13 votes

There are no known commodity resources in space that could be sold on Earth

9 comments

  1. [4]
    patience_limited
    Link
    An interesting article assessing the economics of space mining and manufacturing for commodity import to Earth: Casey Handmer is an astrophysicist, not an economist or geologist, but his point is...

    An interesting article assessing the economics of space mining and manufacturing for commodity import to Earth:

    Advocates of the industrialization of space usually envision a bootstrapping process, wherein one core product provides the profit margin necessary to build out infrastructure and, eventually, move most of Earth’s industry into space.
    The question: Where is the space gold mine? While industrial processes add value at every step, space is often seen initially as a source of raw materials. Specifically, asteroids, the Moon, or Mars are seen as sites for future mines. These mines could produce anything from water to gold, Helium-3 to platinum. In this post, I will cover factors general to all material products before diving into specific examples.

    My contention is that there are no known commodity resources in space that could be sold profitably on Earth.

    Casey Handmer is an astrophysicist, not an economist or geologist, but his point is well-taken. Short of mining or manufacturing something that can't be found at competitive rates on Earth, there's not much purely economic justification for off-Earth bases. I can think of a few scenarios, like military/commercial biotech or assembler research protomolecule! that ought to be kept farther away than the only habitable biosphere we've got. There are potentially super-high value biologicals and ultra-precise components that can be manufactured much more economically in microgravity.

    Off-Earth resources are of greater utility to other off-Earth locations, though. Launch costs are far cheaper from points that aren't at the bottom of Earth's gravity well, and solar energy flux is higher from Earth's orbit inward, especially without atmosphere in the way. Long-term, these are the industrial bootstraps with which we can haul ourselves up into the rest of the Solar System. What's the project timetable for The Expanse, again?

    But as Handmer points out, the gold-rush commercial purpose of space-based industry will be shuffling packets around for the foreseeable future.

    9 votes
    1. [3]
      Eylrid
      Link Parent
      Good article with great analysis. Anything that can be produced on the ground won't be worth producing in space and returning to the ground. As Elon Musk put it: "Honestly, if you had like...

      Good article with great analysis. Anything that can be produced on the ground won't be worth producing in space and returning to the ground. As Elon Musk put it: "Honestly, if you had like crack-cocaine on Mars, in like prepackaged pallets, it still wouldn't make sense to transport it back here."

      Off-Earth resources are of greater utility to other off-Earth locations, though. Launch costs are far cheaper from points that aren't at the bottom of Earth's gravity well

      Amount of fuel needed will be less, but total cost will be more for a long while. Running an off earth mining site is going to have much higher start up and operational costs than mining on the ground. It's a non-starter without reusable rockets, but reusable rockets will also lower the cost of launching from Earth, making it harder for space mining to compete. It's a catch 22.

      3 votes
      1. [2]
        patience_limited
        (edited )
        Link Parent
        It's interesting to me that Elon Musk has a blind spot where hardened robotics is concerned. (Or maybe that's in his master plan for the next couple of decades, once he's consolidated his capital...

        It's interesting to me that Elon Musk has a blind spot where hardened robotics is concerned. (Or maybe that's in his master plan for the next couple of decades, once he's consolidated his capital and research from solar and auto manufacturing? It's clear he's spent enough time thinking about robots + AI to have deep suspicions about whether it's a good idea.)

        Putting humans in space is hideously expensive - CHON biological systems are not at all adaptable for the environment. It takes at least 10 kg of support systems for every kg of biomass, plus food and water at the rate of about 3 kg/day/person. Assuming all that can eventually be produced on a moon, planet or asteroid, you still have to build those means of production - those startup costs you mentioned. Send mostly robots first, and as few humans as possible to tend them.

        3 votes
        1. Eylrid
          Link Parent
          I don't think it's so much that he has a blind spot for robotics, but more that he has an interest in humanity. His goal in sending people to Mars isn't a means to accomplish some job, but an end...

          I don't think it's so much that he has a blind spot for robotics, but more that he has an interest in humanity. His goal in sending people to Mars isn't a means to accomplish some job, but an end in itself. He wants humans on Mars as a backup in case something happens that wipes out life on Earth. Sending robots to Mars wouldn't accomplish that. There's also the inspiration angle that he's big on. Sending probes and rovers isn't nearly as inspiring as sending actual people that the rest of us can relate to.

          He's a fan of automation, but he also knows its limits. He tried to automate as much of the Tesla production line as possible and then realized there are certain things robots still just aren't good at and brought humans back in.

          3 votes
  2. [4]
    NaraVara
    Link
    As a fun thought exercise, replace “space” in this argument with “the America’s” and pretend it’s 1495. “Sure the America’s have gold and slaves, but we gotta get it all the way back to Spain...

    As a fun thought exercise, replace “space” in this argument with “the America’s” and pretend it’s 1495.

    “Sure the America’s have gold and slaves, but we gotta get it all the way back to Spain before we can do anything with them!” Obviously you’d need to develop some infrastructure and supply chains to actually make it profitable, but that’s the deal with any colonial endeavor no?

    With space we’re dealing with matters of scale, but then the argument isn’t “there are no commodities there,” it becomes “it’s more expensive than its worth to get the commodities there.”

    8 votes
    1. [3]
      patience_limited
      (edited )
      Link Parent
      I think the point of the essay is that it's more expensive than it's worth to get physical commodities here in the immediate future. I'm not arguing "it will never be economical", and I don't...

      I think the point of the essay is that it's more expensive than it's worth to get physical commodities here in the immediate future. I'm not arguing "it will never be economical", and I don't think Handmer is either. It could be that he's just tired of wild-eyed Muskites and greedy space investors who think there's a gold rush right now.

      Communications are certainly valuable enough to start the chain of investments that drop launch costs through scaling, and that's Musk's bet.

      Pursuant to your example of the transatlantic trade between Spain and the Americas, it was the existence of abundant wood and slaves [PDF warning] in the Americas that eventually made the commodity shipments back to Spain economical. There are plenty of science-fictionalized accounts of how this could work for space resource utilization.

      Edit: URL fixed.

      8 votes
      1. [2]
        Loire
        Link Parent
        I don't think anyone seriously believes there is a gold rush right this very second. Eventually someone has to make that first step towards making a new venture profitable, there will never be an...

        I don't think anyone seriously believes there is a gold rush right this very second. Eventually someone has to make that first step towards making a new venture profitable, there will never be an instance prior to that first step at which the resource is economical. Someone, somewhere has to make it economical.

        Right now we are barely outside of our LEO so the idea of extraterrestrial colonies, or mining operations, is unimaginable. In ten years that will likely no longer be the case because someone (likely daddy Musk) took the risk to take us to the next stage.

        Here's the fact of the matter: Non-organic resources on Earth are not infinite. We are mining deeper, in increasingly inaccessible locations, with increasingly advanced techniques in order to keep society fueled. Some of these logistics and techniques were unimaginable a century ago, and eventually these mines will run dry. In the asteroid belt the resources we need are virtually limitless (for now). Once extra terrestrial operations become the norm who knows how quickly space based resources will go from uneconomical to infinitly more economical than digging 2.5 miles under ground.

        3 votes
        1. patience_limited
          (edited )
          Link Parent
          In general, I agree with you. There've already been some little boom-and-bust bubbles, like this one, though. Still, there are ongoing efforts to produce space "crack", the material so valuable...

          In general, I agree with you. There've already been some little boom-and-bust bubbles, like this one, though.

          Still, there are ongoing efforts to produce space "crack", the material so valuable and difficult to produce on Earth that it justifies expansion of infrastructure in LEO or otherwise off-Earth for substantial payoff.

          These are numerous hard technical problems that require basic science and engineering research, which effectively means vast investment for uncertain returns on an unknowable timeline. Made in Space is leveraging government funding and research projects to achieve commercial viability; SpaceX is managing with a combination of public outsourcing and private commercial funding. Both companies are privately held right now, but interestingly, SpaceX just announced a planned IPO for its Starlink business. In gold rush terms, I'm totally going to jump on that, since returns may be realized during my lifetime.

          2 votes
  3. ffmike
    Link
    Without running any numbers, my gut feeling is that helium may turn out to be economically viable to mine from space, given its critical importance and dwindling supply. But whether that happens...

    Without running any numbers, my gut feeling is that helium may turn out to be economically viable to mine from space, given its critical importance and dwindling supply. But whether that happens in 10 years or 1000 I have no idea.

    3 votes