I read a science-fiction novel in January which turned out to be a realistic, engineering-heavy imagining of what it would take to mine near Earth asteroids. This was followed by an article in Science Illustrated, another in TIME, and another in National Geographic, which pretty much confirmed the big-picture engineering facts from the novel. The takeaway: near earth asteroid mining is highly likely in the next fifteen to twenty years. And the profits will be historic, on the order of what the Spanish lugged back from the Americas during the 16th Century. While we are unlikely to find any undiscovered civilizations (though my 11-year old self still has his fingers crossed), we are likely to find actual mountains of rare resources.
It turns out that the biggest problem with near Earth asteroid mining is getting your operation into orbit the first time. It’s expensive, risky because of unknown tech glitches, and a PR disaster if you don’t succeed right away. But after that, the asteroids, which are thousands of times richer in things like gold, platinum, and iridium than earth’s soil, pretty much insure that your operation pays for itself and then some. Asteroids are even rich in water, which is the most expensive thing to transport into orbit. Combine all this with the advances currently being made in drone technology (if we can send them across thousands of miles to kill people with precision, surely we can send them across hundreds of thousands of miles to dig holes in rocks), and you’ve got yourself a plausible near-future in which entrepreneurs with enough money and ambition become some of the richest people in human history. The only thing like it I can think of, for sheer craziness and payoff, is Cortez fleeing a prison rap sheet in Cuba in 1521 and coming back a few years later richer than the King of Spain. That’s the kind of historic wealth and fame we’re talking about with whoever mines the asteroids first.
But who is crazy enough to actually spend the money to do this, you ask? James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar, The Abyss), Larry Page (Google co-founder), Elon Musk (Paypal founder), and Jeff Bezos (Amazon), make four I can think of just off the top of my head.
And if all this sounds crazy, just think how insane the Internet sounded in 1990. And space tech is already fifty years old. If anything, it’s amazing this hasn’t happened already.