Over the last several months, I’ve been reading a book by Michael T. Klare called The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources.
The pursuit of untapped oil and mineral reserves in remote and hazardous locations is part of a larger, more significant phenomenon: a concerted drive by governments and resource firms to gain control over whatever remains of the world’s raw materials base.
The only way for countries to ensure an adequate future supply of these materials, and thereby keep their economies humming, is to acquire new, undeveloped reservoirs in those few locations that have not already been completely drained. This has produced a global drive to find and exploit the world’s final resource reserves–a race for what’s left.
Klare’s arguments took front and center when I started reading about NASA’s intent to capture an asteroid and drag it into orbit around the moon.
President Obama’s 2014 federal budget request (unveiled April 10, 2013) includes about $100 million for NASA — purportedly to jumpstart an asteroid capture mission.
According to US Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), the plan aims to put a roughly 23-foot-wide (7 meters) space rock into a stable lunar orbit. Astronauts could begin visiting the asteroid as soon as 2021.
Most new reports that I came across, portrayed this effort as a sort of human expedition geared toward collecting information about our solar system and advancing our technology.
Researchers at Caltech’s Keck Institute for Space Studies in Pasadena, CA said:
Experience gained via human expeditions to the small returned NEA [a near-Earth asteroid] would transfer directly to follow-on international expeditions beyond the Earth-moon system; to other near-Earth asteroids, [the Mars moons] Phobos and Deimos, Mars and potentially someday to the main asteroid belt.”
Advocates also argue that the mission would “advance scientists’ understanding of how our solar system took shape more than 4.5 billion years ago.”
“There will be naysayers,” said NASA chief Charles Bolden, but he defends the proposal, linking it to a call by Obama for astronauts to visit an asteroid before moving on to Mars.
On the other hand, space policy expert Marcia Smith of SpacePolicyOnline says:
I remain unconvinced that there is any need for humans to personally visit an asteroid. Robotic spacecraft operated by humans right here on Earth can do the job . . . A space telescope that spots nearby asteroids, followed by robotic missions to sample them, makes more sense than sending astronauts . . . .
These arguments aside, what most of the reports I read neglected to say is that the mission will also help develop asteroid-mining technology. And this point is critical, because as Klare notes:
With many existing sources of key minerals facing exhaustion, giant mining firms . . . are obliged to search for new deposits in the same sort of distant, hazardous frontiers as their energy brethren.
Patrick Barta of the Wall Street Journal reinforces Klare’s argument.
Like oil, most of the easy-to-reach deposits of basic materials like copper, nickel, and gold have already been found and exploited. That has left lower-grade deposits in remote, politically volatile countries that will cost more to develop than the mother lodes of yesteryear.
While Klare and Barta do not specifically refer to space, from my perspective, the asteroid mission is a no brainer. Why? Because as Klare says:
A similar picture prevails in the case of cobalt, nickel, titanium, and other vital minerals that are in heavy demand because of strong economic growth in Asia but . . . are largely derived from mines that have passed their prime. To supplement the output of these aging mines, major producers are . . . seeking new deposits in frontier areas such as Mongolia, or plunging back into conflict-torn countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
I’ve also read that we’re starting to pay attention to exploring oceanic mineral production. So it should come as no surprise to learn that large mining firms are looking at space. Actually, asteroids to be precise.
According to Planetary Resources, an asteroid-mining firm,
Asteroids are primordial material left over from the formation of the Solar System. They are scattered throughout it: some pass close to the sun, and others are found out beyond the orbit of Neptune. A vast majority have been collected by Jupiter’s gravity into a belt between it and Mars — an area known as the Main Belt. As it turns out, we have been discovering thousands of asteroids that do not belong to the Main Belt, but instead pass near Earth’s orbit — nearly 9,000 to date, with almost a thousand more discovered every year.
Many of these near-Earth asteroids are easily accessible from Earth. And many contain enormous quantities of accessible resources.
In 1960, during the heat of the Cold War, only 20 near-Earth asteroids were known. By Cold War’s end in 1990, we knew of 134. Today nearly 9,000 near-Earth asteroids are known to exist, and the number increases daily. Scientists believe the number may eventually exceed one million.
Some near-Earth asteroids contain platinum group metals in much higher concentration than the richest Earth mines:
In space, a single platinum-rich 500 meter wide asteroid contains about 174 times the yearly world output of platinum, and 1.5 times the known world-reserves of platinum group metals.
Asteroids also contain more common metallic elements such as iron, nickel, and cobalt, sometimes in incredible quantities. In addition to water, other volatiles such as nitrogen, CO, CO2, exist in quantities sufficient to warrant extraction and utilization.
The mining company, Planetary Resources aims to prospect its own asteroid targets in parallel with NASA’s activity. Corporate leaders argue that public/private partnerships with NASA would allow industry to assist in the upcoming mission, by identifying, characterizing and helping to select final targets – either through remote sensing, or precursor missions to candidate asteroids.
I’m not sure I’m crazy about commercializing space. But as Klare argues:
- The world is entering an era of pervasive, unprecedented resource scarcity.
- Many of the major resource reserves that have sustained global economic growth over the past 60 years are facing systemic depletion.
- Just replacing the lost output from exhausted deposits will require a major effort of exploration and development.
- Forbidding, hard-to-access locations are increasingly becoming the primary focus for the mining industry and agricultural enterprises.
- Innovative technologies are the key to developing another kind of resource frontier.
To sum up, the pursuit of mineral reserves in remote and hazardous locations is part of a concerted drive by government and resource firms to gain control over whatever remains of the world’s raw materials base, and we need to harness all available capabilities. There is much at stake:
- the continuation of the Industrial Age
- the continued availability of energy and mineral supplies for political and military survival
- an adequate supply of iron, cobalt, nickel, titanium, and specialty metals for arms production
- a reliable supply of uranium for nuclear capability.
To reiterate, in the aftermath of the Cold War, the two superpowers have been joined by powerful new competitors in the global resource hunt. Due to their impressive rates of economic growth, Asian countries like China, India, South Korea, and Taiwan have also become major resource consumers. We are all rivals for any unexplored resource preserves beyond those now being eyed for development. As competitors, we are all facing technical and environmental limitations on the exploitation of new deposits. Compounding this situation are the devastating effects of climate change.
Not surprisingly, asteroids are a logical target for exploration and exploitation since they “contain valuable and useful materials like iron, nickel, water, and rare platinum group metals, often in significantly higher concentration than found in mines on Earth.” And just as Harry Truman did with his Declaration of Cold War, wouldn’t it be nice if our leaders would tell us that this effort is not just a search to broaden human knowledge, but a matter of national security.
[Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. will provide overall mission management, systems engineering and safety and mission assurance. The University of Arizona in Tucson is the principal investigator institution. Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver will build the spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages New Frontiers for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.]
For more information on the OSIRIS-REx effort visit:
Donald Hamilton says
This strikes me as far-fetched, reminiscent of the grave concerns after Paul Ehrlich published *The Population Bomb*. About 1968 he explained that by now India would be depopulated because it could not be fed. All sorts of minerals and other natural resources would have been consumed more than a decade ago.
Easy oil may be over, but abundant supplies of oil and gas are changing the world economy. In Louisiana, a massive liquified natural gas terminal is being converted from import to export.
There my or may not be value in mining asteroids, but no one should be making the case on the basis of imminent mineral shortages.
Lisa Reynolds Wolfe says
Your argument re limited resources is actually with Klare. I tossed the asteroid idea out to provoke discussion. And to infer that corporations like Planetary Resources will be on the lookout for profit wherever it may be found.