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“Thar’s gold in them there asteroids!”

Actually, the “gold” in the quote refers less to the actual element and more to the potential wealth lurking within the resources available in many asteroids in space. I base this optimistic assessment, which is looking at the very long term and not the near future, based on the following chart, just published in a new white paper report [pdf] dubbed “Asteroid Mining: Key to Large-Scale Space Migration or Rocky Road?” The chart itself comes from this October 2023 research paper.

The estimated resources in the metallic asteroids, compared to Earth

Except for gold, the estimated abundances in metallic asteroids of all these important minerals exceeds the entire reserves contained on Earth, by many times. And even though the asteroid reserves of gold do not exceed that of Earth, that in-space gold is likely far easier to access and mine. As the report notes:

It has been estimated that one asteroid, 16 Psyche, has $700 quintillion worth of gold and other precious metals, which is equivalent to around US$93 billion for each person on Earth!

Note that the probe Psyche is presently on its way to the asteroid Psyche, and will arrive in 2029.

As the report correctly notes, the in-space technology to mine these resources presently does not exist, and will likely not be available for decades. Moreover, the initial users of these resources are likely going to be those living and working in space, and such a population also does not exist at this time.

Nonetheless, as the cost to get into orbit continues to drop, so will the cost to bring payloads back to Earth. Consider this: A single Starship has the potential to return as much as a 100 tons from orbit. There are more than 3.5 million ounces in 100 tons. At present gold is trading at a little more than $2,000 per ounce. Do the math. That one cargo would bring back gold worth $7 billion at today’s prices.

Obviously, such a sudden influx of gold would cause the price per ounce to plummet, but even it that price were to drop by 90%, the value of that gold cargo would still be $700 million, more than enough to pay for the flight.

Though these numbers are very uncertain and must not be taken too seriously, the bottom line remains: The resources from just the metallic asteroids in the main asteroid belt will significantly disrupt the world’s economy, with most of that disruption being gloriously positive. The cost of resources to develop new technologies will drop enormously, making it possible for more people to afford better things. It will also make it possible for a new birth of creativity, with more people of all kinds able to take advantage of those lower costs to quickly and cheaply develop their own inventions.

In many ways, the opening of the solar system for exploration and settlement will do the same for human civilization as the opening of the New World did for the Old World, beginning after Columbus. For the next five hundred years the human race saw a burst of creativity and development unparalleled in history. The standard of living for all humans went from general poverty to grand wealth, and it did so in only a few generations.

There is a reason the Enlightenment and the American Revolution occurred at this same time. Humanity saw endless new possibilities, and it therefore made sense to develop and adopt philosophies that encouraged the freedom and open-mindedness necessary to harness those possibilities. The Enlightenment’s fundamental principle — to search for truth above all else — served that purpose admirably. So did the fundamentals of the American Revolution, that demanded that government stop hindering its citizens’ freedom and instead honor it, allowing them the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Space has the potential to do the same, if the human race has the courage and determination to go for it.

However, as Elon Musk noted in February 2022:

The window of opportunity [to build human settlements on other worlds] may be open for a long time, and I hope it is, but it may also be open for a short time. And this is the first point in the four and half billion history of Earth that it is possible.

He also added, “To be frank, civilization is feeling a little fragile these days.”

For those in power, the wealth that space offers is actually a threat. Just as the new wealth of the New World eroded the power of monarchy and royalty, so will the arrival of wealth from space erode the power of today’s globalists. You can bet they will work either to slow the arrival of the wealth, or to make sure it is funnelled more to them than to everyone else.

The Liberty Bell
“Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all
the inhabitants thereof.” Photo credit: William Zhang

In many ways, the political battle over space will likely end up to be a more difficult challenge than the struggle to develop the engineering and technology to mine the asteroids. Humans are by nature tool-makers. We will instinctively figure out how to build the rockets, spacecraft, and mining equipment necessary to extract these resources.

We unfortunately also have a curse that often limits our abilities, and that curse is the lust for power. Rather than adapt and invent, some humans would rather wield power over others. These individuals generally don’t know how to adapt and invent, and are often frightened of such new things. They then act to control everyone else, and the result generally is poverty, ignorance, and collapse.

Which will it be? Will the next five hundred years be a new Enlightenment, or will it be another Dark Age? We right now stand at a fork in the road, with either possibility before us. It is time to choose.

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit. If you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and the author gets a bigger cut much sooner.

The audiobook is also available at all these vendors, and is also free with a 30-day trial membership to Audible.

"Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America's quest for the moon... Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America's greatest human triumphs."--San Antonio Express-News


  • john hare

    There’s an asteroid passing closer than Geo orbit in 2029 that is coming back in 2017. Might be an opportunity to test some mining techniques.

  • Ray Van Dune

    Those ones that travel backwards in time can be tricky…

  • Edward

    Be careful! Gold is priced in troy ounces, 12 troy ounces per pound, so your numbers are a little off, it would be around 2.4 million troy ounces per ton (standard, not metric), and closer to $5 billion dollars worth of gold, 100 tonnes metric, could be brought back per Starship. Your orders of magnitude are correct, and the effect on Earth and for humanity could be profound.

    However, we may want to consider that most of these materials are likely to be used in space rather than brought back in raw form. As raw materials, they may go into made-in-space products that are even more valuable than the value of the raw materials, and far more useful. This is what I am looking forward to. From the linked white paper:

    This opportunity hints at a vast frontier for both terrestrial and in-space manufacturing endeavors. As noted earlier, however, the in-space component appears to be the more realistic application.

    In the long run, off-world supplies of material could be far less expensive than launching them from the Earth, making space manufacturing even more profitable.

    In the coming decades, experts anticipate that space mining will prioritize resources crucial for space missions, not for returning materials to Earth. Rather than traditional metals, such as gold, water could emerge as the most valuable asset in space exploration.

    As space mining increases, supply chains in space will come more from the space mining and less from the Earth. Mining space has fewer environmental problems than mining the earth, where tailings and leftover mines can cause pollution.

  • Edward: Thanks for the more precise numbers. I have never claimed to be mathematician. :)

    Note also that I made it very clear right at the start that initially these resources will be used mostly in-space. However, in my essay I wanted to underline their value from an Earth perspective, and make it clear that it is going to be possible to profitably bring materials back to Earth.

  • I have reservations about entangling government with the market for off world resources, however I think it may possibly be an OK justification for it. I can envision legislation that incentivizes & guarantees market exclusivity for asteroid derived metals. It would operate similar to existing legislation for conflict minerals. That legislation was encoded in SEC & OECD rules that targeted supply chains for metals like gold, tin, tungsten, & titanium. It then created mechanisms to exclude minerals from the DRC ( Democratic Republic of the Congo), and some other offending sources.

    Over time, similar legislation for asteroid sourced metals would enforce exclusion of metals mined on the Earth. That could be a tricky endeavor, as it will become politically loaded as to who has to shut down a mine & lose part of their tax base. It would be a delicate balance to begin closing terrestrial mines and move the supply off world. In the short term, the regulation may need to provide a “floor” for the price of the metal, and exclude terrestrial competitors. I think this works best for industrial white metals like Pt, Rh, Pd, Ru, Re, Os, Ir etc. The global users are mainly businesses that have to comply with laws.

    It would not work for metals like gold or silver, that have traditional utility as stored wealth. At that granular level of demand, it won’t work. I also think about the potential for a rogue industrial oligarch to flood the earth with so much gold that central banks holdings become worthless, and nations or trading blocs that have gold backed currency could be destroyed. ( feature or bug?)

  • Stanley Wright: The problem with all your legal suggestions (some of which might make sense) is that ALL of them are impossible to implement, for blunt legal reasons. The Outer Space Treaty forbids any nation from claiming any territory in space, thus preventing any nation from establishing its legal framework anywhere. Instead, the ruling regime falls to the UN, and trust me, no UN rules are going to favor any commerical or private market in space.

    The Trump administration attempted with the Artemis Accords to create a alliance in favor of western property right concepts, and then use that alliance to force through political changes overcoming the restrictions of the Outer Space Treaty. Under the Biden administration that alliance is now morphing instead into a globalist cartel, focused more on imposing DEI principles than freedom. (See my recent posts here and here.)

  • john hare

    You mean we can’t just reverse polarity on the dilithium crystals? :-) 2029 and 2037 would give 8 years for the demonstration between close passes.

  • Robert

    Why not mine the NEA in the next 10 years, or so? First for water, and gases, and later for platinum, and platinum group metals. We can do it with Starship. Alan Wasser has on his website, a proposal for a lunar land claims bill. The U.S. would recognize lunar land claims, but U.S. sovereignty would not extend to the Moon.

    The Moon has lots of craters. Could there be platinum, and platinum group metals in those craters?

  • Andi

    Minor edit in caption for Liberty Bell photo: “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof”

  • Andi: I need to check (but can’t do it now) but I am almost certain to took the words directly from my own King James Bible. I like the wording you offer better, but will check the Bible again before changing.

  • wayne

    good stuff!

    “Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof Lev. XXV X”

  • David Reid Ross

    wayne – “liberty” in the Levitical (Priestly) sense (amargi in Sumerian) meant forgiveness of grain-debt.

  • Andi: I just checked two different English translations, including the King James, and you are correct. I am not sure where my misquote came from, other than possibly I was misreading it. Thank you.

  • @Robert Zimmerman,

    Does mining an asteroid necessitate ownership of the celestial body being mined? Or just recognition of the ownership of the extracted resources? I get your objection, but I think there are existing legal opinions that this can in fact be workable. Yes, NGO’s and the UN will hate this, as it has a kind of “wild west” approach to resource extraction. However doing the extraction under the auspices of an analog to “Conflict Minerals” legislation, and accompanying oversight of bodies like the SEC & OECD at least give opportunity to have standards for those doing the extracting.

  • Stanley Wright asked, “Does mining an asteroid necessitate ownership of the celestial body being mined? Or just recognition of the ownership of the extracted resources?”

    These are the exact questions the Artemis Accords and almost all western capitalist nations have asked in writing their legal space regulations, as required by the Outer Space Treaty. The U.S. has led the way in this, with Congress passing laws attempting to protect the ownership of the material extracted. The Artemis Accords attempt to do the same.

    It remains to be seen if this effort will work. The Outer Space Treaty insists that everything belongs to everyone, and that no one can claim rights to any location. If a U.S. company finds a good mining resource, it has under this legal regime no recourse should China send a mining operation to the same location.

  • Robert

    I think companies should be able to claim asteroids. But to claim an asteroid near the Earth, they should have to move it to the Sun-Earth L4, or L5. After that, they would have to build a space habitat near the asteroid. Companies should be allowed to claim 30, to 50 asteroids.
    To move an asteroid, they should use a solar sail. Solar sails can be made from aluminum, mined on the Moon.

    How big would a solar sail be, to move an asteroid?

  • Edward

    Robert asked: “How big would a solar sail be, to move an asteroid?

    It depends upon the size of the asteroid and the amount of time willing to wait to get it to the destination.

    I suspect that an asteroid small enough to move with a solar sail in a timely manner would also be small enough for a company to claim as its own.
    Robert Zimmerman,
    Your math was correct, but I once compared the cost of a space instrument I designed with its weight in gold. Someone pointed out my error, as the cost of gold is in troy ounces. The instrument was still worth (cost) its weight in gold.

    I wanted to point out that space material could also be even more valuable on Earth when processed into products. And I agree, the early uses of space material is likely to be propellants used in space by interplanetary spacecraft. Then space-mined materials will likely be used for space habitats (especially on the surfaces of the Moon and Mars). Eventually companies will have the facilities to use space-mined materials make valuable products for use here on Earth. Meanwhile, Earth-mined materials will have to do. It is one of the reasons I am so excited about Varda’s recent flight.

  • Robert

    It depends upon the size of the asteroid and the amount of time willing to wait to get it to the destination.

    I suspect that an asteroid small enough to move with a solar sail in a timely manner would also be small enough for a company to claim as its own.
    Lets say that the asteroid is 2 miles across. Its a nickel iron asteroid, and it was discovered in 1976. Last time I checked, the asteroid was called 1976AA. Now, suppose you want to move that asteroid to the Sun-Earth L4, or L5 liberation point? That is 93 million miles ahead of the Earth, and 93 million miles behind the Earth.

    I think asteroids should be moved to those locations. I also think that space should be zoned. You can ship 10,000 tons to Leo, 50,000 tons to GEO, 10 million tons to the Earth-Moon L4, L5, and L1.

    The amount could go higher in the future, once technology is more advanced. But the shipping companies should have insurance incase of accidents. So I think we need new space treaties. And abolish the old ones. When the old space treaties were signed, it was just governments that were sending spacecraft to the Moon, and beyond. We also need to let companies to claim land on the Moon, and to claim asteroids.

  • Robert: If private companies can claim and control territory, then you have created a company town withholden to no other laws. No Constitution. No Bill of Rights. No legal constraints at all. The boss is the boss, and the workers are at his or her mercy.

    What needs to happen is that, as you say, we need to repeal the Outer Space Treaty, the only treaty presently in force in space, and replace it with something better. See my essay for The Federalist in 2017 for one suggestion:

    How President Trump Could Jumpstart Space Settlements

    Nations would then compete for territory, but each could establish their own legal framework. I am very confortable with allowing dictactorships to compete with capitalist nations, because freedom always wins in such a competition.

  • Robert

    Robert Zimmerman
    March 1, 2024 at 11:29 pm
    Robert: If private companies can claim and control territory, then you have created a company town withholden to no other laws. No Constitution. No Bill of Rights. No legal constraints at all. The boss is the boss, and the workers are at his or her mercy.==

    What I think should happen is this. First, pass a bill, that will become a treaty. This bill is the same proposal, that Alan Wasser came up with.
    Next create a government for the Moon. The name for this government should be called Lunar Economic Development Authority. It would be a port authority type of government. Each country that signs the treaty, and recognizes lunar land claims, will then be a member of LEDA.

    Each member nation will then have two board members, that will sit on the board of directors of LEDA. One scientist, or engineer, and one person that owns, or operates a business. Elon Musk, or Jeff Bezos could be the business owner from the U.S.

    Land claims fees would go to LEDA. LEDA would also make money by offering a lottery. Instead of cash prizes, LEDA would offer trips to space, and land. The land would be purchased from private companies.
    Some of the trips would be to LEO, but the grand prize would be a trip to the Moon.

    As the lunar population grows, the seats that are held by the nations of Earth in LEDA, would be transferred to the Moon. Eventually, all the seats in LEDA, would be held by lunar residents. After that, those seats would become the Lunar senate. The upper house of a new nation.

    For Mars, we do the same thing. We create MEDA. For space, starting in LEO, we create SEDA. At first, the settlements won’t start out as nations. But instead a communities.

  • Bureaucracy yesterday, bureaucracy today, bureaucracy tomorrow.

    Without some form of Constitution related to the structure of governance and individual rights, where and what kind of bureaucracy, law and justice system will your proposals deliver humanity to?

    And who says a “Superior” country like China would agree to such a scheme?

    Just being a devil’s advocate here.

  • Max

    Z man said;
    “Moreover, the initial users of these resources are likely going to be those living and working in space, and such a population also does not exist at this time.”

    I completely agree and have said so in the past. The cost to return things to earth is a parachute and a reentry vehicle (possibly made cheap out of rocks melted from regolith) The only things returning to earth will be items in high demand that cannot be made on earth… Some pharmaceuticals and other rare items?
    But the cost of moving mass off of earth is so expensive, it is much more economical to produce and manufacture the items you need out of raw materials mined in space for space purposes because that’s the future and where the materials will be needed. Gold for example will be used to plate living quarters because it’s non-reactive with the chemicals made from human bodies that would dissolve other metals and materials into hazardous substances. (glass is a cheaper alternative, especially for underground, but would not handle the hot and cold temperature changes on the surface as well as gold)

    As for 100 tons of gold to change the economies of earth, I believe that much gold is produced yearly.
    Like other metals, it is stockpiled in large amounts to keep the price artificially high.
    Kennecott produces about 750 tons a year… Most of which is flown directly to England? I’m not sure anymore because of China buying out the English gold exchange?

  • Edward

    Robert Zimmerman,
    Someone let me near a slide rule again, so I did a few calculations. From my faulty memory: all the gold that we humans have mined on Earth, so far, would make up a 50 foot cube. This would be 125,000 cubic feet. At 1,200 lb per cubic foot, that would be around 150 million pounds, thus valued at around $3-½ trillion weighing around 70,000 metric tonnes. This would mean that it would take 700 of these hypothetical Starship flights and landings to double the amount of gold on Earth.

    Somehow, I had expected it to take more flights.

    How much this would affect the price of gold on Earth is a mystery (it would probably also affect the price of rice in China, too), because there is a whole lot of that 125,000 cubic feet tied up in jewelry and other decorations, connectors and other electrical devices, and various industrial equipment, leaving much less than those three trillion dollars as unused bulk commodity to back any nation’s currency.
    You suggested: “Lets say that the asteroid is 2 miles across. Its a nickel iron asteroid …

    For reference, to help put the forces into perspective: 1,000 Newtons (N) is about 225 lbs.

    For a solar sail, the best force we can get from a solar sail in the direction away from the Sun, the sail being perpendicular to the sunlight. The light pressure at the orbit of the Earth is about 9 µN per square meter of solar sail. This is the best force per square meter that we can get from a solar sail. Reality is much less, because some of the light is absorbed by the material (half the force), some of it passes through the solar sail, as it is necessarily extremely thin (none of the force), and to move about the solar system, in order to get clockwise or counterclockwise accelerations to reach specific orbits, we have to angle the sail away from the direction that is optimal for maximum acceleration.

    The specific gravity of nickel is about 9, and is about 8 for iron, so a nickel-iron asteroid would have a specific gravity of about 8½, or 8.5 metric tonnes per cubic meter. A 2-mile diameter asteroid would have a diameter of 3.22 km or 3,220 meters.

    Volume = 4/3 * π * r^3 (Equation 1)
    where r = 1,610 meters

    Volume = 17.5 X 10^9 m^3

    Multiplied by density (8.5 metric tonnes per m^3), we get:
    mass (M) = 1.5 X 10^11 tonnes, or 1.5 X 10^14 kg. (Result 1)

    ASSUMPTION 1: the maximum pressure always acts on the sail, no matter the direction the sail faces, giving a pressure of 9 µN per square meter of solar sail. This hypothetical scenario will give us a greater force on the sail than reality and a greater acceleration of the asteroid payload.

    F = M * A (Equation 2)

    A = F/M

    F = 9 µN per square meter of solar sail = 9 X 10^-6 kg*m/s^2 per square meter of sail

    A = (9 X 10^-6) / (1.5 X 10^14) = 6 X 10^-20 m/s^2 of acceleration per square meter of sail (Result 2)

    ASSUMPTION 2: a 100 km^2 solar sail. (This is somewhat larger than we have built or tested, so far, but maybe we can make and control sails of this size.)

    The area of the sail is (100,000 meters)^2 = 10^10 square meters of sail.

    Using result 1, we can find the acceleration of the 2-mile diameter nickel-iron asteroid:

    a = acceleration per square meter of sail * square meters of sail (result 2 multiplied by assumption 2)
    a = (6 X 10^-20 m/s^2 per square meter of sail) * (10^10 square meter of sail)
    a = 6 X 10^-10 m/s^2 maximum acceleration of the asteroid (six angstroms per second per second). (Result 3)

    ASSUMPTION 3: the distance to move the asteroid is 93 million miles (150 million km, or 150X10^9 meters). This ignores any realities of orbital mechanics.

    ASSUMPTION 4: Acceleration for half the distance and deceleration for the 2nd half of the distance. This assumption folds in that the orbital mechanics requires this half-half split, again ignoring any realities of orbital mechanics.

    distance (d) = 1/2 * a * t^2 (Equation 3)

    t = √(2d/a)
    Where t is time of travel, or in this case 1/2 the total time of travel.

    d = 75 X 10^9 meters
    a = 6 X 10^-10 m/s^2 (from result 3)

    t = √(2 * 75 X 10^9 m / 6 X 10^-10 m/s^2)
    = √(150 X 10^9 / 6 X 10^-10)
    = √(25 X 10^19) = √(250 X 10^18)
    = 16 X 10^9 seconds. (Result 4)

    Converting to years: 500 years. For the first half of the journey.

    The whole travel time to move the 2-mile diameter nickel-iron asteroid a distance of 93 million miles is around 1000 years, under the ideal conditions, producing maximum acceleration.

    Unless I messed up the math, in which case I could be off by an order of magnitude or three.

    I used quantities per square meter of sail in order to allow for simpler calculations of other sizes of sails. However, the basic concept is that the time taken is related to the square of the size of the sail, so a square sail 200 km on a side (400 km^2 sail area) would take half the time.

    Changing the asteroid size is a more difficult matter, however, because there will be a cube-square thing going with the calculations. I am willing to compromise and conclude that bigger is badder when it comes to moving things around the solar system.

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