Space Resources: Exploring the Final Frontier, with Alex Gilbert

In this episode, host Daniel Raimi talks with Alex Gilbert , a fellow at the Payne Institute for Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines and a PhD student in the emerging field of space resources development. Although essential resources likely are plentiful on the moon, Mars, and elsewhere in outer space, we have less certainty over where, precisely, these resources are; what technology is necessary to extract them; and what types of economic development are legally permissible in outer space. Still, Gilbert contends that boundless opportunities exist for commercial exploration outside Earth—and that the United States, with its innovative rocket companies and long-running government space agency, could be the nation that leads the way. Notable Quotes Prospecting for minerals and metals outside Earth: “We have an idea that these resources are out there, but we don’t know how much. We don’t know necessarily where all of them are. One of the key things that we need to figure out is, How do we establish enough ground truth about the resources that are there before we can start a commercial extraction mission? We’re really at a prospecting stage.” (8:15) Investing in space is a necessity, not a luxury: “There’s often a question of, Is it worth it for us to spend money on space when we have so many problems back on Earth? That’s why we need to spend money on space. Space helps issues back on Earth. What if we didn’t have our weather satellite system? The potential safety risks involved, the economic damages—so many countries benefit from that [technology].” (21:48) Economic development in outer space cannot ignore environmental impacts: “There’s this idea that space resources are virtually unlimited—that, because there’s no one up there, we can’t do any sort of environmental damage. I reject that categorically. A lot of those arguments … mirror arguments that we’ve seen in the past about the American West, or about the oceans being unlimited and pristine areas that we can do whatever we want with. Every single time those arguments occur, usually what happens is that we then over-exploited things, and we caused damages that have all sorts of social and economic [consequences] years later. When we look to outer space, we really need to think about things from an environmental perspective from the very beginning.” (27:20) Top of the Stack “ Life on Venus? Astronomers See a Signal in Its Clouds ” by Shannon Stirone, Kenneth Chang, and Dennis Overbye “ Phosphine gas in the cloud decks of Venus ” by Jane S. Greaves , Anita M. S. Richards , William Bains, Paul B. Rimmer, Hideo Sagawa , David L. Clements, Sara Seager, Janusz J. Petkowski, Clara Sousa-Silva, Sukrit Ranjan, Emily Drabek-Maunder, Helen J. Fraser, Annabel Cartwright, Ingo Mueller-Wodarg , Zhuchang Zhan, Per Friberg , Iain Coulson, E’lisa Lee, and Jim Hoge “ The Space Force has a horse, for some reason ” by Kathryn Krawczyk The Full Transcript Daniel Raimi : Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio , a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I’m your host, Daniel Raimi. This week, we learn about space mining with Alex Gilbert, a fellow at the Payne Institute for Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines. Alex will help us understand the fundamentals of space mining, including key questions like: what resources are people interested in mining? What technologies will be needed to extract those resources? How will ownership of the resources be governed? And what environmental risks might we encounter—or perhaps create—in space? The answers to all of these questions are truly fascinating. So, I hope you’ll stay with us. Alright, Alex Gilbert from the Payne Institute, thank you so much for joining us today on Resources Radio . Alex Gilbert : Thank you, Daniel. Daniel Raimi : So, Alex, we are going to talk today about space mining. And as I was telling you before we started recording, I’m really excited because this is so far from anything that I know even the remotest amount about. I’m really excited to learn about this. But I want to ask you the first question that we ask all of our guests, which is: how did you get started thinking about and becoming interested in environmental topics in the first place? Alex Gilbert : Yeah, thanks. I’m also really excited. I think this will be a fun conversation. So, I’m originally from Colorado, and when I was growing up, I used to do a lot of backpacking, a lot of outdoor recreation. And particularly, one of my favorite things then that is relevant for this conversation is that I did a lot of stargazing, and so I always had that outdoor aesthetic. And then when I got to undergrad, I took a geography class, and the professor started the geography class with a poem, “Something There is that Doesn’t Love a Wall.” And I thought it was a really interesting way to think about geography. And then I started looking more and more into the environment as a career field and just realized that it was an interdisciplinary field. And I really liked using interdisciplinary approaches to try and identify and solve those problems. And so from there, it just kind of snowballed into energy issues, climate issues, and then now increasingly space issues. Daniel Raimi : Yeah, fantastic. So let’s start talking about those space issues. So, the first question that I wanted to start us off with was, if you can help us understand, what are the resources that people might be interested in mining in space. What are the types of things that people might be looking for? And also, this is a question born out of ignorance, but how do we on Earth even know that a given object in space, whether it’s a moon or an asteroid or something else would even have resources that we would be interested in mining? Alex Gilbert : Yeah. So, that’s a great way to start really. What is there, how do we know, and why do we want to get it? So maybe to start, I’ll start by rebutting an existing preconception about space mining. There are these stories that consistently come out saying that the first trillionaire on Earth is going to be a space miner, or that you look at some of these asteroids and they’re worth however many quadrillion of dollars in terms of the resources available. When we are looking at space mining, it’s a very different approach to that focus on the economic riches, because a lot of that analysis is very superficial. When you really start looking at space resources today, and for the next 50 years, we’re only talking about a handful of resources on certain asteroids, the moon, and potentially Mars. And for the most part, when we’re talking about the resources, we’re very unlikely to be bringing much of these resources back to Earth. The economics are just too challenging. And so, when people are talking about asteroid mining in particular, they often talk about platinum or rare earth or other types of metals that have very high values. There’s work going into this question right now to understand the economics of returning those to Earth. But it seems like it’s going to be highly uncompetitive with traditional Earth resources. Just with the launch cost and then going back down into the atmosphere, you end up getting so many different costs along the way that even if you can get something that is very high value on a mass basis, it’s unlikely to be competitive in Earth markets. So why do we care about space resources? Really we care about space resources because it enhances our ability to do things in space. The primary one that we are focused on right now, and which will likely be the first major space resource produced, is water. Water’s great for a number of reasons. You can drink it. You can split it into oxygen, hydrogen, and use that oxygen to breathe. But really the big thing that is useful about water in space is that we can use it to make propellant. We can refuel satellites and spaceships with water that we have found and then processed in space. And because the space environment has abundant solar power, it’s relatively straightforward for us to take water and split it into hydrogen and oxygen, which we can then burn in a rocket engine. And so, once we have this ability to produce propellant, it makes it much easier and cheaper to access areas that are farther away. Most activities right now are just low Earth orbit. We can do more things in geosynchronous Earth orbit. We can do more things in the system or space. We can also do more interplanetary missions. And particularly if you’re looking at some sort of crude mission to Mars in the future, having refueling in space once you get out of Earth’s gravity well is […]

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