Nerds on Earth
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Space Mining for Earthlings

Space mining is the industrial extraction of minerals in outer space from asteroids, the moon, comets, Mars, and other deep space objects. There are no currently operated commercial space mines, but Chris Lewicki says we’ll see it within the next 10 years. Why should we believe Chris Lewicki? Well, he started Arkyd Astronautics, that’s why!

Now called Planetary Resources, Inc., Arkyd Astronautics was formed in 2009 to “expand Earth’s natural resource base” through the development and deployment of asteroid mining technologies. Arkyd 6, the company’s second satellite, was successfully placed into orbit on January 11, 2018.

But let’s state the obvious fact: Space mining does not exist. But us humans love extractive industries. You just have to glance at the persistent lobbying power of the fossil fuel industry or popular television shows like Gold Rush for proof of that. You think dwarves love to mine? Well, us humans have ore in our bones.

Space mining is also a popular trope in science fiction. Star Wars has the spice mines of Kessel of course. Robert Heinlein depicted space mining as a kind of second coming of the ’49er Wild West gold rush, celebrating the kind of political Libertarianism and individualism that Heinlein imagined as a social ideal. As a contrast, Ursula K. Le Guin depicted space mining as a metaphor for the slow violence against colonized peoples and environments in the developing world.

Most prominent in science fiction today are the Belters of The Expanse, space miners who extract water from the asteroid belt of our solar system. Ice, of course, playing the role of water to the thirsty in the desert, the key ingredient in keeping humanity alive as it jockeys for power over Earth, Mars, and Jupiter.

So, space mining isn’t real. But gall-danged it, we sure wish it was. Alas, Chris Lewicki’s claim that Arkyd Astronautics will do it within ten years is about as trustworthy as an Elon Musk tweet.

In fact, there are significant ecological and ethical perils that relate to space mining. It’s probable that space mining will eventually become a reality, but that it will not make dwellings on a foreign planet possible, because it will be carried out by robots. This means that space mining will enrich those capable of investing in space mining ventures, an acceleration of the already growing inequality between rich and the poor, given that the financiers will profit from this expansion, while the space mining installations will provide few jobs back on earth.

Additionally, space mining activities will nevertheless contribute to the degradation of the earth’s atmosphere and–while it seems possible that some space mining activities will bring materials back to earth–it’s unclear what the long-term gains are of these materials. Will they be turned into technologies that benefit everyone, the poor included? If history has taught us anything, the answer to that is probably no.

But let’s talk about these space mining robots. If you own a Roomba, you’ve likely already guessed that they won’t work very well. We get it, the idea of delegating vacuuming to a little semi-autonomous machine is seductive. Boy, do we get it. We get it better than most. It seems like it should work. We want it to work!

But it doesn’t. Even under ideal conditions where rooms are tidy and regularly-shaped and there’s clearance under all the furniture, most of our homes and apartments still trip up these little robots with our laptop power cords, doggy beds, and unpaid bills on the floor. Indeed, a robot vacuum seems to have the same work ethic as the Nerds on Earth writer who wrote this: It takes forever, runs out of energy before the job is done, and gets very little actual work accomplished.

But even if you’re satisfied with the half-a$$ed job they do, they still don’t save you any labor. You’ll easily spend more time babysitting your robovac than it would take you to Hoover up the old-fashioned way, and with worse results.

In our sci-fi fantasies, you can trust a droid to carry out an espionage mission across the galaxy, even if he has to hack systems, repair damaged starfighters mid-dogfight, and commandeer an Imperial ship or two along the way. In reality, our ‘bots are more like your four-year-old “helping” you paint a fence. It’s adorable, but you have to follow after her to clean up her shoddy work.

Understanding that reality, what can we expect from the next 10 years of space mining robots? Heck if I know. But even despite the warning signs, it still makes me as giddy as a schoolboy when I think about it.