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The Financial Future of Space Travel 414

Posted by samzenpus
from the no-one-way-tickets dept.
gurps_npc writes " This CNNMoney story discusses the financial future of space travel. In particular it gives some nice names and numbers, such as Bezos, Musk and 3554 Amun. 3554 Amun is an small metalic asteroid that crosses Earth's pass (not on collission course) and contains over 20 trillion US dollars worth of precious metal. It is a great fact to know when trying to explain to flat-earth types that don't understand why we waste money on space travel."
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The Financial Future of Space Travel

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  • I bet there are more than $100 quadrillion dollars of precious metals in the earth ... the problem is that most of this stuff is too expensive and difficult to get at. Same deal here, at least until we get a space elevator going. We need damn cheap travel to make it worth going to space to get IRON of all things ... for now, it's what, $20,000 per pound going up, and mining equipment / transports back down are heavy.
    • $100 quadrillion... fair enough. But I think it would be more accurate to describe the $20 trillion as not only more concentrated than almost any source still accessible on earth, but where there are issues regarding getting to it in the first place, by the time you are able to get there actually refining it would be a minor issue and there are a few things like disposing of the waste that are no issue at all.
      So, more accurate to say that it is $20 trillion that could be feasibly recovered. Personally tha
    • Expense and difficult problems pave the way for high tech research and funding.

      Just like war: the people who benefit most are in the high tech fields.

    • Exactly. All you need to do is get to the asteroid, set up an operation in orbit capable of actually extracting the minerals from all the cruft (oh, sure, $1000 an oz. for platinum sounds like a real moneymaker until you start calculating the cost of shuttle runs to get the 1 tonne of ore that ounce is buried in), and come back with the payload... preferably with your workers still mostly alive.

      Ahh, well, at least the existence of this "gold mine in the skies" gives me a good reason to say "Great, so pri

    • Of a space elevator please? People keep saying it'll be cheaper than flying rockets but they also keep failing to explain how it'll be cheaper.

       
    • There's also the question of who does the valuations. If the entire planet was showered with platinum and gold, it certainly would devalue its value (probably be cheaper than dirt...). (not to mention hurt badly... gold is heavy when `showered' onto ones head).

      It's only expensive 'cause we don't have it.
    • There is a lot of expense in mining/refining on earth, that's why precious metals are precious. One thing there is in space is a very big, very hot thing called the sun. What you need to do is strap some thrusters to the asteroid and get it into a close orbit round the Sun. Then maybe gravity and some Eutectic (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eutectic [wikipedia.org]) theory will take over allowing some of the elements to separate - I guess that one reason we don't do this on Earth is the cost of heating a load of waste mater
  • scheme. The government will front the money, and we'll have privatization of risk, but when the money starts to get made, we'll hear about how we need to keep government out. Kind of like today, where companies rail against government interference on the Internet and the utilities, which wouldn't exist without government action.

    Seriously, without government action, the south would have no electric power, the Internet would not be here, and people in the boondocks would never have mail service, because the F
    • The government will front the money, and we'll have privatization of risk, but when the money starts to get made, we'll hear about how we need to keep government out.

      Isn't that pretty much the point? Government helps set up the infrastructure and foundation for private enterprise to prosper. Once private enterprise has got self-sustaining economic activity in a particular field, government can then focus its resources on the next budding field.
    • > People in the boondocks would never have mail service, because the Free Market wouldnt support it.

      Incorrect. FedEx and UPS will happily deliver to the boondocks -- maybe not every day, but you'll get your package. Neither FedEx nor UPS are the government -- they compete with each other, so the day one decided to deliver to the boondocks was the day the other had to provide better service to the boondocks or face going out of business. The government could completely ignore the boondocks and would ne
  • FTFA: whoever owns Amun could become 450 times as wealthy as Bill Gates . And exactly does one come to own an asteroid? Is planing a flag good enough? If so, I'm gonna start launching "ME" flags at all the nearest celestial bodies.
    • by rah1420 (234198) <rah1420@gmail.com> on Thursday March 02, 2006 @02:59AM (#14833145)
      I'm gonna start launching "ME" flags at all the nearest celestial bodies.

      And as soon as you do, you can expect a visit from SCO's lawyers. [slashdot.org]
    • by FleaPlus (6935) on Thursday March 02, 2006 @03:18AM (#14833196) Journal
      And exactly does one come to own an asteroid? Is planing a flag good enough?

      Space property rights are a very murky and ambiguous area, but one which should get resolved if we want to have any hope of expanding out there permanently. An article by Sam Dinkin in the Space Review on Property rights and space commercialization [thespacereview.com] has a fairly nice overview of the issues. A quote:

      Space property rights will probably not spark a space transportation boom that will rival the railroad boom, the airplane boom, or the automobile boom. But there will be no boom if there are no property rights. Leaving the regulatory regime the same is a recipe for continued sclerosis.

      If we do nothing, space will look a lot more like Antarctica than Alaska. Without property rights there will not be adequate investment and space resources will be underutilized. Establishing property rights in space will cost millions, not billions, and can be done decades ahead of any commercialization or colonization. It's time to set the stage to break out of the exploration mode of Columbus and get on with establishing the regulatory regime to lay the foundation for the next Plymouth Rock.
      • Won't space property rights also require space weapons? Given that a percentage of humans are greedy bastards who would kill their gandmother for a profit, property rights would seem to be only as good as the weapons used to back them up.

        Maybe the solution is to pay people not to go into space? That way the greedy bastards will take the money and stay on Earth leaving the non-greedy people to fly.

      • Space property rights are a very murky and ambiguous area...

        It's murky until you realise that property rights in space are exactly the same as property rights on Earth. Property is established using the threat of violence.

        In the case of personal property, that violence is distilled through the laws of a community, but the threat of being shot, beaten or dragged off to jail is still there.

        In the case of national territory, the threat of violence is much less subtle.

      • by Qzukk (229616)
        and can be done decades ahead of any commercialization or colonization.

        See, here's the problem. We see it now with people patenting things they could never accomplish, paying a few thousand dollars in application and lawyer fees to obtain the property rights to things they'll never actually own.

        Property rights in advance is foolish, stupid, dumb, idiotic, and any number of other names you can assign. Do you know why the Gold Rush was a Rush? Because people could go west and stake out a plot of land and o
      • no space property rights are not murky at all. He who has the most guns wins.

        If you have enough weapons to repel any force from your mining facilities then you get to keep your asteriod.

        Same as it was in the wild west.
      • Well, obviously the question is "Who has the authority to get the initial rights?" From there on out it'd be pretty standard business. We all know it's there, going there to plant a flag isn't exploration in any traditional sense.

        It'd be like a ship dropping buoys in the ocean and claim this is now our property. International waters? Never heard of it, I just took this as personal property since nobody else had. Has having "international waters" stopped people travelling over it? Harvesting resources from i
    • And exactly does one come to own an asteroid?

      Pretty much the same way as happened with homesteading or mining claims. If you get to the asteroid first, and are capable of killing anyone who tries to take it away from you, I for one would say "it's yours".

      Eventually though, the pioneers give way to the settlers, and the settlers, practicing the social division of labor, will establish an organization with more weaponry than anyone else in the area, which will enforce property ownership.

      We may have a period
    • Whoever is sitting on the near-earth passing asteroid is in fact in command of weapon similar to clean nuke. And having transportation to earth orbit is equivalent to having long range ballistic missile. So space property will probaly be supervised by some international body, like International Atomic Energy Agency. It would be logical if the same agency take care of registration and distribution of space property rights.
      • Whoever is sitting on the near-earth passing asteroid is in fact in command of weapon similar to clean nuke.

        How exactly are you going to change the orbit of a few million tons of iron significantly enough to hit the Earth, let alone be able to aim the thing at a particular location?
    • And exactly does one come to own an asteroid? Is planing a flag good enough?

      The same way one comes to own anything else: by being able to force everyone else to keep their hands off it. On Earth that is usually accomplished by borrowing states resources as your own via legal action, but on frontier environment like space you need to have a fighting force of your own.

      Forget flags, and fill the surface of the asteroid with anti-spacecraft guns.

    • In all seriousness... build a rocket, fly to the asteroid, land on said asteroid and plant your flag. Develop the technology to mine it, and bring back the ore. I'm certain that most people will recognize you as "owning" that asteroid. (Assuming it is sufficiently small. If it's a large asteroid, you might have to plant lots of flags.)

      Now, of course, once you have property, you must defend it. If I come to your asteroid, detonate a small nuke just above your ship, then walk around and pluck up all your f
  • 2km of heavy metals. That would be at least as bad as the KT impact that wiped out the dinosaurs.

    The discouraging thing is that we probably could, today, build automated spacecraft that could reach the asteroid and set off nuclear bombs to change the orbit. It would be profitable to nudge the thing into earth orbit. And if somebody screws up, we lose the planet.

    • Oh, com'on, where's your greedy, capitalist spirit? What's a slipped decimal point or two in your thrust calculations compared to $20 TRILLION dollars? Be a man, take some risk!

      (I am joking...:-)

    • From: http://www.lpl.arizona.edu/impacteffects/ [arizona.edu]

      Your Inputs:

      Distance from Impact: 161.00 km = 99.98 miles
      Projectile Diameter: 2000.00 m = 6560.00 ft = 1.24 miles
      Projectile Density: 8000 kg/m3
      Impact Velocity: 17.00 km/s = 10.56 miles/s
      Impact Angle: 45 degrees
      Target Density: 2750 kg/m3
      Target Type: Crystalline Rock

      Energy:

      Energy before atmospheric entry: 4.84 x 1021 Joules = 1.16 x 106 MegaTons TNT
      The average interval between impacts of this size somewhere on Earth during the last 4 billion years is 5

  • by ChrisGilliard (913445) <christopher,gilliard&gmail,com> on Thursday March 02, 2006 @02:43AM (#14833087) Homepage
    We might actually be able to pay off the national debt!!!
  • Depending on how valuble each amount of metal is (are we talking 5 tons of pure silver, or 5 pounds of platinum?), this sounds like the kind of stuff that could destabilize economies.....
    • Cobalt, Platinum family metals, Iron and Nickel.

      "There are three key things to know about 3554 Amun: First, its orbit crosses that of Earth; second, it's the smallest M-class (metal-bearing) asteroid yet discovered; and finally, it contains (at today's prices) roughly $8 trillion worth of iron and nickel, $6 trillion of cobalt, and $6 trillion of platinumlike metals." - FTFA

      "3554 Amun is an M-type Aten asteroid (meaning it crosses Earth's orbit) and a Venus-crosser. It was discovered on 4 March 1986 by Caro
  • People who look to asteroid mining of metals for terrestrial use miss two fundamental factors:
    1. Ore grade just isn't that good compared to what you find on earth. Extracting platinum from a solid block of nickel amalgam is really energy intensive, and the other "stony" asteroids have not gone through the hydrothermal concentration of metals of the terrestrial deposits.
    2. The time it takes for a piece of capital equipment to return any materials to earth from an asteroid is enormous compared to the delivery o
    • 1. Ore grade just isn't that good compared to what you find on earth. Extracting platinum from a solid block of nickel amalgam is really energy intensive, and the other "stony" asteroids have not gone through the hydrothermal concentration of metals of the terrestrial deposits.

      True, it's energy intensive, but solar furnaces are available 24x7. It's just a big bit of bent aluminum foil- *really* lightweight to pack. Several thousand degrees... (surface temperature of the sun). Costs very little. And platin

    • Extracting platinum from a solid block of nickel amalgam is really energy intensive,

      Sure, but there's also quite a lot of energy available at an orbit of 1 AU. Half of a silvered-mylar balloon supported by a very light framework can concentrate enough sunlight to melt the asteroid. If you want to smelt metals out of the asteroid with lower temperatures, you can just bag it and pump in carbon monoxide, which will pull the oxygen off the metal ores.

      If you want to get the metals to the earth at a low cost,
  • The day astronomers discover an asteroid with oil reserves is the day the US diverts half its military budget to the 'peaceful exploration of space'.
    • Re:She's a gusher (Score:3, Informative)

      by FleaPlus (6935)
      The day astronomers discover an asteroid with oil reserves is the day the US diverts half its military budget to the 'peaceful exploration of space'.

      FYI, the moon Titan [wikipedia.org] is pretty much covered in "oil reserves."
      • your own link contradicts you:

        It has long been believed that Titanian lakes or even seas of methane might exist on the surface. However, while many of the surface features could be explained as the products of flowing liquids, no conclusive evidence has yet been found for the presence of liquids on Titan's surface at the present time.

        When the Cassini probe arrived in the Saturnian system, it was hoped that hydrocarbon lakes or oceans might be detectable by reflected sunlight from the surface of any liqui

        • Re:She's a gusher (Score:3, Informative)

          by FleaPlus (6935)
          your own link contradicts you:

          I might be misreading it, but I'm under the impression that while its still uncertain whether or not there's liquid hydrocarbons on the surface, there's almost certainly hydrocarbons in Titan's thick atmosphere.
    • The day astronomers discover an asteroid with oil reserves is the day the US diverts half its military budget to the 'peaceful exploration of space'.

      Because Jupiter and Saturn have heaps of methane (many times the mass of the Earth) and Neptune and Uranus are practically made of the stuff.

  • A number of private spaceflight firms mentioned in the article are looking for people to hire. These companies are looking for folks with expertise in a variety of areas, from web design, to aerospace/mechanical engineering, to programming. Here's a few links (courtesy of RLV News [rlvnews.com], listed roughly in order of available resources), with descriptions of what the company does:

    * Bigelow Aerospace: [bigelowaerospace.com] Inflatable space station modules for orbital research and tourism. Despite being inflatable, their modules a
  • If you suddenly flood the market with all these extra resources, it will be entirely a buyers' market, and other sellers and the countries who rely on them heavily will start collapsing.

  • by HuguesT (84078) on Thursday March 02, 2006 @05:42AM (#14833496)
    I read a lot of negative comments on NASA on this board. It's now fashionable to complain that this agency has become a huge inefficient cesspit of wasted opportunities and money. Since the last shuttle disaster NASA is not looking very good for sure.

    People assume that things will fare better if profit-driven private enterprise runs the space exploring show.

    To a great degree I think it's not as simple as it looks. First the obvious cheap routes to profit from space are already taken : putting satellites in LEO and geosynchronous orbit. There is already a lot of competition on that market between the US, Europe, Japan, India and China. Unless someone comes up with a space elevator that works or similar disruptive technology, this is not likely to change much.

    Essentially private space exploring enterprises is now at the level NASA was at in 1950 or so. It took a huge financial effort and a large dedicated team of incredible people to go to the Moon in 1970 or so (and bring back small samples of rock). While not all of this is lost, and I believe it is possible to repeat the feat, I can't see much profit in that particular endeavour. Colour me doubtful with respect with space tourism. It will be a while before this is safe enough for companies to ship people for small leaps above the atmosphere without getting sued out of existence at the first accident.

    Getting to the Moon and the asteroids and mining them has been a mainstay of science fiction since it has existed. Everyone knows many asteroids are metal-rich and could turn a nice buck if they could be exploited. Everyone knows the Moon is littered with He3, and theoretically achieving sustained nuclear fusion might be easiser there. However various governments have known this as well, for decades. In contrast to starry eyed reporters and somewhat naive slashdot users, they have run the numbers and found that with current technology their exploitation is simply not economically feasible. Again we need disruptive technology and it's not there yet.

    While I'm not a particular big fan of governements either, and not particularly the US's, I'd like to remind everyone here that so far, in spite of their failings, it is them who have driven investments, research, exploration and exploitation. They are so far ahead of any and all private space exploration outfits that it's not funny.

    Even with the help of billions and indeed, trillions of dollars of private funds it will take a very long time for private enterprise to catch up, let alone leap ahead. I don't doubt that if Bill Gates and Warren Buffet combined their wealth they'd be able to build a Saturn V equivalent in a small number of years, but I can't see anyone succeeding in convincing them it would be a good and sound business proposition.

    It may happen, but I wouldn't hold my breath. While private enterprise is busy gathering investors with nice sounding business plans and pooh poohing all that we learned in the last 50 years or so of actual space exploration because, you know, gov't did it and that's not relevant, NASA and the others are still exploring the solar system, last I checked. Apparently there's a plan to go to Mars, or so I heard.

    Really all that NASA and others require is a sound plan, a clear worthy goal that has some chance of succeeding. What many people seem to be missing here is that in spite of searching and thinking hard that plan was never found. The rest followed.
    • People assume that things will fare better if profit-driven private enterprise runs the space exploring show.

      I don't think anybody believes it will be safer, just easier to justify in the long run.

      While not all of this is lost, and I believe it is possible to repeat the feat, I can't see much profit in that particular endeavour. Colour me doubtful with respect with space tourism. It will be a while before this is safe enough for companies to ship people for small leaps above the atmosphere without getting

    • Where NASA was in 1950 or so ... It will be a while before this is safe enough for companies to ship people for small leaps above the atmosphere without getting sued out of existence at the first accident.
      [...]
      While I'm not a particular big fan of governements either, and not particularly the US's,

      It's such prudent thinking like that kept your ancestors in Britain.

      It's not 1950, and the knowledge required to design and build a space vehicle is no longer in the realm of research, but of engineering

  • by eshefer (12336) on Thursday March 02, 2006 @06:03AM (#14833533) Homepage Journal
    "The Apollo era was heroic, but beating the Soviets to the moon never provided a compelling economic reason to return. (We didn't even get Teflon or Tang as spinoffs--both were invented before 1960.)"

    I may be nitpicking here, but the premiss is plain WRONG.

      America's leadership in the semiconductor industry in general and the CPU industry in perticular is direct result of the space race and the arms race. I prefare the former rather then the latter. The challange of making apollos on-board computer directly influenced the development of ICs, and later the CPU. intel would'nt have been if it were not for apollo (or at least would have come much later).
    • "The challange of making apollos on-board computer directly influenced the development of ICs, and later the CPU"

      Influenced, perhaps, but if I remember correctly it used off-the-shelf ICs. It's a pretty neat piece of hardware and software for its time, but is hardly responsible for bringing us Pentium chips.
  • Jeeze, they're going to need at least 20 Bruce Willises to mine that puppy. What a time for Bush to outlaw cloning.
  • by StrawberryFrog (67065) on Thursday March 02, 2006 @06:44AM (#14833602) Homepage Journal
    That's 20 trillion US dollars worth of precious metal at current prices

    You can guarantee that if you manage to mine this rock, prices would go down. Supply and demand.
    • But you will need to figure the extra expense to mine in space will make up for it.

      If the asteroid landed safely on earth and hole, then that could be true.

      But the cost of space travel, will rise the cost of the material. The space miners are not going to work at say at around $60,000 a year. They will be paid closer of $1,000,000 a year to do the work. Plus there is cost of travel, and living conditions where all living conditions will need to be provided, Air, Heat, AC, Protection from radiation, Food, W
      • But you will need to figure the extra expense to mine in space

        Why? I didn't claim that this needed to be done in space. But then, mining in space vs. safely landing a 2Km-wide rock: I wouldn't know which is easier. And nobody said that conventional mining was free either: I wouldn't know which is cheaper.

        But I do know that if there's more platinum around, platinum will cost less.
  • Energy. (Score:3, Informative)

    by aug24 (38229) on Thursday March 02, 2006 @07:01AM (#14833626) Homepage
    There's a lot missing in this equation as presented.

    The asteroid, small as it is on the scale of things, weighs a lot. A real lot.

    This means that changing the delta-V to get the metals to Earth will require a lot of energy. We may well be able to do that with the Sun one day. However, there is also the gravitational field energy to be considered. Merging the gravity wells will release an awful lot of energy, which will then need to be soaked up somehow, or we'll make carbon emission worries look like wondering vaguely if you left the gas on.

    In short we'd better build that space elevator and a portable solar sail before we even think about mining asteroids on a grand scale.

    Justin.
  • 554 Amun may well have billions of precious metals inside, it'll be easier to reach than the moon BUT it's also moving at a fair old whack and actually parking it in orbit is going to be a whole different problem. Somehting 2km in diameter is going to take a lot of stopping. The only way to do it with anything approaching today's technology would be to dump a series of engines, possibly ion drives or even a solar sail, on the rock and slow it down so you could pick it up on the next circuit. Looks like we'
  • 3554 Amun is an small metalic asteroid that crosses Earth's pass (not on collission course) and contains over 20 trillion US dollars worth of precious metal

    But the knowledge gained from exploring Space and the Solar System is priceless.

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