A Risk We Have to Take: Space Mining

By Timothy Johnson

For as long as we can collectively remember, we’ve looked to the stars, and until we could touch them, it was an endeavor of awe, imagination, and curiosity. Now, however, it’s a conversation about pragmatism. What’s the point in exploring space? Our home is here.

The psychological quandary of why we look up into the night sky is ever present, but now that science and technology have provided the means for us to leave our home planet and face the expanse of space, many still ask why we pursue alien worlds.

Humanity is looking for a reason to turn dreams into reality.

In my first novel, Carrier, we found it. It took reaching the brink, but we made that leap. At the edge of collapse, humanity finally found the courage to strike out into the universe, and it was because we desperately needed to.

Worldwide civil war? Check. Pandemics threatening all human life? Check. Poverty and famine bringing countries to their knees? Check. In Carrier, civilization was about to fold in on itself, but we grew into a global civilization by reaching out to space and taking what we needed.

Clearly a work of fiction, Carrier’s history provides justification for a story, but the problems within are no less prescient because they originate in imagination. In fact, while the reality of space mining is not without its drama (political or social), it’s happening today.

NASA has a stated goal of landing a human being on an asteroid by 2025. Again, the question of why arises, and it’s especially relevant now with Senator Ted Cruz in charge of NASA’s budget. Why should we land on an asteroid? What’s in it for us?

The Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) is the plan to achieve this goal first by capturing an asteroid and placing it in lunar orbit. It’s still very early in the project, but if we can bring an asteroid to our neighborhood, we can study it.

Again, why?

Well, if the collective achievement, fulfillment of scientific endeavors, and advancement of the human race don’t do it for you, consider that we know there are entire planets made of diamonds.

I’ll let you think about that for a moment.

On Saturn’s moon, Titan, we found stable bodies of liquid, but before you accuse me of making it about the search for alien life, this liquid isn’t water. At Titan’s surface temperature of -179°C, methane exists in its liquid state, so imagine harvesting it for use as a fuel.

Even our own moon, just off of our doorstep, has an abundance of titanium.

The general truth we’re discovering is many of the resources that are rare on Earth are, in fact, not so rare out there in space. For instance, Earth is actually running out of helium, but it’s the second most abundant element in the universe.

By the way, our moon has a bunch of helium, too.

Beyond bringing these resources home for use here, mining space could have a compounding effect. Just as you probably hate packing for a trip and then lugging your bags through the airport, NASA faces a big problem in just putting things into space. It turns out that escaping Earth’s gravity is a bit of a hassle, and putting more stuff on a space ship just makes it more difficult to get up there. If space missions could use the resources that are already present out there, it simplifies the challenges they face.

For example, if the ARM project can harness a comet, it could provide drinking water for astronauts. It could provide fuel in the form of hydrogen and oxygen. Water can also serve as a shield against radiation, which is a notorious astronaut killer and major drag on anybody’s day.

ARM’s goal may be to bring an asteroid into lunar orbit, but we could conceivably select asteroids based on profitability. The universe is literally hurling big sacks full of goodies at us, but we lack the ability to catch and take advantage of them. For now, at least.

Projects like ARM have the potential to spawn a new gold rush, and just as space is essentially infinite, so are the possibilities. The search for alien life is captivating, but if you’re looking for a practical reason to reach for the stars, consider the endless riches they have to offer. Maybe the answers to the problems at home are hidden away in celestial bodies. Maybe, as in Carrier, life on planet Earth can be saved by harvesting dead planets.

Of course, in Carrier, maybe we reach too far, too fast. Or maybe in waiting, mired in political and social disputes, we find ourselves in a desperate position where we need to take dire risks or it could all collapse. But Carrier is just a work of fiction, right?

I guess we’ll see.