An impressive group of entrepreneurs and investors led by Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson and including Google's Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, director James Cameron, Charles Simonyi, and Ross Perot Jr. will hold a press conference next week to announce a new extraterrestrial mining venture called Planetary Resources, Inc. The presser will be on April 24 at Seattle's Museum of Flight.
The Planetary Resources press release says that
the company will overlay two critical sectors – space exploration and natural resources – to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP. This innovative start-up will create a new industry and a new definition of ‘natural resources’.
If successful, the venture would extend the Earth's econosphere beyond geosynchronous orbit into cislunar, lunar, and deep space. Technology Review speculates that this endeavor
...sounds like asteroid mining. Because what else is there in space that we need here on earth? Certainly not a livable climate or a replacement for our dwindling supplies of oil.
Peter Diamandis gave a TED talk in 2005 on the desire for wealth being the next great motivation for space exploration. He specifically mentions asteroid mining and notes that "everything we hold of value on this planet — metal and minerals and real estate and energy" are available in "infinite quantities" in space.
My plan is to actually buy puts on the precious metal market, and then actually claim that I'm going to go out and get one. And that will fund the actual mission to go and get one.
Nickle-iron resources would certainly imply asteroids, but he also makes a slightly tongue in cheek reference to wanting to "make a beeline for the moon and grab some lunar real estate". So pace Tech Review's comment, that could mean helium-3 (fusion energy) or platinum group metals (hydrogen energy). Or eventually some combination of those.
Note however that the technical challenges of mining an asteroid are very high. The very low gravity conditions are riskier and require untested methods than similar kinds of proposed mining endeavors on the moon. We've been to the moon, it has gravity. We haven't been to an asteroid, and stuff floats around. At the ILRP Summit Meeting last year I had a conversation with someone from NASA Ames about a proposed concept to essentially put a big bag bubble over a small asteroid to allow processing its minerals without stuff flying off and becoming a hazard to the spacecraft. Mining the moon would seem much more feasible in the medium term, although an asteroid would largely avoid the international kerfluffle that is likely to surround a property/resource claim on the moon.
My first take is that asteroids are still NASA-level stuff, but A. I would love to be wrong or B. perhaps they're envisioning this as some sort of NASA-private partnership. We shall see. But what a fascinating and unexpected announcement. Given the caliber of the individuals involved in this venture, this is exciting stuff. Tickets are available, and I will be there at the streaming.
The IAA study group examined the technical feasibility of the concept, prospective markets and expected policy issues. The report describes and evaluates three alternative solar power satellite concepts, and concludes with a high-level set of findings and specific set of recommendations for the global space and energy community.
The study concluded SSP is technically feasible, but that economics of solar power satellites "can only be determined by means of international end-to-end systems studies, focused technology maturation and systems-level demonstrations. An international roadmap for realizing this goal is presented, which could achieve a major pilot-plant scale demonstration within 10-15 years."
Reuters, covering the release of the report, said that:
You are very unlikely to spend your retirement years on a space station parked at L5. Or L4 or L1 for that matter.
And even if, theoretically, we did create such space colonies, it wouldn't solve Earth's overpopulation problem.
Watch the fascinating 5-minute NASA video from 1975 on space colonization below. Nate Berg at The Atlantic notes that this film was "the product of a 10-week NASA program in the summer of 1975 that pulled together engineers, scientists, architects and students to imagine convincing ideas about how humans might be able to live in space for long periods of time on a large scale." "Taurus" was conceived as a one mile diameter, doughnut shaped (i.e torus-shaped - hence "Taurus", get it?) space station that could permanently house 10,000 and was situated in L5 orbit, a gravitationally stable sweet spot in between the Earth and the moon. It would be constructed from lunar-mined ore, powered by solar energy, and its colonists nourished by a 100-acre farm.
Such grand deep space colonies didn't happen for reasons I outline below. Space colonization as a solution to global overpopulation - which is part of what sparked such ideas back in the day - isn't viable. One day, probably a very long time from now, we may create O'Neill Cylinders with thousands of people living in them - but if we do it won't be to solve an overpopulation problem on Earth.
As the world hit 4 billion people in 1975, a great number of people worried about Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich's warnings in the late 1960s that the looming world "population bomb" would inevitably result in the starvation and deaths of "hundreds of millions of people" by the end of the decade.
Obviously that Malthusian catastrophe didn't happen (fortunately!); Ehrlich and others failed to appreciate the major increases in agricultural output brought about by Green Revolution technologies. Agricultural research began in the 1940s and 1950s to develop new high-yield varieties of wheat, rice, corn and other crops, combined with increased availability and adoption of irrigation technology, fertilizers and pesticides. Beginning in the late 1960s, that research started to pay off. By the mid-1980s, global crop yields had more than doubled, thus staving off the predicted famines. (Side note: all of those advances - from research to irrigation infrastructure to fertilizer - were greatly facilitated by Western aid subsidies to developing countries.)
But the eventual success of the green revolution wasn't immediately apparent back in the mid-1970s. Fears of a Malthusian catastrophe, combined with the amazing success of the Apollo program, sparked the notion that perhaps the only solution to global overpopulation was to build self-sufficient (or what we now call "closed loop life support") space colonies. These ideas were popularized by Princeton physicist and space activist Dr. Gerard O'Neill. Oh, the optimism of the day. But these were were not just ahead of their time; they were also quite unnecessary, as global economic and agricultural growth since that time has shown.
But here's the but. Roger Martin from Population Matters notes a quote from Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel peace prize in 1970 for his critical contributions to the Green Revolution. In his Nobel acceptance speech Borlaug said, "I have only bought you a 40-year breathing space to stabilise your populations."
In an essay noting our reaching the 7 billion person mark last month, New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert wrote that:
[Bill Gates and others] have pointed out [that] just to keep per-capita food production constant in the coming decades will require a second “green revolution.” (The first one increased global grain yields by roughly two per cent a year from 1950 to 1990.) This will have to be accomplished under increasingly trying circumstances. An analysis in Science concluded that rising temperatures have already begun to depress global corn and wheat production. Another analysis, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, warned that, owing to global warming, corn and soybean crops in the U.S. could decline by as much as eighty per cent by the end of the century.
Part of what made the first green revolution possible was a sharp increase in the use of phosphorus-rich fertilizers. Thanks to this increased use, experts say, reserves of phosphorus are now being exhausted. Foreign Policy has called this “the gravest natural resource shortage you’ve never heard of.” Other essential commodities that could similarly run short include oil, water, and arable land. Jamais Cascio, a research fellow at the Institute for the Future, an offshoot of the RAND Corporation, put it this way recently on the Times Web site: getting to ten billion “would be a sign of successful navigation of this century’s problems.”
Many writers make the inarguable point that Malthus (and Ehrlich) were wrong. They were, in the sense that they underestimated technological advances that allowed the population curve to continue its upward trajectory for far longer than they imagined. But their basic point is correct: given limited resources and relatively fixed technological constraints, there is an upper limit to how many people the Earth can support. And even the original green revolution can't continue, since increasing water scarcity, salinization, soil loss, input shortages (such as phosphorus) and other problems put limits on even the best of current technology.
The planet has a carrying capacity. Whether the number is 8 billion, 10 billion, 15 billion or more is probably not something that would be wise to test.
We're gonna need a bigger boat. But that's not possible. And not only that - there are no life rafts, either. Space colonies aren't going to solve our problems. Earth is the only spaceship the vast, vast majority of us will know.
I think space technology might be critical to solving many problems here on Earth. But as a solution to overpopulation - no. Space technology can, maybe, help us address certain resource shortages. (If somebody finds economically viable amounts of phosphorus on the moon, that might really be something to write home about.) [Added 12/12/11: I'm being facetious; phosphorus is not found in great quantities on the moon.]Mining the moon for Helium-3 has applications for medical imaging devices as well as a source of possible aneutronicnuclear fusion. Dennis Wingo has written about the abundance of platinum group metals. And finally, there are rare earth elements.
But even beyond possible space resource utilization, it may be that the sustainable living technologies that the world will need to allow several billion Chinese and Indians who expect, demand, and can afford American standards of affluence, will have to be developed through space programs. Technology doesn't necessarily develop just because there is a theoretical need for it; often there must be an external catalyst to make it possible. But more on that idea later.
Gerard O'Neill was an impressive visionary, but he lived a hundred years ahead of his time. And while I like and respect many modern-day O'Neillians, such visions are at best premature. But perhaps more importantly for current space policy, their message is not one that will advance space exploration. People want tangible benefits from space - back on Earth.
But orbiting massive space colonies are a nice fantasy.
National Space Society Announces the Kalam-NSS Energy Initiative
The National Space Society will hold a press conference Thursday, November 4 at the National Press Club to reveal one of the first initiatives ever undertaken by a non-profit American organization and a former head of state. That initiative pairs India’s eleventh President, Dr. A.P.J. Kalam with America’s National Space Society. Its name? The Kalam-NSS Energy Initiative.
The Kalam-NSS Energy Initiative’s goals? To solve the global energy crisis. To solve the global carbon crisis. And to solve America’s next generation jobs crisis. How? By harvesting solar power in space.
World electricity demand by the year 2035 is projected to increase by 87%. Renewable power generation systems (water, wind, solar, geothermal, etc.) will only meet 23% of that demand. According to Dr. A.P.J. Kalam, “By 2050, even if we use every available energy resource we have: clean and dirty, conventional and alternative, solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear, coal, oil, and gas, the world will fall short of the energy we need.” He adds that, “There is an answer… an energy source that produces no carbon emissions, an energy source that can reach to most distant villages of the world, and an energy source that can turn both countries into net energy and technology exporters.”