Mining For Minerals On Asteroids, Or Why 'Cornucopians in Space' Deliver A Dangerously Misguided Message

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Chris Martenson contributor Gregor Macdonald

'Cornucopians in Space' Deliver A Dangerously Misguided Message

Once a year the very chic and exclusive TED conference takes place in Southern California, bringing together entrepreneurs, inventors, and thought leaders from every corner of the world.

There, gathered around a stage, a kind of hivemind begins to unfold in which the most cutting edge ideas in healthcare, energy, social development, and behavioral psychology are shared from a very plugged-in, big screen podium. It’s extremely well done.

And despite the reflexive criticism from outside the conference -- that the gathering is inward looking and elitist -- TED usually does manage to disturb the zeitgeist, a little, with its unveilings in technology and innovation. It is good, plainly so, that next step advances in solar technology, data collection, and developing world health initiatives are explained and broadcasted from TED. Especially given that policy makers, or those who have the ear of policy makers, are also often in attendance.

A better charge to level against the TED conference, however, is that it’s routinely if not unfailingly optimistic.

The 2009 conference, held in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, did not address the unpleasantness of that historic event in any meaningful way. Moreover, very few talks in recent years have addressed energy costs, and especially the price revolution in oil.

In some sense, TED is the techno-innovators’ version of the faith expressed by neo-liberal economics, in which the market solves nearly all of its own problems. The enduring posture at TED, therefore, is one that acknowledges serious world problems, ranging from war to famine, water and food availability, but which nearly always concludes that amazing and ingenious people -- geniuses -- are working to solve the problem. The Great Man theory of history would find each TED conference a comfortable place to be.

So it was perhaps surprising but also encouraging that the January 2012 TED conference finally addressed the subject of Collapse, by inviting Paul Gilding to give his talk The Earth is Full (opens to video).

I’d actually seen a version of Gilding's talk at the Ilhahee Lecture Series here in Portland last fall. Gilding’s view is that we’ve reached a relationship between global population and available natural resources, that makes it inevitable that the economy---a converter of natural resources into goods---will sharply slow down, if it has not started to slow down already. Gilding can be thought of not as a neo-Malthusian, or a doomer, but rather as an ecological economist. (As most readers know, I share this same view.) Gilding looks at trailing historical growth rates -- again, the rate at which natural resources are converted to industrial and population growth -- and concludes that the future size of the economy at these growth rates would create a machine that the earth simply cannot sustain. Again, I agree.

But Gilding’s TED talk was countered, if you will, with a more typical and rousing plea from Peter Diamandis of the X Prize Foundation.

Diamandis, grounded heavily by a personal background in science and medicine, is not naive. His talk, Abundance is Our Future, was a laundry list of fast-moving technological innovations that have transformed poverty rates historically, and which promise to transform quality of life in the years ahead.

One of the most laudable, and humanistic beliefs, advanced by Diamandis is that the 3 billion people remaining to come online to the Internet and telecom networks represents a vast and underutilized supply of human thinking. As a previous educator myself, I find this argument to be powerful.

My quibble with Diamandis and his talk is that the magnitude of the world’s present challenges cannot wait for the array of potential solutions that may start to work at the margins of humanity, even despite his core belief that innovation and its impacts will actually start to speed up. After all, Diamandis is an adherent to technological singularity, the notion that exponential growth in technology will eventually reach a crescendo, thus offering humankind super-solutions at a kind of hyperspeed rate of change. (By the way, I don’t agree with this view.)

Diamandis would go on to further test my ability to follow his arguments, however, when he recently announced a team that will explore the possibility of mineral mining on moving asteroids. I’ve no doubt the public has reacted to this prospect as either impossible, or as another silly story about the grandiose dreams of tech millionaires.

I had a different reaction: why is Diamandis thinking about mineral mining in space, when resources here on Earth -- in his view -- are so abundant?

Blue Sky (Asteroid) Mining 

Although here in America we tend to dumb down complex subjects into simple 'Either-Or' arguments, it was useful to hear the Gilding vs Diamandis debate at TED. In addition to their respective presentations, they had an onstage exchange which you can see here, hosted by Chris Anderson.

One of the major default lines between cornucopian technologists like Diamandis, and thinkers like Gilding, is the role that technology plays in the creation and extraction of resources. In ecological-economics, technology helps us extract resources. But, for folks like Diamandis, technology creates resources. It is both a distinction without a difference and also a distinction with a huge difference, depending on your perspective.

And the implications, depending on that difference, for the future price path of commodities, for inflation, for industrial growth are enormous.

Ask yourself the following. For the technologies which allowed for the increased rate of extraction of coal in the 19th century, or,  which now allow for the increased rate of extraction of natural gas from shale in the 21st century: did those technologies create the resources or merely extract them as they already existed? The answer seems rather obvious, doesn’t it? I mean, I want to be sympathetic to the view that technology creates resources, in the sense that technology makes previous unrecognized or unrecoverable resources available. But a threshold I cannot cross, however, is that idea that there are always a new resources waiting to be discovered, if we can only create a technology to obtain them.

Which brings us back to mining for minerals. On asteroids.

Why is Diamandis not pursuing technologies for material upgrading, for example? In material upgrading, the task is to substitute materials once thought inapplicable, for example, to the task of solar manufacturing or electricity transmission. If copper gets too expensive to use for electrical transmission, then some other metal, or combination of metals, or even liquids or gases are used. That’s the theory, anyway.

Why mount energy-intensive missions into space, and run heavy payloads back to earth? Surely the ROI (return on investment) to such efforts would be low, even if the minerals involved commanded a very high price....back on earth.

I think I have one answer to this question, but first, let’s review the business plan, the mission, of Planetary Resources, Inc. From the Los Angeles Times:

A group of 21st-century private space entrepreneurs is expected to unveil an ambitious new venture to mine the surface of near-Earth asteroids in search of precious metals and rare metallic elements. The plan may seem like it was torn from a science fiction novel, and critics say the idea may be far-fetched and difficult for a small company to accomplish. But the company, Planetary Resources Inc., has already drawn an A-list of investors and advisors. The backers include Google Inc. Chief Executive Larry Page and Chairman Eric Schmidt, "Avatar" director James Cameron and Microsoft Corp.'s former chief software architect Charles Simonyi...."Humanity has been driven for thousands of years to explore the Earth for resources," said Peter H. Diamandis, the company's co-founder and co-chairman. "The next step is to expand the economic sphere of humanity beyond Earth's confines."

You have to wonder: is it possible that the team behind Planetary Resources accepts that many crucial natural resources, necessary for mobile, greentech, and telecom development are--in truth neither replicable, nor substitutable, nor sufficiently recoverable here on our fair and blue planet?

The Abundance Movement

A flowering of new books, heralding a new age of abundance, have recently appeared, including one from Mr Diamandis.

However, it is worth noting this cultural theme comes after a decade in which the production rate of many natural resources, from oil to gold, to more recently copper, did not speed up but instead either slowed or stagnated in the face of quickly rising prices. Crude oil production has been trapped below a ceiling since 2005. Global production of gold actually fell every year of the past decade until the last two years, but is once again stagnating. Copper production managed to rise the past decade. However, ore grades of copper have been declining for a century, and this is why copper has now repriced at much higher levels, closer to $4.00 per pound. Recent data shows also that the rate of growth of global copper production in the last decade slowed significantly, and stagnated also in the past 24 months.

There’s an important distinction to make, therefore, between an Abundance movement that simply posits we’ll have more of everything, at cheaper prices, in the same style as the past, as opposed to an Abundance movement that is tethered to reality, and realizes that large changes in consumption, values, and lifestyle will be needed to create the next phase of “wealth.”

Authors such as Juliet Schor, who wrote Plentitude, are much more reflective of and respectful of limits, and therefore does not dream of the next phase of mineral mining in outer space. Rather, many “new wealth” thinkers have gravitated instead to a less is more pathway, in which a lot of our previous consumption and time-bankruptcy is finally recognized as waste.

Three Crucial Problems with the “More is More” Abundance Movement

Peter Thiel recently debated George Gilder at ISI (you can open the video at YouTube, here). Thiel made a familiar point, which is that the impact of technological progress has become more narrow. I have treated this issue in previous reports, and pointed to some of the data on which this thesis relies, including the stagnation of Total Factor Productivity, for example.

But Thiel goes on to make a second point which is that belief in rapid, even accelerating technological progress is surely going to cause tremendous mis-allocation of capital. And that’s the first crucial problem I see with the cornucopian abundance movement.

Like a financial system that refuses to accept that tightly coupled structures are risky, and that risk itself grows with in tandem with complexity, the cornucopian abundance approach simply won’t take no for an answer. That means instead of focusing on smaller solutions with more immediate effects, grandiose solutions with long timelines are pursued instead.

The second crucial problem is a failure to consider the limit outlined by Paul Gilding, which is that present growth rates of energy consumption, for example, imply an economy that just about everyone can agree is simply too large for the planet to handle. You simply cannot keep growing the size of the human-created heat engine up to the level of a star. This was articulated beautifully by physicist Tom Murphy in his recent and very wide read post Exponential Economist Meets Finite Physicist. When problem solvers entirely avoid the subject of limits it is both appealing, and exciting, but eventually it becomes vaguely pathological.

Finally, there are a number of pressing issues already on the planet, which range from the risk created when food production is outsourced by water-starved populations to other continents, to large regions of the world such as Asia attempting to provide increased electrified transport for billions of people. Leapfrog adoption of mobile telecom, and the rise of social networks will no doubt serve to get these emerging voices out to a world eager to learn, and to help with solutions. But celebrating the success of solutions before they’ve actually arrived, indeed well before they’ve arrived, is no solution at all.

Repricing the Planet: Real World Copper as Opposed to Metals in Space

In Part II: The Looming Dislocation Risks Posed By Resource Scarcity, we dive further into the challenges that accompany the acceleration of technology, which relate to de-industrialization and the displacement of human labor with automation.

Previously in the past century this dynamic gave rise to increased productivity, and wealth. But that may no longer be the case. We are not living in a world where any of our critical natural resources are forecasting a radical upswing in supply. Oil and copper, for example, remain decidedly unconcerned about substitution or miracles from space.

Importantly, we will take a closer look at the red metal (no, not the red planet!), also known as Dr. Copper. What happened to global copper production this past decade as the price rose? And how crucial will copper become, as the world tries to transition away from transport based on liquid BTU?

Click here to access Part II of this report (free executive summary; enrollment required for full access) 

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Non-overlappingMagicCereal's picture

The poetry of an article on ZH accusing another organization of posessing a 'hivemind' is just beautiful :)

GeneMarchbanks's picture

Martensons people don't really reflect the ZH crowd, IMO.

Aziz's picture

We tend, I think to be quite anti-Malthusian. 

Also I think asteroid mining seems f'n cool, and it's their own money (private investment in a free market, whodathunk??) not some government subsidy cash like Solyndra.

ZerOhead's picture

Talk about f'n cool.

At $1,500 an ounce... nudging an 88,888 tonne platinum meteorite down out of orbit to Beijing pays off our $4T debt.

Non-overlappingMagicCereal's picture

Except for what that would do to the price of platinum, of course :)

Though, to his credit, Diamandis claims nothing would make him happier than to see platinum-group metals and gold become super cheap as a result of a big haul because of how much it would reduce the price of important technologies.

ZerOhead's picture

Since when have financial markets ever been constrained by actual physical supply and demand?

I'd be a bit more worried about Beijing myself... :)

Non-overlappingMagicCereal's picture

Actually, there is no plan to bring asteroids to the surface of earth, only to capture them in near-earth orbit where they can be safely mined.  Even then, the biggest benefit is not necessarily from bringing the resources back to earth.  While that is probably economical for platinum-group metals and gold, the bigger win may well be mining the ice and iron for use in space itself.  It turns out those resources are very useful in space, and the cost to get them there from earth per ounce is far more than the preciousest of metals.

ZerOhead's picture

Yup... 'safely' mined in NEO when it's light years cheaper to do it on the ground or in deep water. Hmm... where have I heard that before?

(Just so long as BP and and the Interplanetary MMS aren't involved! ;)

Ying-Yang's picture

Just a thought.... if a company mines an asteroid and in doing so changes the asteroid's trajectory would they be held liable for damages if it slammed into the earth?

Asteroid Mining Liability Insurance anyone?

Oh regional Indian's picture

Yin Yang, actually it's much worse than that. Asteroids are nto random wanderers in the system. In inter-connectivity of evverything and the resulting balance, Asteroids are carriers/messengers/balancers. I'd encourage anyone who thinks this has a chance in hell of suceeding, check out the Electric Universe theory of Thornhill and Someone.

This is typical human over-reach. Keeping people distracted farther and farther away, while the world in front of your nose collapses.

NASA should be shut down, tomorrow. Waste of money, dark projects galore, false information disseminated....



Ar-Pharazôn's picture

a 100 meters asteroid is enough to destroy everything on earth... so i would not worry about who is liable for the dmgs.......

ihedgemyhedges's picture

If Obama gets a second term, this would be an ideal place to use Al Gore's genius. I can see the headline now:


Mining Asteroids Spacestation To Unleash Rare Black Aggregates Toward Energy Requirements

Jena's picture

With a Taiwanese reinactment of uhm.. any scene, whether you wanted it or not.

dumbfounded's picture

Thanks for pointing that out. Seems most people have a too earth centric view of this venture. Indeed the case for in-space utilisation of the resources seems to be the more compelling one, albeit not necessarily an easy one to make either. The long term idea, I guess, is to have parts of the economy that are located in space and completely driven by materials and energy obtained in space. Is this easy ? Certainly not! Is it possible ? Maybe, maybe not, but we won’t know till someone tries.

Oh and regardless of the answer we still need to get our shit together down here.

margaris's picture

Thats the plan.

And the next problem will be how to get to space cheap and easily, and back to earth.

The coolest idea to achieve that is a Space Elevator:

michael_engineer's picture

Why in the hell do they think that water will be valuable? Don't you need people and a business producing tangible goods to use the water to make it have value?. The scientific study platform of the space station is already in place but no great quantities of supervaluable product is coming back from there, is there? Plus doesn't any loose water in space if in the sun just boil off into gas molecules? Most asteroids rotate and none of the pictures show white snowy patches. Is the water bound to other chemicals? Are they planning on shipping up water based acids to unbind the asteroid water?

Non-overlappingMagicCereal's picture

So yea, water is heavy and necessary for humans in space, so it would be nice to have it already out of the giant gravity well that is earth. 

However, the more important point is that water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen, both of which make damned fine rocket fuels.  An ice-heavy asteroid in NEO could be a gas station of immense value.

Bicycle Repairman's picture

Why go into space to mine an asteroid?  Gravity is always pulling asteroids down to earth, however they always seem to burn up.

That's the good news.

rocker's picture

Why mine in space. If all the mining stocks are going down as are all commodity prices.

Please. Mining Stocks are a bad investment here. What would make them better in space?

Matt's picture

Well, except for that time when the asteroid wiped out 90 percent of all life on Earth. Or that one ~12,900 years ago that wiped out everyone in North America. Or that one that luckily blew up in Siberia, rather than over a large inhabited area. Or that huge cluster that fortunately slammed into Jupiter instead of us a few years ago.

Once you have the mining equipment in space, and the fuel is all produced in space, you save the obscene costs of transporting materials unto space. Would be nice to see a projected cost-benefit analysis as to how much of which minerals would have to be mined to pay for the initial investment.

However, if you consider protecting humanity from extinction by falling rock a national security issue, and you view space mining as using the same equipment you would use to divert asteroids, comets and meteors from killing all of us, you might see some place for public money involvement.

Could be NASA builds the lunar fuel station, and sells the fuel at a profit to private companies that mine the asteroids. There definitely needs to be a clear line between what is private and what is publicly funded.

Bicycle Repairman's picture

I will agree to this extent.  Let's mine any asteroid with real potential to wipe out the earth.  The minerals would be a bonus.

Nassim's picture

I am interested in their take on healthcare - what many people I know consider to be "sickcare". The one thing they will never promote is prevention. Yes, prevention is the low-cost fruit - a fruit that the sickcare industry prefers to ignore. They prefer complexity, because that is how they get rich on your backs.

Here is how a whole host of infectious sexually-transmitted diseases can be consigned to the dustbin of history. Do you think they care? No chance.

When I dreamt this FDA-approved concept, there was no Facebook or internet. Cell phones were still in the future. It hardly bears mentioning that these devices make my concept that much more feasible ... if they really cared

Piranhanoia's picture

Do you recognize that you are a part of the problem?

Levadiakos's picture

Thar's gold in dem dare hills............Oh Wait

margaris's picture

asteroids have hills.

Its only that after you climb two hills, you see the same hills before you again.

(you go around the asteroid in 2 minutes walking)

Taint Boil's picture



Ah, the new space bubble coming, hmmm sounds good huh, more fodder for the sheeple:


Such a mining operation would retrieve 300 times more energy than it uses (including all the energy to fly to the moon and back), Kulcinski estimates. In comparison, mining coal returns 15-20 times the energy put in. His team has estimated that it might cost around $800 million to bring back each ton of lunar helium-3.


This might sound like a lot, but if you could sell the fusion energy at a price comparable to gasoline based on oil at $100 per barrel, the helium-3 would be worth $10 billion per ton.




Martensons people don't really reflect the ZH crowd, IMO.


Martenson is good - really good (and smart). But the site and his followers do have a bit of a nerdy aftertaste.


NaN's picture

Nerdy is now a compliment; smart without an axe to grind. 


Gully Foyle's picture

Timothy Leary

While he continued to use drugs frequently on a private basis, rather than evangelizing and proselytizing the use of psychedelics as he had in the 1960s, the latter day Leary emphasized the importance of space colonization and an ensuing extension of the human lifespan while also providing a detailed explanation of the eight-circuit model of consciousness in books such as Info-Psychology, among several others. He adopted the acronym "SMI²LE" as a succinct summary of his pre-transhumanist agenda: SM (Space Migration) + (intelligence increase) + LE (Life extension). Leary credited L5 co-founder Keith Henson with helping develop his interest in space migration.

Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, and John C. Lilly in 1991

Leary's colonization plan varied greatly through the years. Because he believed that he would soon migrate into space, Leary was opposed to the ecology movement. He dismissed many of Earth's problems and labeled the entire field of ecology "a seductive dinosaur science." Leary stated that only the "larval," intellectually and philosophically backward humans, would choose to remain in "the fouled nest." According to his initial plan to leave the planet, 5,000 of Earth's most virile and intelligent individuals would be launched on a vessel (Starseed 1) equipped with luxurious amenities. This idea was inspired by the plotline of Paul Kantner's concept album Blows Against The Empire, which in turn was derived from Robert A. Heinlein's Lazarus Long series. In the 1980s, he came to embrace NASA scientist Gerard O'Neill's more realistic and egalitarian plans to construct giant Eden-like High Orbital Mini-Earths (documented in the Robert Anton Wilson lecture H.O.M.E.s on LaGrange) using existing technology and raw materials from the Moon, orbital rock and obsolete satellites.

A Dyson sphere is a hypothetical megastructure originally described by Freeman Dyson. Such a "sphere" would be a system of orbiting solar power satellites meant to completely encompass a star and capture most or all of its energy output. Dyson speculated that such structures would be the logical consequence of the long-term survival and escalating energy needs of a technological civilization, and proposed that searching for evidence of the existence of such structures might lead to the detection of advanced intelligent extraterrestrial life.

Since then, other variant designs involving building an artificial structure or series of structures to encompass a star have been proposed in exploratory engineering or described in science fiction under the name "Dyson sphere". These later proposals have not been limited to solar-power stations. Many involve habitation or industrial elements. Most fictional depictions describe a solid shell of matter enclosing a star, which is considered the least plausible variant of the idea (see below).


New World Chaos's picture

Acid has a distinct technological/transhumanist agenda.  It's not just Leary.  Read anything written by Rudy Rucker and crew.  It has inspired technologies (mostly computer and DNA related, most notably PCR).  Some friends and I also know of this agenda directly.  The ultimate goal is to link up with aliens and turn the whole universe into a transcendent emergent mind.  By controlling wavefunction collapse, God creates from the future and draws skeins of reality towards Him.  This creation event is as important as the Big Bang.  He is the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End. 

After the Illuminati are exposed and crippled, there will be a great technological renaissance.  This is also part of the agenda.

blunderdog's picture

"Acid" is just a chemical, it doesn't have an agenda.

It sure has helped some people achieve some insights, though, eh?

The intersection of the spiritual and the physical is chemical.

New World Chaos's picture

P.S.  The beings of light can Will each other into existence in a cosmic blink of an eye.  All civilizations can light up together.  It is happening now.

Manthong's picture

Can I interest anyone in my start-up to design the world's first commercially viable replicators, warp drives, transporters, and holo-decks?

The phasers and disruptors are already spoken for by China.

Non-overlappingMagicCereal's picture

That depends - do you have a realistic path for developing these technologies, broken into incremental achievable steps with sound cost analysis for each, and billions of dollars in supporting funds from entrepreneurs with proven track records?  If so, then yes, I am interested.

pods's picture

He has none of that, but actually has something better.

He has the ear of a Senator who sits on the DARPA committee and plays golf with several honchos at the DOE.

Why work hard when you can work smart?


Manthong's picture

Um.. sometimes you just have to have hope for change that you can win the future with fundamental transformation because we are the ones we have been waiting for.

It’s not a matter of winning life’s lottery when you have a thousand points of light to illuminate the shining city on a hill and vanquish the nattering nabobs of negativity.

You have nothing to fear but fear itself and  can get in on the ground floor in this opportunity that will help produce a great society and win the wars on poverty, crime, drugs and terror.

Isn’t that good enough you? It’s good enough to keep millions of people handing over trillions of dollars for similar schemes and illusions.

XitSam's picture

"we are the ones we have been waiting for" always struck me as strange.  Like Godot was in the room the whole time.

deepsouthdoug's picture

RELAX - It will never be economical.  Market forces will prevail.  Now if they ever find large blobs of oil floating in space, then it will be drill baby drill.

NotApplicable's picture

It will be very economical the instant the UN outlaws most terrestrial mining activities. Politcal forces will prevail (sponsored by "Save the Earth" idiots), enriching themselves and their crony monoplists it will empower.

I find it amusing that this article was as devoid of reality (ala the criminals and their "Law of Rule") as the TED conferences. Summing it all up...

"My delusion is better than yours!"


El Viejo's picture

or "I reject your reality and substitute my own."  Mythbusters

NotApplicable's picture

Speaking of reality. EVERY discussion of "peak population" requires the phrase "at a certain standard of living." Yet, rarely, if ever, is it included. Instead you'll see one aggregate equation after another without any accounting for it.

Why? Because it brings up the question of what standard is too low, or too high, which is always a matter of personal preference. And individuals, as we all have been taught, are inferior to "the greater good," which can only be determined by TEDbots et al.

El Viejo's picture

"You will always have the poor with you."  Jesus

Must be something to do with bell shaped curves.

StychoKiller's picture

It's because "Poor" is a state of mind!

Seer's picture

Obviously you're not in one of trashed countries that doesn't care about protecting the environment.

I encourage people to stop painting in broad brush strokes.  There is legitimate environmental concerns and then there are those who would profit (fairly or unfairly) off of promoting a given stance.  Sadly, those who are intellectually lazy cannot make the distinction.

More people need to see how livestock are managed to understand what can happen when there's little regard for an environment. (or, conversely, how WELL an environment can be maintained with livestock loading)

smb12321's picture

I blame the "environmentalists" for their general dislike.  Their absurd pronouncements  - "massive, frequent hurricanes" after Katrina (period since is quietest on record) or "will run out of ____ (fill in natural resource)0 or half the world will "soon" be dying of famine or 2/3 of all species will be extinct in 10 years, etc.   There's the emphasis on the US & Europe while ignoring the real problem (Asia).

I come from a long line of "conservationists" who were "green" and buying "local" long before it became MSM buzz words. The politicalization of the environmental movement has done exactly opposite of the space program - engendered hatred, authoritarianism, held back accomplishments and turned what should be a popular subject into one for universal debate.

Diet Coke and Floozies's picture

LMAO at "My delusion is better than yours!"

This comment applies to everyone!

El Viejo's picture

While they are at it they might wanna bring back some oxygen and something that will absorb radiation and CO2. HMM maybe we could move all manufacturing and toxic dumps to the moon.

I like the old idea of a rail gun shooting toxic waste off the planet and into the Sun.  

Put it down as one of the three - now four choices for death row inmates. (A rail gun ride to never land.)