amount of misery in Mediterranean Europe is staggering. 50% youth unemployment means half my friends are unemployed. In our society, this has a crushing psychological effect because we derive our meaning from work (yes, even in the “lazy” PIGS… and by the way, isn’t that a racist acronym? You might have noticed Krugman uses GIPS). The longer this goes on, the less these young people will be able to integrate as productive members of society in the future. They are gaining no experience, they cannot become independent, they cannot start a full life.
Rob often mentions the positive sum game – can we have a positive sum game on a finite Earth? I now think we can’t, and to guarantee everybody a decent life we need massive redistribution of wealth, starting immediately. I just finished reading this week’s economist special report on advanced manufacturing and 3D printing. These technologies can bring about two very different worlds, depending on the kind of social structure they are put to work into. In the current social structure, they will put millions of people out of work as they automated manufacturing, and they will raise productivity so much that the people left in employment will have to work even harder to buy increasing quantities of useless stuff just to keep the system going.

In a different social structure, we could use these technologies to lower the labour burden – having no unemployment and everybody working 10 hours a week – and share the wealth more equitably – rather than producing more useless stuff for overworked westerners to buy at high price, producing useful stuff for free for poor countries.
I don’t know what social system would be able to produce these results, but I do think it is a matter of culture, not biology. I do not believe individualism and competition is an innate characteristic of the human being. Actually, the reverse might well be true as we evolved as social savannah apes.

Ian Gould said...

"You say millions are being uplifted – yes, and millions are being downlifted. The amount of misery in Mediterranean Europe is staggering. 50% youth unemployment means half my friends are unemployed."

And even unemployed, your friedns are better off than the vast majority of peopel in Africa, South America and Asia.

The economies of those continents are growing at an average of more than 5% even now - and that growth is lifting millions of people every year out of absolute poverty.

"I now think we can’t, and to guarantee everybody a decent life we need massive redistribution of wealth, starting immediately."

Or we can adopt the policy pursued by Nelson Mandela, Lula Da Silva and Manmohan Singh of pursuing economic growth through structural reform and simultaneously ensuring that the bulk of the benefits of that growth flow to the poor.

(It's also a policy that Australia stumbled towards over a couple of decades of economic failure from around 1975 to around 1995. Hopefully it won't take the EU as long.)

Tim H. said...

From what I've heard of Planetary Resources, sounds like a good start, and about time. Wouldn't be surprised if most of the value of off-planet resources will be in off-planet construction. My understanding is that a huge stumbling block for space solar is launch costs, not so much of a difficulty if your materials are already out of the gravity well. I suppose I've been spoiled by the pacing of SF novels where promising new technologies are developed in a couple of chapters, rather than lifetimes, but it's still good to see a start. "taturedo conateds", Beldar's favorite houseplant.

Jumper said...

Fractionating in the interior of protoplanets. I had not even thought it out that far. A nice hopeful possibility.

Be nice to actually find some really pure oddballs. Even something mundane such as a high phosphate, or iodine, or calcium rock. I expect maximal uses of such have not even been thought of yet.

Acacia H. said...

I suspect a high-phosphate asteroid would prove quite valuable, both in space and on the Earth, given the use of phosphates in fertilizers and other industries and the increasing scarcity of it due to the vast amount of phosphates washed to sea due to ineffectual irrigation methods.

The harvesting of a iron-heavy asteroid could very well result in the construction of actual large-scale space stations that use the rotation of the station to simulate gravity... and thus allow for actual off-Earth colonization. Of course, a better solution would be to hollow out a good-sized asteroid, bake the exterior shell, and turn IT into the space station, as the rock would act as radiation shielding and structural support at the same time.

While the visuals of a metallic space station gleaming in space looks pretty in movies and television programs, the need for effective radiation shielding suggests that the outer debris coating on asteroids would be a far better material in constructing said stations.

Rob H.

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin:

LarryHart, even when the sequel is better, it can be resented. Oh the brilliance and creativity that went into the new Galactica... for a premise that sucked big!

That was exactly why I could never get into the new Battlestar Galactica, no matter how good my wife said it was. I could not get past the fact that it was Battlestar Galactica. It's not SUPPOSED to be deep or dark and moody. If I'm in a mood for Battlestar Galactica, then I want to see cheezy fight between with barely-disguised Star Wars rip-offs and Cylons who can't aim. When I want intense socio-political drama in space, I don't want Battlestar Galactica. I don't WANT to have to care about characters named Apollo and Starbuck.

And I'm sorry, but for the same reason, I have no interest in a 2012 "Three Stooges" movie, and would have even LESS interest were I a fan of the Stooges themselves. Because the last thing I want to see is how the unsuspecting Stooges are woefully unequipped to deal with the realities of 21st Centruy life. And the second-to-last thing I want to see is a tender love scene between fill-in-name-of-unlikely-leading-lady and Curly.

LarryHart said...


The other (largely defunct) monopolies that I cited were historical references that all started in the USA in the late 1870's. The US Railroad was a privately-owned monopoly that controlled most US interstate commerce from the 1870's to the 1940's -- it even had its own military -- until it was crushed by the up & coming post WW2 automotive industry.

The fact of that real-life backstory made the difference between "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" being one of my top-ten all-time favorite films rather than just a kiddie flick I was too old for.

Acacia H. said...

LarryHart, you must be remembering a different BSG than I do. I remember a series that, along with some silly idiotic feel-good episodes, included such concepts as fighting the Devil and resurrection of the dead, fighting off the mutual assured destruction of two large nations on an Earth-like planet, the destruction of a space weapon using a small commando team, and so on. It was those episodes that stand out, not the sophomoric idiot episodes that served no real purpose.

Rob H.

sociotard said...

A really interesting article about corrupt oligarchs in China

Also, an article about the potential of N-back games to improve working memory and fluid intelligence.

LarryHart said...


LarryHart, you must be remembering a different BSG than I do. I remember a series that, along with some silly idiotic feel-good episodes, included such concepts as fighting the Devil and resurrection of the dead, fighting off the mutual assured destruction of two large nations on an Earth-like planet, the destruction of a space weapon using a small commando team, and so on.

I believe you are referring to "Battlestar Galactica 1980", which, although it had the same actors playing the same characters, already seemed to be a re-imagining of the original 1978 series.

The ones I remember watching during my freshman year in college revolved around such dramatic moments as the mechanical dog deciding to run into the middle of a firefight and Boxie* (sp?) having to chase after him.

* The kid who was "conveniently" orphaned when his mother, Apollo's love interest, became the only character ever successfully shot by a Cylon.

Doug said...

Considering the majority of gold that's been terrestrially extracted is just sitting in vaults as investments, why bother moving them to the Earth? It's secure for the foreseeable future in a more inaccessible place than any vault or safe. Even if you could steal it and move it to Earth, currently you'd end up spending more than the gold's value to move it down here, increasing the security until/unless that problem is solved. The only real problem I see is independent verification -- proving to the customers that the gold actually exists, is gold, and has a known purity/weight. Solve that, and until it's needed, gold in space becomes the new secure investment.

Acacia H. said...

There is no "Battlestar Galactica 1980." That is just lies and misinformation spread by Communist Russia to try and destroy American morale when Reagan was first coming into office.

Here's a refresher: "Gun on Ice Planet Zero, Parts 1 & 2," (the planetary mass driver) "Fire in Space" (with an out-of-control fire on the Galactica, actually homaged in the remake miniseries but wrapped up in five minutes), "War of the Gods, Parts 1 & 2," (including the Devil and Apollo dying and being resurrected) "Experiment in Terra" (stopping World War III) "The Hand of God" (intercepted transmissions from the Apollo lunar landing).

Rob H.

LarryHart said...


gold in space becomes the new secure investment

I can already foresee new futures markets, where traders buy and sell rights to quantities of gold which MAY be discovered in space mining.

And then deriviatves based on those futures.

Sigh. Five minutes of space mining, and we've already recreated the excesses of Wall Street 2008. Maybe we should just skip to the post-mining-speculation Depression and avoid the middleman.

LarryHart said...


There is no "Battlestar Galactica 1980." That is just lies and misinformation spread by Communist Russia to try and destroy American morale when Reagan was first coming into office.

I never really watched the "1980" Battlestar Galactica episides, so there's no memory to refresh. What little I saw of it in previews, though, seemed very much like BG for the Reagan era. Much more emphasis on both religion and pro-militarism.

Acacia H. said...

Dude. The episodes I listed above are from the 1978 series. And we don't speak of the atrocities that were the "sequel." They exist in the same theoretical place as claims of sequels to "Highlander," "Starship Troopers," or Star Wars movies after "First Contact." Besides, if they'd been made, wouldn't they have been used to torture Mike and the Bots in MST3K? ;)

Rob H.

Paul451 said...

I find it weird that there are two completely mutually-exclusive criticisms of asteroid mining: 1) It can't possibly make money, and 2) It will instantly destroy the economies of existing metal exporters, particularly Africa. As long as it falls between the two extremes, it merely competes. Neither vastly below profit, nor destroying markets overnight. Just slowly expanding over decades. Which, if you think about it, is much more likely for any new business model. Starts small, grows over decades, eventually becoming dominant, with markets gradually adjusting the whole time.

I see Von has the same feeling about Planetary Resources' business plan that I've been having. It isn't really to mine asteroids. It's to equip those who want to mine asteroids. Picks'n'shovels'n'mules'n'whiskey. Planetary Resources will sell cheap space-telescopes to anyone who wants them, mostly for Earth observation, but, hey everyone, asteroid mining, hint hint. Then they'll develop probes based on their space telescopes, mostly for science, but hey everyone, asteroid mining, hint hint. Then they'll sell surface-assaying probes, hey everyone, asteroid mining, hint hint. And so on.

1) Identify (and hype) a future gold rush.
2) Identify each step needed to get to the gold.
3) Create business to supply tools to the gold-struck '49ers.
4) Profit! (Regardless of how many of the '49ers go bust.)

"Being independent, these colonies would then have little incentive to repay the massive sacrifices incurred by the poor Earthies, especially when it is technologically feasible (also cheaper & safer) to exploit a perfected germline rather than attempt to 'uplift' the pox-ridden masses out of a gravity well."

Nemesis. Isaac Asimov.

Jumper said...

I think the economies of gravity wells and otherwise will be separated for a while until some huge energy supplies are in place. I can think of a use for gold in orbit: liner for ion plasma rockets.

Paul451 said...

All Trek is cringe-worthy. Later series failed largely because they couldn't really explore social mores and metaphors (as the first did) for fear of offending "Family" organisations.

(Enterprise, IMO, was better, eventually, than Voyager. (Speaking of cringe-worthy drek.) But Voyager got its ending, STE didn't.)

You want unjust, look at Stargate Universe. Cancelled as it was maturing into something worthwhile. SG1 and SG-A, otoh, were dragged out long after they should have been allowed to die.

Re: Star Trek movie reboot.
It was a bad movie. Badly made, badly acted, badly written. I didn't mind that it ignored cannon, I did mind when it ignored common sense. (Not just "Cadet Kirk gets promoted to captain", but that's a perfect example of just not caring.)

I recall someone commenting that Roddenberry original had the idea that Star Fleet was a place for those who chafed against the Federation's society. Adventurers in a world without adventure, cast into the last frontier. That would have made a good reboot setting.

(Comparison with Niven's story about the first Human/Kzin conflict. Only the fractionally less civilised Belter could consider the idea of a warlike species in time to save the day.)

"This began, perhaps innocently, with ST:TNG making the Enterprise into the Starfleet flagship"

Don't flagships usually come with an Admiral? Isn't that the whole point of the name? The ship that flies the Fleet Admiral's personal flag. TNG's Enterprise never played that role.

(Hmmm, could have solved the "Riker Problem" without actually changing anything. Loss of senior command after BoBW's Borg attack means Picard is leapfrogged to Admiral, Riker is promoted to Captain, Enterprise to Picard's Flagship.)

Anonymous said...


Thanks and no worries. I try to restrain my political views in public fora - and especially when on someone else's blog - but suffice to say that elsewhere my anti-GOP rants would probably give yours a run for their money.

My bottom line is that whatever space destination(s) we choose should be those that will maximally incentivize the development of practical technologies needed to address sustainability problems here on Earth. My career has focused on these issues (sustainability, not tech innovation) and let's just say that the view from the battlefield is bleak unless we can innovate our way out of them. So if it's the moon or asteroids, great, whichever. But we need some game-changers or we are in big trouble.


Paul451 said...


GIPS is the four-nation version of the full five at-risk nations, GIPSI. Nothing potentially Euro-racist there. Particularly when Gyp is also used to mean cheat/con.

Ian said...

There's a clear short-term business opportunity in refueling satellites, recovering satellites to either move them into the correct orbit or to repair them and in de-orbitign space junk.

The key technologies to exploit that -in-space fuel production, in-space refueling and capturing and moving objects in space - could all scale up to asteroid mining operatiosn later.

With comms satellites worth hundreds of millions od ollars each, they're the msot valauble resource we currently know about in space and we know exactly where they are. Every year you have satellites either fail prematurely or end up in the wrong orbit. Each such event is business opportnity worth between millions and hundreds of millions of dollars. Satellites are already regularly insured so the insurers would gladly pay to have them recovered and/or repaired.)

Fractional distillation of carbonaceous or ice-based bodies followed by electrolysis and the production of LOX and LH to serve as fuel is also probably less of a technical problem than refining metals in space. (The non-volatile remnants you park in high orbit for later exploitation. They're already semi-prcoessed.)

Once you have the infrastructure established to reliably capture small objects and move them between orbits and to refuel vehicles in space, you can go on to larger objects.

(You can also, for example, pre-position fuel, supplies, and a lander module in Mars orbit (or one of the Martian moons)in preparation for a human mission.

For that matter you can arrange multiple refuel/resupply operations on the way to Mars permitting a much smaller (and faster) ship.

Paul451 said...

While on matters space: Has anyone noticed how wonderfully whimsical the current US crew of the International Space Station are?

(salrentr andond: You want space seeds? Old Sal has space seeds for you. Best in a hundred systems. Trust me.)

Tony Fisk said...

Sigh. Five minutes of space mining, and we've already recreated the excesses of Wall Street 2008.

Shall we talk about transition townships on asteroids? (or 'Farmer in the Sky'?)

ficlat ourkn: mutant form of kudzu used to link rocks in spa-a-ce

Oooh! Speaking of which, watch this

David Brin said...

Von, very intelligent and interesting missive on Earthly ores.

HypnosI can appreciate you reasons for gloom and cynicism. But consider that the fraction of humanity that every year gains decent plumbing and electricity is vastly larger than the fraction that loses those things. The fraction who are newly able to buy their kids shoes and school books and uniforms is vastly greater than those who lose that ability.

What you call "misery" in Europe is very real. But here is a realm where you'll find me drifting more toward what USED to be American conservative values, in that I lived in Europe for more than 18 months on two occasions and got to see for myself how the Nanny State can simply go too far.

If capitalism is the engine of wealth generation that can then be taxed, then capitalists should be able to hire and fire workers as they see fit. The standard hiring-firing regulations... and retirement rules... in Europe have been crazy, as has been the European obsession with vacations as the core meaningful activity of life. (It was all that my friends and neighbors over there would ever talk about.)

If the US should learn from Europe re Health Care, then Europeans need to visit the entrepreneurial culture of silicon valley.

Look, unemployment is going to be an ever-greater problem as machines replace dull labor and not everybody can be "creative." We already buff each others' fingernails in a huge service economy to fool farmers into feeding us. I don't know the solution.

I feature phosphate scarcity in EXISTENCE.

Rob said...

@locumranch, the fact that you saw a need to review the history of the four sideways monopolies you cited speaks volumes about your attitudes toward the rest of us.

Of the monopolies you've cited, I've had intense dealings with telecom and the computing industry. It's hard to say that telecom companies have lost their immense influence; the people running them seem hell-bent on reconstituting ol' Ma Bell. I have war stories from '96 I could tell about what they were saying internally, and how they were using PACs and lobbyists to get that unbelievably toothless telecom law passed.

As for microsoft, it no longer has monopoly influence, period, full stop, end of discussion. Flooding the discussion with legal briefs isn't going to change that reality: There are more computers out there running Android and iOS now than run Windows, and it's not because the EU made them pay a fine.

locumranch said...

Sorry about the lecturey tone, it's a bad habit I'm working on.

The point I was trying to make about monopolies was this: They existed in the past; they exist in the present; and they will exist in the future. They were and are so common & inevitable, in fact, that the old econ texts referred to them as 'natural monopolies'.

Paul451 was spot on about me channeling Asimov for some of my argument (though not Nemesis). Mostly, I was thinking about an old (fairly political) novella of his about asteroid mining called 'The Martian Way'.

Love that old scifi.


Damien Sullivan said...

Natural monopolies have been largely subjected to government regulation, though, if not taken over entirely by government. Power, water, telecoms, urban transit, (urban roads!) And antitrust law can make life hard for other monopolies.

combinatorialimplosion said...

@David Brin- With regard to Dyson Sphere-type proposals, I prefer the Dyson Shell outlined in the two part post on Crowlspace: and

They have the not insignificant advantage of requiring less than 1/100,000th the mass. This, in addition to being significantly easier to implement also has the non-trivial benefit of leaving us with Mercury essentially intact, just in case we need it later, while still giving us yotta-watts to play around with.

@Von, There are some nice aspects of asteroid mining in comparison to terrestrial mining that need to be taken into account, IMO. For one thing, the extraction can be done in situ where the environmental impact on our ecosystem is inherently small, especially compared to fairly radical stuff like thermonuclear fracking of the asthenosphere. Never mind the environmental impact statement, just see uproar from what I am sure will be characterized as a breaking of the nuclear test ban moratorium.

Asteroid mining also has two inherent markets. For the terrestrial market, Platinum Group Metals (PGM) have the kind of high value per unit mass where, even with the lift cost penalties, a good ROI can be achieved. What this also provides is the capacity to provide resources for in space infrastructure fabrication, for example a Solar Power Satellite, at costs that could not possibly be matched by terrestrially sourced counterparts.

Well chosen Near Earth Asteroids can have very small return delta-v requirements. This can be improved still further by using a weak stability boundary trajectory and utilizing a high efficiency propulsion method such as VASIMR, a solar sail, or solar electric sail The yield you can get from even a modest mining mission by combining these can be impressive.

Ian Gould said...

Australian scientists are reporting they've built a 300 qubit quantum computer.

That should not only exceed the computational power of any signle current supercomputer, for certain tasks, it probably exceeds the combined capacity of all existing computers combined.

Ian said...

Astronomers ae reporting the first "Earth-sized" planets orbiting within the habitable zones of their stars.

Acacia H. said...

Small thought to consider about how a motherload from an asteroid would kill the commodities market: don't you think that any intelligent businessperson with space assets (and you need brains to get to space and survive there) would be careful not to dump all of their precious metals on the market at once? No. They'd drop smaller amounts in, making a lot of money in the process, and letting each ripple subside before dropping the next batch. This would have the benefit of doing two things.

First, it would drive the speculators out of the market. Knowing that there is someone with a supply of platinum who can wipe out your speculation profits and take them for themselves results in only the least risk-adverse being likely to speculate on commodities. This has the benefit of stabilizing the market.

Second, it has substantial environmental benefits as this platinum (or other precious metal) wasn't ripped from the Earth from unsafe mines. Thus the planet itself benefits from reduced mining because the orbital miners are able to do this for close to the same cost (telerobotic mining would negate most safety concerns and there's no huge mass of gravity causing cave-ins and the like - mostly you have to worry about volatiles venting).

I'd be willing to bet that Republicans and their compatriots are against this because they realize they lose power over people by allowing this. Oh, I mean they'd have mines close down on Earth and miners be unemployed. Yes, that's what I meant, not that Republicans do their best to keep environmental and labor protections out of the mining industry, resulting in black lung disease, collapses, and a reduced educational level for families of miners... *shiftyeyes*

Rob H.

Ian Gould said...

Actually Robert, speculation about the possible impact of asteroid mining on commodity prices will probably cause prices to drop years before a single ton of space-derived metal reaches the Earth.

That uncertainty will likely have a chilling effect on the development of new mines.

These days most new mines have a working life of no more than 10-15 years, meaning there's a constant pipelineo f new miens under development.

Mine construction actually creates far more jobs than mine operation so any reduction in anticipated future demand will hit the economies of the major mining cuts more or less immediately through a reduction in exploration spending and mine development.

Coming from a mining-dependant state in a mining-dependant country I wish that weren't the case but I think it's highly likely.

Ian Gould said...


1. Your proposed strategy only works so long as there's either a monopoly or a cartel controlling acess to the commodity (see DeBeers). If there are multiple independent sellers if turns into a Prisoner's dilemma where each supplier seeks to maximize their own return even if doing so forces down prices.

2. You also appear to assume that the asteroid miner has unlimited capital and isn't going to be under pressure from lenders and shareholders to service debt, repay loans and pay out dividends.

In reality those pressures are likely to drive the delivery of metal to the market far more than some idealized price optimization strategy.

Acacia H. said...

You have to consider peak price economics. If the greatest profit comes from the sale of X amount at Y revenue, then selling 2X would actually result in a loss of revenue. Thus it actually becomes more profitable at one point to hold onto surplus supply than to release it all into the market.

In addition, this Prisoner's Game Theory assumes that there are several actors each with one product. With asteroid mining you first have to get into orbit which costs more than most companies can afford. Thus conglomerates and partnerships is the most likely scenario to reduce costs and risk exposure. Also, the asteroid may have a nice supply of gold, platinum, and other precious metals (or volatiles which are also of use). So Company X can sell some gold, platinum, and iron and not seriously depress the markets of each.

The amusing thing to consider is this: space industry will likely send its tailings to Earth. All of those metals and volatiles will be valuable in orbit... and being in orbit the cost of expansion will be much less (especially as most expansions will be robotic and using three-dimensional printing). Which actually gives me an odd idea for a book... the first declaration of Independence by an orbital factory, not because of libertarianism but because the home company on Earth went bankrupt and the orbital company refuses to let litigators dismember what they've spent so much effort building in orbit.

Rob H.

Rob said...

The quantum computing article doesn't pass the smell test.

First, there's a design in a simulator. Well and good, but that means there's not a quantum computer, just the idea for one. Then, some hyperbole about how "Experts believe" something, without naming them.

Make the crystal and hook it to some I/O and I'll finally be impressed.

rewinn said...

A side-note for Transparency Fans:

"If TV Stations Won’t Post Their Data on Political Ads, We Will".
Imagine if that sort of effort could be replicated in every media market!


P.S. Fusion works very well in space; there is a truly large fusion plant right in the middle of our solar system. We just have to figure out a way to tap it ... it's not as if there's a shortage of realestate for solar cells Out There.

David Brin said...

Clearly, there must be a careful plan to (1) encourage the space prospectors to recoup their sunken costs and R&D ten-fold.

(2) At which point taxes kick in... potentially being the world's first reliable, large scale taxes feeding an Earth-wide institution.

(3) at 50x or 100x Return, they should expect breakup - gracefully prepared, into 3 or more competing space mining concerns, then further breakups downstream, to prevent either market manipulation or excessive power concentration.

rewinn said...

@Robert said...
"... the orbital company refuses to let litigators dismember what they've spent so much effort building in orbit."

...sounds like a great scenario for Schlock Mercenary's upcoming game, "Capital Offensive" ( which our favorite motley band of heroic Space Mercenaries face the Partnership Collective Drones, endless waves of cloned attorney snakes armed with subpoenas...)

Doug said...

"Ian Gould said...

Actually Robert, speculation about the possible impact of asteroid mining on commodity prices will probably cause prices to drop years before a single ton of space-derived metal reaches the Earth."

I've already seen a couple of gold-bug friends express both surprise and fear over the announcement, since it upset their ideas about the scarcity and value-holding ability of gold. If I was a metals commodity trader at a big financial house, I'd be concerned at all the chaos this could introduce to the markets. I still think, from reports I read over the years, that places like undersea vents and undersea riverbeds from the ice ages will upset that cart anyway now that the value is so high. Charging much more than extraction value of a mineral has, in the past, resulted in some spectacular bubbles and collapses.

Ian Gould said...

Robert: the quantum device in question is not a "simulatION" it's a "simulatOR".

"The NIST simulator consists of a tiny, single-plane crystal of hundreds of beryllium ions, less than 1 millimeter in diameter, hovering inside a device called a Penning trap. The outermost electron of each ion acts as a tiny quantum magnet and is used as a qubit—the quantum equivalent of a “1” or a “0” in a conventional computer. In the benchmarking experiment, physicists used laser beams to cool the ions to near absolute zero. Carefully timed microwave and laser pulses then caused the qubits to interact, mimicking the quantum behavior of materials otherwise very difficult to study in the laboratory. Although the two systems may outwardly appear dissimilar, their behavior is engineered to be mathematically identical. In this way, simulators allow researchers to vary parameters that couldn’t be changed in natural solids, such as atomic lattice spacing and geometry. In the NIST benchmarking experiments, the strength of the interactions was intentionally weak so that the simulation remained simple enough to be confirmed by a classical computer. Ongoing research uses much stronger interactions."

Ian Gould said...

A lot of the discussion here seems focused on the idea that there will be one - or a few asteroid miners - and obviously somebody will have to be first.

But once the concept is proven in principle and emerges as a potential threat to their busienss model you can bet the major mining andoil companies - which regularly invest 5-10 billion on a single project - will get involved.

As will the governments of various nations - China, Japan and the EU to reduce their dependence on imported minerals; Russia to try to minimize the damage to its economy.

Then add in the Sovereign Wealth Funds and th Gulf Arab rentier states.

The key bits of infrastrcuture will cost billions - but when you can hire space on a Dragon or Ariadne launch for a few million dollars and buy a LEO telescope for $2 million, the prospectign side of the business will have quite low barriers to entry (provided a preoprty rights regime is worekd out).

Instead of every Bio Tech post-grad being wined and dined by Venture Capitalists, it'll be every astronomy post-grad. ("So, this work you did on the Jovian moons, what can it tell us on the potential mineralization of Trojan Asteroids?"

Ian Gould said...

One final note: in the case of the consuming industries and countries, flooding the mareky, or threatening to do so, to bring down the price of the commodity is a perfectly rational strategy.

If a Japanese consortium can land a few tons of Lanthanides from space, causing a price collapse on the hundreds of tons of Lanthanides they import from China, they will do so.

Jumper said...

There is so much new knowledge available it's too easy to forget about the upcoming visit to Ceres. A very intriguing place. If I were a miner I think that might be a good place to live and work. Compared to some other places.

David Brin said...

Insanity: CISPA Just Got Way Worse, And Then Passed On Rushed Vote

Paul451 said...

One hundred foot spirals on Mars:

Thought to be caused by lava flows. Happens on Earth, but usually only a foot or so across. The largest ones are in places like Hawaii, where they reach ten feet.



[Four attempts to find a site that linked to the original images. Hate news sites. It's the internet, I don't want to see a credit or a link to the sources homepage, I want a link to the source material.]

Jumper said...

An excellent
Werner Herzog documentary.

David Brin said...


"My audition for every character from every science fiction TV show or Movie that has ever been made, or ever will be made. I am available to star in any upcoming science fiction blockbusters."


David Brin said...

Well ain't this great.

With no warning at all, suddenly Firefox stops working on all PowerPC Macs. Period.

No warning. No warning at all. No chance to transfer bookmarks or anything. No legacy version I'd be allowed to re-download and retain. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Thanks guys.

Anybody have good experiences with Chrome?

Acacia H. said...

I haven't, but other people swear by it. It will also likely be able to load your bookmarks.


Some science-related news briefs:

Analytical thinking appears to weaken religious belief, or as another headline put it, thinking can undermine religious faith. Then again, I think a lot of us knew that religious people don't like to think. ;) (Please note, I'm being tongue-in-cheek and do know several scientifically-minded religious people.)

Research has found Titan's methane in its atmosphere is around a billion years old and was likely put into the atmosphere by a methane explosion.

And finally, Forbes Magazine looks into the business plan of the Asteroid Mining Billionaires which pretty much confirms what Dr. Brin was saying earlier. Hey Doc, you getting money from Forbes for using your data? ;) Teasing ya. :)

Rob H.

ell said...

Re: "Okay, that line in the main post about 'Yeah, right' gets a rimshot, but really that expression is an example of sarcasm, no different from saying 'Oh, great!' when you really mean something is terrible. It is not the double-ness of the double positive that turns it into a negative, just the heavily-irony-dripping tone of voice and eye-rolling accompanying the phrase.'"

Did you see "Bonfire of the Vanities"? The judge has to point out that it is sarcasm when the prosecutor tries to use it as the defendant's admission of guilt.

ell said...

Piracy aside, the law of the sea is cooperation. Anybody old enough to remember the Cold War may also remember all the times the U.S. aided Soviet seamen with appendicitis, etc., as the Soviet spyships sailed off our coast.

A Randian colony on the moon or anywhere really harsh would require mutual aid, and gung-ho Randians might not want to go out of their way to do anything outside their own self-interest.

Harsh environments such as the sea or the vacuum of space should require cooperation in an emergency. Humans figured that out a long time ago when they took to the sea.

TheMadLibrarian said...

Dr. Brin, I found a browser called TenFourFox that is a FireFox clone. According to the press, it may run on a PowerPC like FireFox. I don't know if you can salvage your bookmarks et. al., using it, or if it works as advertised; I'm a PC person myself :)

Priit Chightly: Kiera Knightley's Indian half-sister

Ian Gould said...

Can't commenton chrome DAvid.

But Ubuntu seems to work really well.

Ian Gould said...

Another major embarassment for the Chinese government:

"Blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng, one of China’s best-known rights activists, has made a daring escape from house arrest and recorded a detailing the abuses he and his family have suffered.

Chen, 40, fled his closely guarded home in the eastern province of Shandong on Sunday, escaping from under the noses of dozens of plain-clothes security officers with the help of his supporters.

In an audacious video address to China’s Premier Wen Jiabao posted online on Friday, he said he had suffered repeated beatings, and expressed serious concerns for his wife and young son, still being held at the family’s home.

Visibly emotional, Chen, who has been blind since childhood, described how on one occasion dozens of men had barged into his house, pushed his wife to the ground and punched and kicked her for several hours.

“Even though I am now free, I am still concerned because my family — my mother, my wife, my child are still in their hands,” he said, calling on Wen to punish several named officials he said had made his family’s life a misery.

Chen’s exact location was not unknown. There are rumours he may have sought refuge at the US embassy, which would be a major embarrassment for China ahead of a once-a-decade leadership handover later this year."

Tim H. said...

Try this on the old mac:
I've been running it on a G3 iMac and G4 mini. Get the appropriate version for your machine, they have 4 versions, G3, G4 7400, G4 7450 and G5, looks and works pretty much like firefox, but no flash support.

Jumper said...

My old iBook G4 w/ power pc G4 runs os x 10.4.11 and is maxed out on Firefox 3.6.28.

I'm annoyed it won't support the newer Flash versions, nor a new Flash substituter which is around. I can run vlc, an early version but can't find a way to plug it in in place of Flash.

As bookmarks are an exportable/importable file it should port. There is also a new malware bug going around that affects all versions of os x and if your old Firefox just quit for no reason you might want to check that out. The cure is easy enough. Don't know the details of it all, though.

Supposedly there is one more upgrade in OS I can do that's not supported officially but works. Leopard, I think. I plan to give it a go sometime soon.

David Brin said...

Thanks Tim I will keep ahold of that link, just in case. But I was not bookmark dependent so if Firefox is deserting me, I will try Chrome as my #2 browser for certain things that Safari doesn't like.

As for Viruses, I am willing to bet that my old PPC G5 may be a special kind of computer, a legacy from when no one bothered to make viruses for Macs.

Tim H. said...

Forgot to mention, chrome is intel only. Another interesting browser is icab (, fairly quick, but the programmer used to write for Atari ST, so it's a little different to use, perhaps a useful fallback.
The latest mac malware uses a java vulnerability, I'd want to have the newest java and disable it in safari preferences, if you need it, the page will ask for it, and you can decide whether on a case by case basis. And jumper, if you go leopard, you'll lose classic support, so bear that in mind, but a G4 867 or faster should do okay, and I've heard of successful installations on slower G4s with a bit of installer deception.

Hank Roberts said...

> mushroom that can eat plastic!

Uh, oh. Back in the mid-1960s I heard about a biologist who was trying to select a microorganism that would eat DDT (usual process, mass selection), who had a near success; after enough generations had a beast that would survive eating DDT, but two problems. It excreted a metabolite that was equally persistent and toxic for mammals (maybe DDE, not sure). And worse, the beast would also eat a variety of plastics. Once he found it would eat the insulation off phone wiring, he autoclaved everything.

I figured nature was going to replicate this eventually, given that human products are now so widely available -- something's got to figure out how to eat them.

David Brin said...


Hop David said...

The first resource PR hopes to bring back is water.

But the moon seems to have water:

Some carbonaceous chondrites are thought to have water in the form of hydrated clays. Water rich in the same sense concrete is "water rich".

In your doctoral thesis, you theorized a comet could accumulate an insulating mantle that would preserve an icey core. Thus "extinct comets" might have icey interiors. But such objects would also likely have high aphelions. Thus delta V for rendezvous would be quite high.

Getting water from ice in a gravity field would be easier than extracting water from hydrated clays in microgravity.

We have virtually no experience in resource extraction in microgravity vs millennia of experience using gravity.

From EML1 (where they hope to park the water rich asteroid), the lunar poles are accessible. With a high apolune and the moon's slow rotation there's little penalty for high inclination orbits.

I believe you're being too hasty in dismissing the moon