Much excitement as the US decides that it’s just fine if people go space mining. Which is interesting of course, for the UN rules say that while you’re entirely free to go mining you’re not to do it for a profit, it must be “for the benefit of all”. Which slightly puts a damper on things. But there’s another problem which the new US rules don’t address: it’s still not possible to own a deposit or resource up there. You are, now, under the new US rules, which the rest of the world doesn’t recognise, allowed to explore, find and mine something, for that potential profit. But as soon as you start doing that then anyone else who can get there is entirely allowed to go mine that same deposit. That puts another damper on the economics of the adventure.
However, as we’ve said around here before there’s a rather more basic problem with the idea:
If that proposal is too large to take seriously, your horizons may have become too Earth-bound. The would-be asteroid miner Planetary Resources launched back in 2010. Its investors include Larry Page and Eric Schmidt of Google, whose bet on driverless cars sounded pretty silly a few years ago as well. While space mining remains a moonshot, with vast challenges for its pioneers, the potential rewards are stellar. One estimate suggests a single asteroid could contain more platinum than has ever been mined on Earth.
Mining asteroids to provide materials to build something in space sounds like a great idea given the cost of getting mass into space. Very early American houses were built, sometimes, of brick carried as ballast across the Atlantic: it didn’t take long for people to realise that digging up some American clay and baking it was a more sensible idea. So it will be up there, use the resources there, not carry everything with us.
However, those starry eyed at the idea of those vast resources of platinum. What is the Earth bound price of platinum going to be if we double the amount that humanity has to play with? Somewhat lower than it currently is would be our prediction. And the elasticity of demand is, with respect to price, quite low for this metal. Meaning that a large increase in supply will lead to a very large decrease in price.
Again as we’ve said before, finding a bit of platinum up there would allow it to be sold down here for a high price, but a bit wouldn’t cover the fixed costs of going. And finding a lot would depress the price possibly sufficiently that finding a lot wouldn’t cover the price of going.
Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go mining, but our slide rule tells us that mining for precious metals ain’t gonna be the way to pay for it all. Rather an interesting twist on Adam Smith’s diamonds and water paradox really: the truly valuable thing up there is likely to be the water that humans desperately need and is currently in very short supply.