Asteroid mining, scarcity, science and socialism: responding to Aaron Bastani

Submitted by martin on 5 January, 2021 - 6:20 Author: Josh Lovell
asteroid

Mining the Sky

The world we live in today wasn’t the result of any grand design. It was the result of struggle, revolution, and scientific and technological advances. Human society is locked in struggle: battles between social classes which shape our world, yet this is too often forgotten, and most sadly by left-wing writers advocating communism. This is ultimately what is presented in Aaron Bastani’s 2019 book, “Fully Automated Luxury Communism”.

Whilst this has been reviewed in full here, given my academic research into planetary astronomy, I want to focus on one chapter in particular: “Mining the Sky”. In this section Bastani provides a broad overview of recent technological improvements and accomplishments in space exploration, and assesses the potential future of asteroid mining, concluding that this will not only be inevitable in the next century, but something that will bring about a post-scarcity society (one in which the volume of resource available to humanity far exceeds our ability to use it). Whilst I don’t doubt that some forms of space mining may provide future civilisations with great social and scientific benefit, a healthy dose of scientific scepticism is required before we rule it in as strictly as Bastani. The problems with his hypothesis however come in two forms, scientific and political, which although related, I’ll cover separately.

The science of mining the sky

Let’s first examine the science of asteroids, and the challenges this poses to mass-scale mining operations. Whilst Bastani does make clear there are technological difficulties yet to be overcome (although he only mentions the need for developing more advanced robots), he glosses over some major issues, falling on the side of this inevitably becoming a viable industry within decades, based on recent advances in asteroid probes, our understanding of asteroid compositions, and ongoing private-sector start-up research. This however is bad science for a number of reasons.

Despite stumbling on potentially the biggest physical uncertainty related to the viability of asteroid mining, Bastani casts this aside without interrogation: “the precise composition of asteroids, beyond predictive models, remains unknown.” Although he identifies one related risk (to commercial operations if mining missions yield only poor mineral extractions), he avoids discussing a much more fundamental question: what if asteroids are simply much poorer in materials it would be valuable to extract? So far, we know that some asteroids are likely dominated in composition by metals such as iron and nickel, though the presence of other rarer metals (such as gold, palladium, platinum) are known with much less precision. Since asteroid impacts very likely seeded at least some of the rare material deposits on Earth, we might expect some to be rich in such minerals. But this isn’t necessarily the case for all of them, and asteroid compositions are likely to be highly variable based on their size and location (both of which vary substantially in the Solar System). What we might mine on a small-medium sized near-Earth asteroid could be very different to a much larger body in the distant Asteroid Belt. And we might find very little that’s worth mining at all. Any assessment of potential mining resource yields is subject to these physical uncertainties and bias. So although Bastani quotes the expected price of such minerals locked inside asteroids, these are based on estimates made by space tech start-up CEOs. These estimations could end up being in the right ball-park (or fall short by a long way), but it doesn’t require particularly deep insight to realise the potential bias that a business owner might have in assessing their potential market, especially when on the hunt for longer-term funding. I’ll explore the fate of some of the start-ups Bastani discusses later on.

What do we know with certainty? We have data from only those asteroids that have landed on Earth, and from the few missions that have extracted small surface samples of near-Earth asteroids (such as the two missions cited in the text). These sample extraction missions did demonstrate our ability to land and retrieve mineral samples from near-Earth asteroids, however these only returned grams of material for scientific study, falling orders of magnitude short of the megatonne extraction missions later alluded to in the chapter. Scaling up existing operations able to collect cups of surface dust to missions that can harvest queries of metal from the cores of asteroids requires significant technological improvement and research (which I will return to). Implicit in the fact we are conducting these exploratory science missions underlines this same problem: we simply do not know accurately what these bodies are made of. This even remains true of the most well studied near-Earth object, the Moon, which humans have even visited: only in October this year did we confirm the water content on its surface. This often comes down to one simple issue: almost everything we know in astronomy about asteroids comes from the light reflected off their surface. Since these are coated in opaque dust, knowing which are resource rich cannot be determined accurately without visiting them. Indeed, prior to any larger scale extraction missions (each potentially lasting several years through to decades) the demanding task of physically surveying these in advance will be required before a detailed understanding of their contents can be found. And we may find during such surveys that like on Earth, these rare-Earth metals are indeed rare in asteroids too: there is simply no guarantee that what we think may be present in these bodies is correct. So, although it is not beyond the realms of possibility that some asteroids/planets/moons could be found with mineral abundances that meet some of the needs of civilisations for millenia to come, we should be highly sceptical of any claim right now that these will all be met through asteroid mining.

Since many of the figures quoted by Bastani in this chapter may seem incomprehensibly large, it is worth unpacking some of these. One example is the $1000 quadrillion value placed on the iron locked inside a single asteroid (16 Psyche, which compositionally is better understood based on its large size and mass). But we shouldn’t let this figures blind us into thinking these are all “giant floating mines” (his words). To illustrate this, the value quoted is found by multiplying the total estimated mass of iron present in the asteroid with the value per kilo on Earth. Putting aside for now how to transfer this all to the Earth’s surface, its subsequent storing arrangements might prove challenging: this volume of iron would cover the entire continent of Africa to a depth of over 100m. So, although we can be convinced that there are asteroids truly mega-abundant in metals, without considering that perhaps only tiny fractions can feasibly be extracted and stored, quoting said values can become rather meaningless.

Although transporting material to the Earth’s surface may be possible, it is still likely to result in significant environmental and ecological degradation, and perhaps presents the single biggest technological barrier. There currently exists one method to get material to and from the surface of the Earth from space, and involve rockets or shuttles, which produce significant amounts of exhaust gas when burning their fuel. To put this into context, the space shuttle (although no longer in use) required 500,000 gallons of fuel per trip and had a maximum capacity of 39 tonnes. This was shown to have polluted wildlife parks, pumping tonnes of metals and poisonous gas into the air. Additionally, the new Space X Falcon Heavy rocket, has a larger capacity of 68 tonnes, and it too has had concerns raised about its impact on the environment, with each launch contributing hundreds of tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere. Based on either of these vehicles’ capacities, extracting even the same amount of iron from an asteroid as that mined on Earth per year (approximately 2.5 billion tonnes) would take over 100 million round-trips. This is roughly twice the total number of flights annually. To my knowledge, there exist no transfer vehicles that are ecologically less damaging than either the Space Shuttle or even Space X’s reusable rockets. Surprisingly, Bastani omits any discussion of the environmental impact of launching and landing material on the scales required to achieve “post-scarcity”. There is a subtle irony therefore that Bastani later posits a 2040 decarbonisation plan as necessary and consistent with “Fully Automated Luxury Communism”. Anyone predicting the end of resource scarcity with space mining needs to address how they would circumvent the mass environmental damage likely caused by bringing materials back to Earth. Indeed, this aspect alone suggests that the environmental costs associated with large-scale mining may outweigh any possible economic gains.

A further problem left unexplored by Bastani arises due to the physical structure of asteroids: these aren’t all single solid rocks. Asteroids show massive variations in their sizes, with some forming bodies hundreds of kilometres across, however asteroids up to roughly 10km in diameter are commonly known as “rubble piles”. These ones often aren’t quite massive enough to hold themselves together with their own gravity. Instead, they are often formed as multiple asteroids connected together by surface ice, dust and other material, similar to how snowballs can be stuck together. Attempting deep-mining processes on asteroids below such a size could lead to them fragmenting, another reason why the science missions to smaller asteroids previously referred to aren’t necessarily scalable concept mission designs for larger extractions. This could mean that only the very largest asteroids can survive being mined. Unfortunately the size distribution of asteroids means that the very largest are also much rarer, with potentially only a handful near to Earth exceeding 10km. Although Bastani points out that many more large asteroids do exist in the Solar System, he omits mentioning that these are predominantly either in the Asteroid Belt (between Mars and Jupiter), and the Kuiper Belt (beyond the orbit of Neptune). These are then increasingly challenging to get to and back from. For example, the Kuiper Belt is over 30 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun (over 100 times further than the asteroid sample missions), and took the New Horizons probe over 9 years to reach. At these distances, mining round-trips could take 20–30 years. Each. All considered, whilst Bastani refers to the tens of thousands of potential nearby asteroid mines, these may contain only dozens that are minable on human timescales. In 2013, just 12 asteroids were categorised by a group of scientists at Glasgow’s University of Strathclyde as “Easily Recoverable Objects”, none of which exceeded 20m in size, (though this may have been missed by Bastani). Such missions may not be impossible, but these are significant challenges — physical and technical — that have not yet been solved.

Bastani provides some short discussion on how future missions might shorten the timespan to retrieve mining yields, with one suggestion being to propel asteroids closer to Earth to reduce extraction route distances. I admit this was the first time I had encountered this concept, though it left me with only questions, and concerns. To start with, for the nearby largest asteroids this would take enormous amounts of propulsive energy to move them, an energy loss which may negate any gain in bringing them closer to Earth. For the smaller, more maneuverable objects, their lower resource yields make them less valuable for mining (if these can even be mined without fragmenting). This might also only be possible for those asteroids closest to Earth. Crossing the orbits of planets and large bodies already pose physical and technical challenges for agile and controllable spacecraft. This will be harder for asteroids. So, whilst I would question whether there is in fact a physical “sweet-spot” that makes this possible and viable, whether we should try this at all is something else entirely.

Attempting to bring asteroids closer to Earth for mining would be a highly dangerous process. The complex gravitational interactions between the Earth, the Moon and near-Earth asteroids means that accurately predicting safe and stable orbit locations that avoid collisions with Earth is challenging, if not impossible in the long term. Kilometre-sized impacts with the Earth happen on average every million years without human interference. While the Chicxulub asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs was 81km (and over twice the size of the largest near-Earth asteroid), even ones tens of metres in diameter can have disastrous consequences. The Chelyabinsk meteor was just 20m in size and injured over 1600 people, and damaged over 7000 buildings (these are known as “Potentially Hazardous Objects” for a reason). Of the known near-Earth asteroids, around 1000 exceed 1km in diameter, with many thousands of others larger than 100m. Perturbing their orbits closer to Earth could raise the risk of a catastrophic impact. For a process that may provide only marginal gains in reducing extraction times and costs, I would strongly argue against this. And from a quick Google search it turns out that I am not alone: Carl Sagan and Steven Ostro warned about this in 1994 (https://www.nature.com/articles/368501a0), but perhaps Bastani overlooked this during his research.

To summarise so far, contrary to what Bastani argues we simply don’t yet know if asteroids are sensible targets for mining based on their composition and structure. Even if it turns out they are, it isn’t inevitable that the technical challenges associated with scaling up single missions to the levels of industrial extraction are insurmountable. And whether this can ever be done without substantially damaging the environment is dubious at best.

The politics of mining the sky

Although the broad implications of the politics of Fully Automated Luxury Communism are dealt with here, there are a few points worth critiquing specific to this chapter, in particular the discussion of the Outer Space Treaty, and the logic of capitalism in relation to over-abundance. Let’s start with the first of these.

Bastani rightly outlines the legal loopholes in the Outer Space Treaty (1968), a document devoid of hard limits curtailing capitalist expansion into space, and argues that this treaty should be updated. His answer though? Updating this based on the Madrid Protocol. I had to read up on what this was to understand its practical implications, which in short, provide a system for managing intellectual property on a paid-for basis. This seemed strange for a book on communism: the organisation that administers this (the World Intellectual Property Organisation) falls far short of genuine democratic control and oversight. If we want the proceeds of any Solar System mining to be socially owned, and administered to ensure they are distributed based on societal need, surely we should be demanding more. If recent history has taught us anything, treaty reforms by capitalist states will only serve the interests of private enterprise, in the absence of struggle from below. Indeed, even if reforming international treaties was sufficient, the working class would either need to first be in control of re-writing this, the prerequisite for which would either be working-class revolution, or a major struggle to force concessions from capitalist states. In other words: there would be no avoiding social struggle. Further discussion on how this fight might emerge and play out would be of greater value than Bastani’s imagined conversation between business owners and capitalist politicians, especially if he thinks such space mining ventures are only a couple of decades away.

Marxist analysis takes more than simply quoting Marx, and disappointingly, Bastani’s text is living proof of this. Although many references to Marx are made throughout, this book does not provide a Marxist understanding of the world. Whilst this is implicit throughout this chapter in what is not discussed, this is explicit in his discussion of the pricing mechanism in the final section, “abundance beyond value”. Bastani claims extreme-abundance as incompatible with capitalism, going as far as saying that in the face of a limitless, virtually free supply of anything its “internal logic starts to break down”. Setting aside first the very fundamental fact that capitalism is an inherently unstable system, this hypothesis needs looking at in more detail (this conclusion justifies much of what Bastani later relies on).

Firstly, what Bastani describes is simply the logic of supply and demand. But, even as pointed out by Bastani sentences before, monopolies and market structures have their own way of recalibrating prices; so over-abundances may not necessarily lead to price deflation. Further, the suggestion that supply could be free and limitless is a falsehood. At some stage in the process of mineral extraction, workers with wages will be involved, and processes that require the use of other materials (transport fuel, expendable parts, maintenance, etc). Each of these come with associated costs, and thus are not ‘free’, limiting the surplus value available to the owner of the production chain. It’s true that without a monopolizing pricing structure, a market flooded with, for example, palladium might hit record lows. However, this on it’s own wouldn’t crash capitalism, a system that has survived plenty of incidents of over-abundance previously. We can see how this operates in the case of digital products (for example mp3s and e-books) which like the future Bastani’s asteroid-mined gold, could feasibly exist in a “post-scarcity” state. Whilst these can all be reproduced without a correspondingly large increase in labour costs , these are locked behind firewalls and price-fixing mechanisms (and would eventually fill up harddrives and servers). If capitalism operated in the way Bastani describes, then iTunes song download costs would end up being fractions of pence per transaction. Private ownership, market structures and underlying costs prevent this. And this isn’t just confined to the digital realm. Despite being in extreme abundance on Earth, under capitalism we still pay for water, either from the tap or in bottles, precisely because of private ownership, labour, distribution, storage and other associated costs. When left in the control of a capitalist ruling class, even resources in a state of over-abundance can be commercialised for private gain. Simply put: if we want social control and distribution over the fruits of space mining, there can be no room for private ownership. This is not solved by over-abundance.

Finally, for a book filled with Marx’s writings, it falls short of offering a Marxist understanding of economics. For example, some basic analysis of economic and social use and exchange of mining resources would have been pertinent, given this entire section appears to take place in the realm of capitalist exchange. Bastani readily points at the market exchange value of all the resources locked up in asteroids, but there is little discussion of their potential use. Will future societies be as dependent on iron, gold, palladium and other rare metals? Bastani makes no projection. Since capitalism has a tendency to expand to maximise profit, this may be directly at odds with the needs of a future socialist society. It is therefore possible that left to its own devices, capitalism gears mining missions, technology and research to maximise extraction of less socially useful products (for example gems for jewellery sales), despite humanity being better served socially if this was focused on different resources (for example on palladium for medical and electronic devices). A text on communism should have devoted more time to discuss how this expansion may instead take place, comparing how a socialist society might instead utilise space mining, and in the here and now, what socialists should be arguing for under capitalism.

For a book that refers to itself as a communistic manifesto, ultimately this chapter is devoid of politics. Parking the scientific potential of asteroid mining for now, the central question at the heart of this is one of control. Despite constantly shoe-horning in quotations of Marx to give the text a left-wing finish, Bastani offers no class struggle program, class analysis of this emerging sector, nor perspective on revolution. Without a plan to fight for democratic control over emerging space industries, we are left dreaming about future decades, rather than planning for gains today. There surely are battles to be had in the here-and-now, but aside from liberally reforming the Outer Space Treaty, Bastani’s manifesto offers us almost nothing on where these might be, over what, nor how we might prepare.

Was anything else missing?

Bastani began the chapter with a discussion of resource scarcity being a problem that will afflict humanity in decades to come. This is a huge problem to be solved, particularly given the near-exponential growth in population size (expected to exceed 9 billion in the 2040s), and the finite nature of the resources we each require. But planned, rational and democratic management features nowhere in his discussion. Instead we are sold the idea that extreme-abundance will solve this by mining asteroids: presumably in a world where we each have tonnes of iron and gold to sit on, Bastani believes rational, social management would be a thing of the past? Indeed, putting aside all of the scientific problems I have already discussed, the ethical question of how much and what humanity needs is not considered. A planet that has hollowed out its own resource supply seems likely to respond similarly to resource extraction of asteroids, especially one under the global domination of capitalism.

There are other, more tragic shortcomings however. Although multiple references are made to the eye-watering sums of money asteroid mining start-up firms have valued the sector at, alongside quotes from optimistic CEOs, two of the organisations referred to in the 2019 book as key actors in this space race no longer exist. Planetary Resources auctioned off its final hardware in June 2020, and Deep Space Industries was bought out by Bradford Space Inc. in 2019 (and not for the purpose of utilising their research into mining, but their communications devices). Whilst this doesn’t mean that capitalism has given up on the viability of asteroid mining totally, it does suggest that the modest timescales and risks associated with this monumental task have been underestimated. Bastani quotes one CEO’s first expected extraction date in the mid 2020s, which now seems extremely unlikely, following their company’s dissolution. Although Bastani can be forgiven for not having foreseen these events (the book’s release and the company liquidations happened within months of each other) his far-reaching conclusions should be understood in the context of the recent fate of these organisations.

Should we pin humanity’s hopes on mining asteroids?

In my view: no. Whilst it is possible (and indeed very likely) that asteroid mining will form a component of humanity’s future economy, I’ve highlighted a number of technical challenges that may be insurmountable, physical uncertainties that may be extremely limiting, and other reasons why we might not even want to pursue it at all. Despite this, it is still my view that mining anywhere in the Solar System would provide immense scientific value even on very small scales, and yet this is almost absent from the text. Even Bastani’s imagined post-political world would surely still be filled with scientific discovery, so reading this as an astronomer, I found this lack of discussion on scientific endeavour very poor.

I am therefore highly critical of the claim that humanity will become a “post-scarcity” society via asteroid mining (especially within the next century), though I do still think space mining will be a highly important process if humanity is to venture deeper into the Solar System, to nearby stars, and understand the origins of life in the universe. Many of the difficulties with asteroid mining aren’t present on much larger bodies, such as the Moon and Mars. However, rather than transferring mined resources back to Earth, such locations would allow human landings, and longer-term possibilities for Earth outposts, such as deeper space travel. Even if such mining missions were purely on a scientific or explorative basis, any and all of these would provide immense scientific value. By focusing solely on the economics of space exploration, we can end up losing sight of the forest for the trees: there is more to life than just the economy.

It therefore seems instructive to end with some questions to Bastani. If communism is indeed only possible with the levels of over-abundance he states achievable with a mass asteroid mining industry, then — if the wide scale availability of its proceeds never arise — does he think communism remains a historical inevitability? If so, how? If not, then what does he advocate?

Comments

Submitted by david walsh (not verified) on Wed, 06/01/2021 - 19:10

There is another, simpler, issue in terms of the materials that may be "mined". Bastini cites the "example (of) the $1000 quadrillion value placed on the iron locked inside a single asteroid,16 Psyche".  But bringing that back to earth ignores the simple fact that the world is moving away from the making of steel by smelting iron ore towards a more circular economy based on the re-use and re-cycling of scrap steel by the use of electric arc furnaces. This is made easier by the growing replacement of steel as a core engineering substance by more advanced materials from ceramics, carbon fibres and chemical routes.  

Submitted by Zac Muddle on Wed, 13/01/2021 - 10:53

Enjoyable and interesting article Josh. I'd like to pick up on one minor point.

"Bastani began the chapter with a discussion of resource scarcity being a problem that will afflict humanity in decades to come. This is a huge problem to be solved, particularly given the near-exponential growth in population size (expected to exceed 9 billion in the 2040s), and the finite nature of the resources we each require."

The claim of near-exponential population growth is not true. Perhaps, at some points in the past or in some regions, such a claim could appear superficially true, considering the question purely numerically, eliding the factors which drive population size. But the rate of global population growth peaked some decades ago. Following current trends it is often predicted that global population will peak in around a century.

Models such as these used to predict future population often use over simplistic extrapolation, not taking into account complex social, political, economic factors.

But in any case the claim of exponential population growth, with all the potential environmental and political implications that may have, is not true. This does not mean that resource scarcity is not an issue, or will not become more so.

Submitted by Josh (not verified) on Wed, 13/01/2021 - 11:07

In reply to by Zac Muddle

Hi Zac

You're right to pick up on this - this was a loose way to phrase "the population is still growing" as it isn't mathematically accurate, and this comes with political connotations as you outline.

The point I was trying to make here is what you highlighted: "This does not mean that resource scarcity is not an issue, or will not become more so."

Cheers,
Josh

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