Asteroid mining business plan:

  1. Develop the technology to deorbit economically significant chunks of space rock.
  2. Demand money. No mining necessary.

Right?

Asteroids are a big problem. Asteroids that are likely to strike the Earth in the near future don't make up even half of that problem.

The thing about asteroid mining is that whichever way you look at it, it involves a colossal amount of energy. It doesn't matter whether you land a raw chunk of rock in a sterile part of Alaska and build the refinery around it, or perform the refining step in space and ship back the refined material. One way or another, if the thing landing on Earth is valuable enough to be worth the expense of deorbiting, then it's large enough that everybody in the world needs to pay attention to its impact energy.

The basic rule is you multiply by 15. A 3,000-tonne rock carries the same impact energy as 45-kilotonne nuclear bomb. At minimum. That's an incredibly tiny asteroid, one at the threshold of detectability, and - unless it's made of solid palladium - one with negligible revenue value relative to the cost of retrieving it. Before asteroid mining becomes profitable and practical, we're adding orders of magnitude to those numbers.

Very quickly, we end up in a situation where any solvent asteroid mining organisation is a de facto nuclear-equivalent power. Private organisations seriously attempting to acquire such power should be carefully scrutinised. It doesn't matter that the whole notion is fanciful right now; the explicit intention is to change that fact.

The scenario described above is obviously just supervillainy, but think of famous industrial accidents which happened on Earth. They don't even have to be nuclear, just think of Bhopal or Deepwater Horizon. Now imagine that the responsible company was based in space, and add a few zeroes to the amount of energy released when the system breaks.

As the capability of any single organisation (be it national or private or The Whole Of Humanity) increases, so does the potential magnitude of that organisation's industrial errors. Space exploration has always carried substantial risk. Even if the risks in asteroid mining can be brought down to be equivalent to the risks of conventional mining, or far lower still, the sheer size of the prospective disaster trumps that, and makes the endeavour too dangerous to countenance.

*

You may be willing to accept that risk. Organisations already exist which, because the level of power they command, could be held to represent a similar existential risk. Think of any nuclear nation. You may trust the United States government, as an entity, to manage its nuclear weapons stockpile without intentionally or unintentionally kicking something off. (Or then again, you may not, and you may believe that against all probability we got the best possible ending to the Cold War. But the point is, you might. People exist who do.)

But asteroids only get bigger. The largest nuclear weapon was the Tsar Bomba: 50 megatonnes of TNT, roughly equivalent to a 3.3-million-tonne impactor. Asteroids larger than this are thought to number in the tens of millions, and at the time of writing only 1.1 million had been provisionally identified. Asteroid shunting at or beyond this scale is by definition a trans-nuclear technology, which means a point comes where the necessary level of trust is unprecedented.

No matter how small the risk of fatal error, no matter how improbable the eventuality of supervillainy, is there a single human or group of humans whom you would trust with that much power? And if there is, you can just imagine bigger asteroids until there isn't.

I believe that there is a threshold of power beyond which nobody can be trusted. Where, in fact, it is impossible for any entity to even theoretically demonstrate the track record of judgement, responsibility and infallibility that would be necessary.

I don't trust an aspiring Class I civilisation. A point comes, no matter how well you think of humans, when it's too dangerous to progress further up the power hierarchy, and we have to turn back. In fact, a point comes where aspirations to climb higher are red flags all by themselves.

*

I don't know how serious I am about this. On the one hand I know the sky isn't falling anytime soon. I also can't comment on the practical utility of mined asteroid resources. I do know that global reserves of neodymium and rhenium could stand to be quadrupled, and I do know that a falling asteroid could deliver as much damage to the international economy as it does to the ecosphere. The whole thing is legitimately exciting, no matter what.

But one time, many years ago, I wrote a thing about destroying the Earth, and my creeping realisation is that if you wanted to do some serious damage to a planet, while watching and cackling from a self-sufficient, unreachable lair, this is exactly how you would start.

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Discussion (20)

2014-01-28 00:35:35 by Silhalnor:

<p>What defines this threshold where it becomes too dangerous to seek more power? A Big Red Button labeled "Destroy Humanity"? We could put a decent effort into that now with our nuclear arsenal and access to incredibly deadly and contagious viruses in the Amazon and whereever else they may be.</p>

<p>If the problem is destroying humanity by accident I'm sure you could find a way to transport raw materials to Earth without leaving open the possibility of a single point of failure destroying it. This would probably amount to a maximum number of tonnes per second per square meter of Earth's surface. You would have to break them down a good distance from Earth as well to ensure that you can't accidentally nudge an Earth shattering asteroid in our general direction with no time to divert it.</p>

<p>On the bright side you've probably got offsite colonies by this point and can't destroy the Whole of Humanity with a single well placed rock anyway. You'd need <em>two</em> well placed rocks.</p>

2014-01-28 00:35:42 by Silhalnor:

What defines this threshold where it becomes too dangerous to seek more power? A Big Red Button labeled "Destroy Humanity"? We could put a decent effort into that now with our nuclear arsenal and access to incredibly deadly and contagious viruses in the Amazon and whereever else they may be.

If the problem is destroying humanity by accident I'm sure you could find a way to transport raw materials to Earth without leaving open the possibility of a single point of failure destroying it. This would probably amount to a maximum number of tonnes per second per square meter of Earth's surface. You would have to break them down a good distance from Earth as well to ensure that you can't accidentally nudge an Earth shattering asteroid in our general direction with no time to divert it.

On the bright side you've probably got offsite colonies by this point and can't destroy the Whole of Humanity with a single well placed rock anyway. You'd need two well placed rocks.

2014-01-28 00:38:10 by Silhalnor:

:/ Oops. Now you are invariably going to read the one with bad formatting and skip over the good one. The worst of both worlds! And a double post to boot. Triple post now.

2014-01-28 00:49:53 by Eldritch:

What if, in order to mine the asteroid, you shipped it back in small bits? I wasn't aware that anybody had seriously proposed mining asteroids by physically bringing the whole asteroid over in one big go. You mine an asteroid by landing a thing on the asteroid, and start throwing small, easy-to-manage chunks back by mass driver. Of course it would be fantastically difficult to try and shift the orbit of a whole asteroid, or Gods forbid de-orbit one safely.

2014-01-28 02:30:18 by John:

What? Are you mad, Eldritch? Did you never PLAY Asteroids? Breaking them up into smaller chunks only multiplies the danger!

2014-01-28 04:52:46 by Ciber:

To properly deliver materials from orbit, you would need that ability to cover they payload you wish to land in some sort of landing package to provide a precise landing that does not scatter everything over square km. Essentially building a landing capsule with parachutes and computer controled orientation system around your payload.

2014-01-28 07:54:27 by P:

Or use the material as a counterweight in a giant space funicular.

Or build an orbiting solar-powered foundry and just ship down the refined materials.

2014-01-28 08:18:38 by Psycho:

Ciber: let's say we can model the volume of the asteroid that burns up on entry as some fixed depth--you lose the outer two centimeters, or something. This is a wild approximation for the sake of argument.

Volume scales with the cube of radius. By breaking an asteroid in two (and assuming it becomes two spheres) you lose more volume/mass than if you left it whole. The effect drops off as you get huge asteroids (with correspondingly huge radii), but comes right back when you break it into more and more chunks. If you don't want to lose this volume, you can wrap your chunks, but wrapping is expensive, as are guidance packages, and you need more of both the more chunks you have. There's probably a break-even point when you balance the economics and terrifying power, but I don't know where it is.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress dealt with just this (weaponization of asteroids) and is some of Heinlein's better work.

I think we need a new kind of moral theory for this: nothing seems to scale to the magnitude of being able to destroy the entire planet. The only thing I can think of suggesting is a trusted agency with their OWN asteroids, ready to intercept incoming asteroids, but that's actually exacerbating the problem, isn't it? The rule of law doesn't apply to someone who doesn't care if they destroy the planet.

The only solution is more planets, more colonies, more people. If you can't wipe out all life, life can still come after you and make you pay. While this is unlikely to act as a deterrent, it'll be satisfying, and prevent our extinction.

2014-01-28 09:39:58 by Lumen:

While we're on the subject of questions of scale...

This also raises the not-entirely too unreasonable question of the amount of energy we're injecting into the atmosphere with every launch/return event. The Earth as a thermodynamic system can only lose heat to space so quickly. Someone should be crunching these numbers to find out what kind of launch frequency is sustainable without major environmental disruption.

2014-01-28 17:40:43 by Zyzyx:

I know that the earth is slowly getting bigger due to natural asteroid collisions and it has not done any noticeable harm, but if we accelerate process artificially is it going to cause problems? What extra cost/benefits would we run into if we crashed the asteroids into the moon instead? I know there would be a huge cost but if you mess up we lose the moon (which would open its own can of worms) rather than the earth.
I vote we get space travel nailed down a little better and a colony or two set up first. Colonize Mars, crash rocks into it instead. There will be many more unpopulated areas on Mars.

2014-01-28 23:52:55 by ManOfThePeople:

I too am jealous of the ability and ambition of these space asteroid mining people. I agree that I would feel better about myself if they were stopped in their tracks. Also, once their plans have been scuttled, lets take whatever their ability and ambition have helped them accumulate so far and pass it around, like we were toking on a roach clip.

2014-01-29 00:01:28 by stupiddeutsch:

Did anyone ever read the Robert Heinlein book The Moon is a Harsh Mistress? The loonies use this same concept, except with steel canisters and rocks carved out of the lunar landscape.

2014-01-31 03:38:37 by Aegeus:

Do you need to deorbit the whole shebang all at once? That sounds needlessly cumbersome, and very difficult to land safely. Is it really so expensive that you can't afford a few extra round-trips to de-orbit it in manageable pieces?

Of course, delivering an asteroid piece by piece means you can make a pretty good "rods from god" system, but that's better than causing extinction.

2014-02-03 20:41:30 by David:

Hey Sam, this and /loo are not in the RSS feed. Any idea why?
It's scary! I don't want to miss any episodes of Ra.

Regarding this post, I don't think any of the current asteroid mining projects are seriously considering the de-orbit option, although I do see it mentioned as a possible method in Wikipedia ("Transport the asteroid to a safe orbit around the Moon, Earth or to the ISS." it "can hypothetically allow for most materials to be used and not wasted" but really, that seems like so much more energy required to transport than just sending the valuable parts.

Of course we will always have to watch for omnicidal maniacs, but that's true in any high-security industry. The scale of it doesn't really change that.

2014-02-04 10:51:23 by ajay:

It is a massive and probably unjustified assumption that it will be easier to deorbit a million tons of rock and then mine it for a few thousand tons of useful stuff than it will be to mine the useful stuff _first_ and then deorbit it. Shipping a few thousand tons of mining machinery to an asteroid, and the reaction mass to ship a few thousand tons of product back to earth, vs. shipping enough reaction mass to an asteroid to move and deorbit the entire asteroid.

2014-04-02 07:38:31 by Jay:

@ajay: shipping reaction mass sounds expensive. You've either got to start out with about as much mass of fuel as you have asteroid, or use engines the specific impulses of which would get them classed as weapons.

Why not use the asteroid as reaction mass?

2014-04-21 17:52:47 by Holomanga:

A sufficiently large danger seems morally acceptable to control by a sufficiently large organisation. For example, I wouldn't trust the US Government with a continent-smasher, but I could trust a larger political organisation - say, a solar-system wide government. The same applies to larger and larger asteroids - a multi-stellar organisation could be probably trusted with Ceres.

2014-06-17 01:19:14 by not likely:

We have been discussing this at the NEAmines group on yahoo for a couple years.
It is even gonna be tough to use the atmo for aerobraking pretty soon, with so much debris and zombie sats.
That said, you only need to smelt on orbit , (i prefer L4 L5)
into either 2 meter spheres, and drop em in the desert, or my favorite is to just spincast and 3D print a wing and add a cell fone avionics package. Land em near the production facilities.
You can coat wings with iridium and other extreme temp materials, and have the inside holding REEs and platinum group metals.

2014-07-31 18:37:57 by #wow #whoa:

Not reassured by the fact that most commenters flippantly dismissed the problem in order to propose engineering techniques.

Not reassured at all.

2014-08-26 19:53:33 by TBFProgrammer:

And this is why we absolutely need a space elevator as opposed to its competitors. The elevator not only allows easier access to orbit, but allows for the slow return. With a space elevator in place, we don't even have to worry about providing for deflection. You attach to the asteroid and lob pieces small enough to burn up on re-entry at a small drone in orbit. This drone carries out a catch maneuver and then docks with the elevator.

With this, you can regulate delta-v provisions for asteroid mining operations to limit the power function, at least until we have some reasonable means of emergency response. The big problem there is finding some means of enforcing this regulation without providing the option for a coup by the regulating agency. This likely pushes asteroid mining into the infeasible territory again, simply due to politics.