An excursion to the New World cost a proverbial handful of jewels, but a trip to the Strange New World of space could cost as much as the GNP of a small nation. That’s more than most people or investors are willing to risk – and Kickstarters can only go so far. Space is an industry for the already rich.
Oh, but the potential for enormous profits! You’ll hear articles and magazines talk about how one platinum-rich asteroid or moon mine can bring in riches galore, but they can be misleading.
To 3He or Not to 3He: Helium-3 and Nuclear Power
Helium-3 is a light, non-radioactive isotope of helium with two protons and one neutron. It’s potentially valuable for nuclear fusion, because you can combine it with Deuterium to create nuclear fusion. Nuclear fusion, as opposed to nuclear fission, would be a clean and efficient form of energy – if we can make it work. (More on that later.) While deuterium is abundant enough in Earth’s oceans, helium-3 (or 3He) is nearly non-existent, and we don’t have an especially viable substitute. However, 3He is prevalent on the moon. Visionaries claim that the moon could provide clean energy and further mankind’s technological progress.
Unfortunately, with every great vision comes hard reality. The promises of 3He mining are challenged by the economic realities of extracting it and finding a market.
First, the abundance and effectiveness of helium-3 mining is questionable. As a standard, let’s use the Artemis project estimate that 25 tonnes of 3He (25,000 kilograms) could theoretically power the US for a single year. A recent paper by Ian A. Crawford of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of London looked over the studies done on the concentration of 3He on the moon, and found it’s concentration in the lunar regolith to be between 4 and 20 parts per billion, depending on where you mine. That means you need to mine 1000 kilograms of regolith to get a single gram of helium-3. Then, in order to harvest the 3He along with other solar-impacted isotopes, you need to heat the regolith to 600 degrees Celsius. This calls for a huge initial investment in infrastructure.
An additional challenge is the attitude about what form Earth energy industries should take. Politically and popularly, renewable energies are the favored direction. Nuclear energy, even the potentially clean and efficient nuclear fusion, is not renewable. Crawford himself describes helium-3 as a “fossil fuel” despite the fact that the sun continually generates it naturally. The astronomer-turned-planetary-scientist told Space News that the investment required and infrastructure needed is enormous and might better be used to develop “genuinely renewable energy sources on Earth.” This attitude could make it hard for space entrepreneurs to find investors, particularly if there’s no established market yet.
Nuclear fusion generators have been the holy grail of nuclear science since the 1960s. The idea of nuclear energy is that when certain atoms break apart (fission) or band together (fusion), they release great amounts of energy. If the energy can be harnessed, you have an effective source of energy. We can bust apart atoms easily, but fusing them takes more pressure and heat than we can effectively sustain without a huge investment of space, money and time – and we still don’t get a payoff worth the investment. As Steve Crowly, director of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy told Popular Mechanics in 2013: “For $25 billion, I could build you a working reactor. It would be big, and maybe not very reliable, but 25 years ago, we didn’t know we’d be able to make fusion work. Now, the only question is whether we’ll be able to make it affordable.”
Lockheed Martin said in October 2014 that is has had a breakthrough that will allow it to do just that – but physicists are skeptical in the absence of hard evidence, which the company has not yet provided. Lock-Mart is using deuterium and tritium for its fusion, but it may provide a market for 3He, if it can prove its technology and if other companies can recreate it.
Flooding the Market with Rock: Will Asteroid Mining Bring a Boom or a Bust?
A more secure market comes with asteroid mining. Many asteroids contain useful and sometimes rare minerals that are already in use and demand here on earth, such as gold and platinum. Companies like Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources are looking at the most effective and cost effective way to mine asteroids. NASA has estimated the cost of a capture and return mission at $2.6 billion dollars. According to Asterank, a database of over 600,000 asteroids, the most cost effective asteroids bring a profit of $1.4 billion to $1.25 trillion. These are the kind of numbers that give enterpreneurs hope.
However, they assume a stable market for the metal in question. Historically, if you flood the market with a commodity, the price goes down. An article in the Economist notes that even a doubling of a supply of a mineral such as platinum might lower the price so much that the company no longer profits. And when one 150-mile asteroid can contain as much platinum as is mined on Earth in a year, it’s possible that the market might crash under the influx.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t do it, anyway, but companies need to carefully consider their economic models. They may not see the short-term massive profits that many people consider a lure.
So Why Do It?
We are no more doomed to being stuck on the Earth than the Old World was to remain on the shores of Europe and Asia. In some ways, we have an advantage: we know what’s out there, and we know the challenges. Space holds great benefits for humankind once we master its challenges and tap its resources.
“I believe that space travel will one day become as common as airline travel is today. I’m convinced, however, that the true future of space travel does not lie with government agencies — NASA is still obsessed with the idea that the primary purpose of the space program is science — but real progress will come from private companies competing to provide the ultimate adventure ride, and NASA will receive the trickle-down benefits.” — Buzz Aldrin
As we can access space resources, we will see benefits. A supply of helium-3 will make fusion research much easier. Even if the market falls out on platinum or other rare elements, their newfound commonality will open the way for other uses, just as it did for aluminum. But even more, if we ever want to have a sustainable, growing manned presence outside our atmosphere, we need to have established access to these resources. Right now, the biggest expense for anything having to do with space is getting the materials off the Earth. If we can establish industry outside our gravity well, our space exploration can truly take off.
Even now, visionary men and women are forging ahead to make the dream of conquering space a reality. They are pushing the boundaries of law as well as those of science. They will build new economic models along with technological ones. Unlike in Columbus’ day, however, it will take more than the sponsorship of a queen to make their mission a go. We need to offer our support, from letting our political leaders know space is a priority to joining in the economic challenges to accepting the risks involved in this dangerous adventure – and in instilling that sense of adventure in our children. Only then will we leave the home port of Earth and sail the starry skies.
And with any luck, there will be Dragons – at least, if Elon Musk has his way.
image illustration via shutterstock / Romolo Tavani