back to article MINING in SPAAAACE! Asteroid-scoopers? Nah - consumers will be the real winners

Given the venal nature of what passes for a heart beating in this chest of mine, what really interests me is who is going to make all the moolah from this rushing off into space and mining 'n' stuff. But this isn't a question that appears to have a simple answer, for there are five groups here and each will have a problem with …

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The Wild-West days are here again

> the UN decided ...

Once habitats in space become self-sufficient, the decisions of a planetary based talking shop will be completely irrelevant. Note the proviso: self-sufficient.

Laws, rules and regulations only work when they can be backed up (ultimately) by force. If a mining operation, in orbit or beyond , decided to cede, there's not a lot - short of sending up a "police" action to point out the error of their ways - that a ground based legal system can do. As readers of Lucifer's Hammer will recall: being at the top of the gravity well trumps being at the top of the food chain. And throwing rocks can be terribly effective.

So, just like settlement in other colonies, there will be a period of lawlessness, probably a revolutionary war (or war of independence, depending on who's history you subscribe to) and almost certainly a civil war or two. After that the occupants take it upon themselves to formulate their own laws, for their own domains over which they have the ability to enforce them. Given the size of spaaaaaace, it's more than likely that several empires (striking back, or not) and hegemonies will arise - whether the UN or any earthly government approves or disapproves.

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Re: The Wild-West days are here again

I'd blag my short story, but will refrain as it's my first and that would be unfair use of this thread, but that's exactly how I set it up.

Mining planet for fuel (as what else is the main cost up there), is kept in "control" by not being made self sufficient. Plus some other secret control measures. ;)

If I get to write another, it would also cover that possible lawless/breakaway effect of colonies. Though it'll cover the time after the "independence" wars.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: The Wild-West days are here again

See also "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" which detailed throwing rocks from top of gravity well way before your reference.

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Re: The Wild-West days are here again

I think that because they seem to be the subject of much pulpy space adventure from the golden age of scifi, that a lot of people discount lasers or DEWs. A DEW would only have to heat a target spacecraft to a temperature that causes component failure, given a spacecraft's relatively small mass and poor heat dissipation this task seems workable. Of course building a single death ray would be less than optimal and probably quite hard to do, so instead the weapon would most likely be composed of the most efficient single power output for a single DEW module times number of modules required to form an array of DEWs to arrive at a desired total weapon output power. While throwing rocks is effective, a weapon that has near unlimited range (compared to conventional weaponry), is highly scaleable, has near unlimited ammunition and travels at c would be terrifying indeed to spacecraft, especially considering it would take months to get that rock to arrive at the target destination.

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Re: The Wild-West days are here again

A mining operation can't cede if it wants to keep selling stuff on the home planet. Especially not a space mining operation which relies on critical supplies for life support. (Every attempt to create a closed self-sustaining ecology to date has ended in disaster. Sitting on a big pile of platinum is unlikely to fix that.)

And if said mining operation threatens Earth with a few big rocks, a lot of nukes could be sent in their general direction. (Not to mention the fact that killing your own customers is kind of stupid.)

You're repeating the 'governments don't matter' fantasy beloved by USian glibertarian fundamentalists.

In realpolitik, governments continue to matter a lot.

Remember John Perry Barlow's declaration of cyberspace independence? Remember 'The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it?'

How's that working out for everyone in - say - China? Or (coming soon...) East Molesey?

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Re: The Wild-West days are here again

Wouldn't be hard. Raw materials can be had in space, but manufacturing capability is lacking. What do you do when the last spare microcontroller for your oxygen concentration monitoring unit dies? Unless you've got a whole silicon foundry to hand, you can't replace something like that. Skilled enough engineers could bodge things up with electromechanical systems for a while, but eventually you're going to need spare parts for something.

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Re: The Wild-West days are here again

"A mining operation can't cede if it wants to keep selling stuff on the home planet. "

Of course it can. In the most unlikely event that Scotland ceded from the rest of Britain next year, both parties would still trade, even though (for some bizarre reason) the Westminster government is vehemently opposed to the Scots controlling their own destiny. When the European colonies were given independence, they continued to trade with the former colonial power. Looking at the leaky and ineffective sanctions on renegade nations, I very much doubt that all Earth countries would refuse to trade with space settlers who have something worth buying. If the Yanks didn't like it, the Russians or Chinese wouldn't give a shit, and vice versa.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: The Wild-West days are here again

Manufacturing will most likely occur on the moon (or a moon), if a lunar space elevator is ever built. NASA estimated the cost at around $10B (with today's materials and launch costs) at some point if memory serves (don't really remember where, I'm sure others have estimates as well just too lazy to look), so allowing for cost over runs call it an even $20B, still doable when amortized over several years. The moon is a large heat sink with water, raw materials of its own to act as a radiation shield, low gravity well with cheap heavy lift capability (given a lunar elevator), but high enough g as to not require expensive major redesign to various manufacturing apparatus. Until the cost of such mega scale projects drops to within the realm of comfortable private expertise and investment risk, governments would continue to be the sole provider of cheap heavy lift out of these manufacturing centers (barring redesign of entire manufacturing lines and engineering efficient heat transport and dissipation systems). I think that barring any warhawks getting in the way for the next decade or so*, a lunar elevator could really kickstart the great space resource rush of 2023.

*Do we really need another costly war, why couldn't we just do what Clinton did and just send a couple cruise missiles over until everyone loses interest. Do we really need another $9B aircraft carrier? Given that other nations don't even have a total fleet of carriers the equal tonnage of one of these super carriers, ten (planned) seems a might bit much. I would really rather get to the next "oil fields" and avoid the petty squabbling between two extremist religious groups that comes with the current ones.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: The Wild-West days are here again

Better hope they don't move out the way because even at lightspeed, it might be a while before you know your target has moved and in which direction.

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Unhappy

Re: The Wild-West days are here again

"See also "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" which detailed throwing rocks from top of gravity well way before your reference."

You might include CJ Cyrn's "Downbelow Station" novels and the company that controls what the miners get, and what they pay for it.

The just love working for the company.

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Re: The Wild-West days are here again

Interesting point. There's only two problems: (1) by the time a government decides it wants these it will be too late, and (2) their usual contractors would take 20 years to build the array, and fail anyway.

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Unhappy

Re: The Wild-West days are here again

"Once habitats in space become self-sufficient, the decisions of a planetary based talking shop will be completely irrelevant. Note the proviso: self-sufficient."

And those 2 little words are a biggie.

Closed cycle life support is very tough.

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Re: The Wild-West days are here again

"being at the top of the gravity well trumps being at the top of the food chain. And throwing rocks can be terribly effective."

Robert Heinlein got that in about 10 years earlier than Niven in "The moon is a harsh mistress". But trivia aside, spot on about the gist of the argument. Of course "self-sufficient" is a huge (huge, huge, huge, huge) ask anywhere in space, but it's achievable (probably not this century, maybe in the 2 after that, almost certainly after that as long as humanity hasn't consumed all planetary resources like greedy little locusts)

*Yes I know technically it's the other way around, humans adapted to Earth environment

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Re: The Wild-West days are here again

" if a lunar space elevator is ever built. NASA estimated the cost at around $10B (with today's materials and launch costs) "

erm... with today's materials a LEO space elevator is impossible let alone a lunar one, so that $10B pricetag is someone's made-up bollocks

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Anonymous Coward

Re: The Wild-West days are here again

Errr... if NASA estimated the cost of sending a handful of astronauts to the moon (and back) in 2018 as $100bn, where does this $10bn estimate come from??

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Re: The Wild-West days are here again

Never mind the 10 billion price tag... try applying for planning permission for the anchor.

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Pirate

Re: The Wild-West days are here again

There used to be a really good web comic about just that sort of thing...

Escape From Terra (www.bigheadpress.com/eft)

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Re: The Wild-West days are here again

What the hell is a DEW? As Stanley Kubrick might have said when shooting 2001, "throw us a bone here."

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JLV
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Flame

>NASA estimated the cost at around $10B

and that doesn't sound low to you, considering the ISS has cost about $150B to date?

Just wondering.

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Re: The Wild-West days are here again

A lunar elevator would actually be comparatively easy. Lower gravity means lower cable weight and thus lower tension. Lunarstationary orbit is also lower, so shorter elevator. No atmosphere to worry about allows for much less durable materials. The only problem is getting everything up there - but that doesn't need any technological revolution, just a gargantuan pile of money.

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Anonymous Coward

The UN can declare that space can't be owned all it wants, but I'd like to see them try and stop it.

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"Nice Earth you have there. It would be a shame if an asteroid fell on it..."

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That's ok, we have an atmosphere. Once another gets the tech and resources to send an asteroid, defending from such is a similar level of expertise. When the size of an asteroid makes a big difference in both effectiveness and time required to move it, things will hopefully balance out.

Bigger rocks are easier to see and take longer to reach us, giving time to respond, smaller ones might just burn up.

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Kerrrr splat!

> That's ok, we have an atmosphere

Ahhh, but you don't have to toss big chunks at the planet. Just squirt a bag o' sand into the Clarke Orbit - or sun-synchronous - or GPS paths, and watch all the fragile little (but vital) satellites fail.

Or [ FX: stroking of fluffy white cat ] erect a sun shield somewhere around L1 and "solve" the planet's global warming crisis for them.

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More like:

You want taxes? Hmm, can they be paid as a percentage of the minerals we're extracting?

Cool.

OK, we've put together the payment, it's in tungsten, 1m diameter, 100m length rods, we're not sure where exactly you wanted it, so we've just put it on a trajectory that should be right outside your tax office.

x

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Devil

Re: Kerrrr splat!

@Pete 2

Ah I see you saw the film Gravity as well

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Re: Kerrrr splat!

> Ah I see you saw the film Gravity as well

Errrm, nope. Though I'm disappointed you'd think so. As all I've heard about the film is how shaky the science is.

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Re: Kerrrr splat!

And most of the acting is done by the gymnasts etc. Clooney and Bullock should get credit as 'voice actors' for most of it.

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@TechnicalBen

I was being "Ha ha only serious". However you can have an upvote for valid points.

But the chance of a meteor burning up depends on its trajectory and its composition. And *cough* it's hard to detect objects coming at us from the sun. *cough* All it needs is one to get through and reach a populate area.

I also think the economics favour the attacker: it's hard to be certain whether an orbit will threaten the Earth so an attacker can kick lots of trans-Earth objects Earthwards, at very little cost, and the defender is left with lots of "maybes" to cover. And the defenders have to pay the cost of getting stuff into orbit, whereas the attackers don't.

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Linux

Extra-Terrestrial Porcine Press Headlines??

"PIG IRON IN SPAAAAACE!!!"

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consumers... real winners

this would be the first one, ever. So I reserve the right to remain skeptical.

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Re: consumers... real winners

You might not be as rich as the founders of Intel or Microsoft or.. but we are all certainly more than a bit richer because of them and there are a lot more of us than there are of them.

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Anonymous Coward

No property rights

> "You've worked out how to get helium 3 from the lunar regolith? Excellent: but with no private property then anyone else able to get to the Moon can do exactly the same."

So can anyone explain why this would be a bad thing?

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Facepalm

Re: No property rights

I don't think it would make a difference to you.

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Re: No property rights

"So can anyone explain why this would be a bad thing?"

No one would invest in working it out in the first place.

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Rol
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Re: No property rights

You will no doubt own the equipment that is sent out to mine the resource, but having a requirement that you own the resource before it is extracted is nonsense.

Let it be like the days of the tea clipper, first one back with the goods, gets the bonus.

Economics will become the new property law of space, if you can't get it back as cheaply as the next guy, you look somewhere else for a profit.

Imagine granting Mr Gold exclusive rights to an astral body, is he going to spend billions on bringing back hundreds of tons of gold back to Earth? Hell no! He's going to make sure nobody brings any gold back and so protect the price of his current stock.

I see the future of space mining to be not unlike our current energy market, miners mining, transporters transporting and cellars doing their utmost to keep it dark, dank and full of secrets.

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Re: No property rights

There will need to be an incentive to be the first mover. If its cheaper to wait for someone else to make the initial move and then do what they have proved to work, then thats what everyone will do.

Some sort of property-type rights are the obvious solution, same as it is with intellectual property. Random example pulled from my arse: say you want to encourage people to prospect asteroids. You grant a 30 year period of exclusivity for mining prooved and published mineral deposits on asteroids, which can then be sold to mining companies or used by the organisation itself. Perhaps with the stipulation that non-exploited deposits can be licenced by anyone on some kind of RAND terms.

The details will obviously be different, but something that looks a lot like property rights is the obvious solution. Though maybe it is a good thing that no rights exist at present, since that means a new system can be drafted from scratch and tailored to this new situation.

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Re: No property rights

"I see the future of space mining to be not unlike our current energy market, miners mining, transporters transporting and cellars doing their utmost to keep it dark, dank and full of secrets."

The current example isn't energy, its defence research where you pay astronomical sums for incredibly advanced research, and then the department/ministry of defence decides that the best use of that new technology is to keep it secret and apply it only to killing brown people, rather than making life better for everybody. The ultimate owner of all energy resources is always the government of the land under which it sits, and they, not energy companies) decide if they want it coming to market. Generally the answer is "Yes, yes, YEEESSS!". Except if you're say France, sitting on the largest shale gas deposits in Europe, where the answer is the usual surly "non".

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Re: No property rights

"You've worked out how to get helium 3 from the lunar regolith? Excellent: but with no private property then anyone else able to get to the Moon can do exactly the same."

Actually, since the moon is fairly big, no one company would ever conceivably be given property rights over more than a tiny fraction of it. So even WITH very strong property rights, "anyone else able to get to the Moon can do exactly the same", just on a different patch of moon.

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Space marines

Well, Games Workshop will attempt to make money by enforcing their trademarks on what everyone else sees as a generic term.

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" As one of those capitalists, you're not going to skimp on $100k or $200k on wages"

get real - the crew will be paid space peanuts but their management will get asteroid sized gold nuggets for shouting contradictory instructions into the space telephone.

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Re: " As one of those capitalists, you're not going to skimp on $100k or $200k on wages"

More likely a percentage I suspect, with a decent base salary... but to me $200k seems a bit on the low side for such a risky job...

Although I bet you could probably offer room & board and STILL get enough applicants to take the job at the start....

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Re: " As one of those capitalists, you're not going to skimp on $100k or $200k on wages"

"Although I bet you could probably offer room & board and STILL get enough applicants to take the job at the start..."

If they can get this off the ground in the next twenty years, I'd take that offer!

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Mushroom

Arms race

"If there cannot be a legal right to a certain place, deposit or asteroid, then as soon as something does become profitable anyone and everyone can just move in. "

This suggests yet another group that will profit: Makers of arms usable in space.

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What no picture from Elite showing asteroid mining and using cargo scoops to collect minerals??? For shame!!!

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says

"you're not going to skimp on $100k or $200k a year in wages for someone driving your $2bn spaceship."

No, you don't need to.

All your orbital and transfer orbit activity will be done by computers.

Putting humanity in the loop just adds inaccuracies in burn durations and vectors.

All your pilot needs to do is tell the computer that e.g. they want to be in Mars orbit at a specific altitude on a certain date and press enter.

The computer will tell them they will commence orientation manoeuvres for the initial burn on the 7th August at 04:26:26 and will be running the engine for 684.2 seconds at 1G.

Note the pilot doesn't even need to be aboard.

We have advanced long past the era of "The Right Stuff" and HAL was way over-specified for the job it needed to do.

This is how it will really be, and even then some fun activites have been added to give the human a sense of involvement: http://orbit.medphys.ucl.ac.uk/

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Anonymous Coward

Re: says

While I am sure it could be done mainly with computers, and much of the work will be automated...

human interaction is always needed for anything complex, otherwise why would they need large crews on earth for mining and tunneling?

I suspect the transfer of goods will be automated (with room on the transfer vessel for passengers, i.e. replacement crew) but the main job of mining will be robotics overseen by a few meat bags to fix the problems when they occur...

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Re: says @AC

You're not wrong about the complex stuff with mining and tunnelling, but that is not exactly the pilot's role.

The jobs you are describing appear to be more of the mining expert and engineering types.

In aviation it is handy if the pilot knows which bits should be firmly attached to a plane and which ones are supposed to wiggle, but it isn't usually necessary for them to be capable of stripping down and rebuilding a turbofan or co-ordinating flight operations at a busy terminal.

In Apollo 13 none of the crew had to be a pilot to assemble the CO2 scrubber from the bits available.

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Re: In Apollo 13

True, but they DID have to be pilots to put the whole thing back on a proper return trajectory to Earth when everything had gone wrong.

So your example seems to be contrary to your initial theory. A pilot knowing the workings of the vessel, where the kinks are and what to do in case of failure of the machines is going to be a precious commodity to avoid a $2 billion vessel (not counting the cargo) from missing the proper burn duration and orientation and ending up on a solar-centric orbit outside of Jupiter.

And I'm thinking that employers will pay a pretty penny to an experienced and reliable pilot/on-site repairman as a proviso against needing to call on the insurance policy.

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Re: In Apollo 13 @Pascal Monett

Yes, the Apollo 13 astronauts had to do manual Command Module stabilization and correct their flight path, however, as I mentioned in my first comment we are way beyond that now. In the same situation a group of modern on-board computers with redundancy and constant error checking of each other would be able to agree on and implement a fuel efficient and fast method of stabilization whilst the disoriented human pilot was still trying to work which way was Christmas.

Someone who knows what to do in case of failure of the machines may have the title of pilot, but the role is still one of engineer or mechanic who may occasionally thumb the EXEC button on a computer once the new destination is programmed in.

Think of a fly-by-wire plane. No matter how good the pilot is, in normal flight he simply requests the computers send the aircraft in a particular direction at a particular attitude. If the computers don't like it they don't do it. If all the computers fail then he better hope the preferred method of egress works because he certainly isn't going to fly it home.

The problem is we were all brought up on Star Wars/Buck Rogers/Battlestar Galactica (well I was). Real spaceflight just isn't like that.

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