Friday, April 04, 2008

Heaven is a Long-Shot Gamble

Asteroid Apophis, a 390 m Aten asteroid (see graphic above), has a rendezvous with near-Earth space on 13 April 2036. We will not really know how close a rendezvous Apophis will have with Earth in 2036, until its 2029 near-Earth fly-by. Earth-crossing asteroids such as Apophis represent both hazard and opportunity. The hazard of being struck by a mountain-sized rock-from-space should be evident. The opportunity perhaps less so.

Suppose that the chance of Apophis striking planet Earth were 30% or greater. That would be a significant level of threat from above. Would such a risk justify an expensive space intercept mission, to attempt to deflect Apophis to a safer orbital distance? I would think so. Yet, there are potentially devastating, but earth-bound, dangers lurking even closer in time than 2036, which have much higher odds of occurring than the current odds for Apophis to contact Earth.

The earth-bound catastrophe being created by human governments is not dramatic enough, not dazzling enough to warrant the attention of the gatekeepers of the human mind--news media and popular media outlets. And certainly government officials want no part of exposing the nightmare they are inexorably bringing down on the heads of the citizens they are supposed to be serving and protecting. But there are ways to avoid catastrophe, both from the threat from above and the threat from below.

We can avoid danger from Earth-crossing asteroids by establishing an active and expanding infrastructure in space. If we are already in space, we can build intercept missions to Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) at our leisure--for purposes of exploring, mining, or deflecting. The value of a single NEA, Eros, is estimated to be at least $ 20-30 Trillion! That is for one asteroid, albeit one somewhat larger than Apophis. Just a few such asteroids could easily make up the budgetary deficits of any number of profligate Earthly governments.

In fact, there is enough value in the solar systems asteroid belt to provide each citizen of Earth with approximately $100 Billion--more wealth than any single super-rich billionaire currently possesses. Not that the wealth of the asteroids will ever be distributed equally to everyone, no. No more than was the wealth from any of a large number of gold-rushes, silver-rushes, diamond-rushes, or large scale rushes to other mineral resources including oil and gas equally distributed. The wealth of the asteroids will go to those who can get there, establish a claim (for now just being there will do that), mine the valuables, get the goods to market, and sell to the highest bidder.

And that is precisely what we are involved in--a NEA "gold rush"--although not many people are aware of it at this time. We do occasionally hear that we are in "The Next Space Race", being driven by hungry young billionaires and entrepreneurs.
Alaska serves as an excellent analogy. Once thought of as worthless territory (in 1867 William Seward, America’s secretary of state, was criticised for paying $7.2m to the Russians for Alaska, known then as “Seward’s folly”), Alaska has since become a trillion-dollar economy. The transport infrastructure has made Alaska’s gold, oil, timber and fishing industries super-profitable. The same will hold true for space. A 0.5km (0.3-mile) diameter asteroid is worth more than $20 trillion in nickel, iron and platinum-group metals.

Aside from the economic incentives, technology is reaching a critical point, making space exploration an inevitable component of human progress. Moore’s Law has given us exponential growth in computing technology, which in turn has led to exponential growth in nearly every other technological industry. Breakthroughs in rocket propulsion will allow us to go farther, faster and more safely into space.

...Recently, the X Prize Foundation joined with Google to announce a $30m Google Lunar X Prize, to be paid out to the first teams able to land on the lunar surface, rove for 500 metres and send back two video/photographic moon-casts. Amazingly, within the first two weeks following the announcement, we received over 190 requests from 25 countries from prospective teams looking for registration materials. This is the new generation of entrepreneurs who will reinvent space exploration the same way that Apple and Dell reinvented the computer industry. ___Economist
Most people think the goal of these hungry young entrepreneurs is space tourism, space hotels, and other local space fun and games. But with the stakes as high as $20 Trillion (!) for one asteroid, something tells me that a lot of these young guns may be secretly gunning for a bigger long-shot gamble than shooting a few overweight tourists into suborbital space.

Getting into space is expensive. Moving mining equipment into a matching orbit with an NEA, landing, setting up, and staying for years to mine and perhaps process the materials on site, will cost many billions of dollars--assuming you can acquire the necessary technical expertise to accomplish the task. That means dealing with financing organisations, insurance companies, and space lawyers. Getting mined materials back to market may be a greater challenge than getting to the NEA in the first place. Then you can expect to face a wide array of lawsuits based upon international space law, which is still being hammered out.

In the end, the greatest obstacle to achieving super-wealth from the asteroids may be in being allowed to keep the wealth after returning to Earth. Certain to face lawsuits from NGOs, Earth governments, UN agencies, and private parties, where are the entrepreneurs who are willing to risk everything for an uncertain chance to keep the hard-won loot?

Mainstream corporations would want strong assurances of protection from lawsuits by their governments. But in a realm where world courts, inter-governmental, and international non-governmental agencies lead the legal charge, single governments can be quite limited. Which means that many early-generation space miners might choose to establish and work with a space-based economy that does not fall under the authority of Earth's United Nations or any of its government members.

How could such an economy start? Incrementally, and with a lot of luck to those who succeed. The idea would be to first start mining the more likely and accessible NEAs. Then using the wealth and the mass from the NEAs, the more successful "space 49ers" work toward the main asteroid belt--and the massive riches waiting there. Any long term permanent space enterprises have to eventually be able to pay their own way--or at least be lucrative enough to attract ready financing on good terms. The alternative is the "long-shot gamble."

Such a space-based infrastructure--independent of the UN and Earth governments--would have to be very resourceful, ingenious, and even disreputable. They will have to be skilled with improvising rocket propellant and reaction mass, space robotics, orbital maneuvers, life support systems, and quick thinking in emergencies, among other things necessary for survival and acquiring mineral wealth. Almost every step of the way from Earth to the main belt would be a long shot gamble. But once in possession of that type of wealth and resources, the Earth would be in no position to dictate terms.

Think of it as a "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" scenario, except in the main asteroid belt instead of on the moon. What type of person is capable of throwing the dice that far? Not George Bush. Not Barack Obama. Not Kevin Rudd or Al Gore. None of the people who occupy the news pages of most media outlets have even a fraction of the substance necessary for such a play as is described here.

There's still a place in the world for a gambler. But to get to heaven, only long-shot gamblers need apply.

Previously published at Al Fin blog