The US senate just passed some legislation that will make space mining more attractive to private companies. Or at least it will if other countries follow suit. The legislation, called the Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015 still has to pass one more round in the American congress and then approval by US president Obama in order to become law. Among its most important features, it will give companies the rights to the material they mine from asteroids, though the companies could not actually own an asteroid. That’s similar to the model that mining companies use on Earth—they may not actually own the land, but their mining rights mean they own the resources they extract from that land. Private companies like Planetary Resources are already cheering this latest news. Why not? It’s not like any government can afford to get into space mining on its own.

Mind you, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 says, among other things, “No one nation may claim ownership of outer space or any celestial body.” So it would be a bit questionable for the US to unilaterally grant companies mining rights to celestial bodies that the United States cannot, by treaty, own. That part of the new legislation will be meaningless unless other countries agree to it. Fortunately, those who drafted the bill were careful to make clear that it does not mean the US is claiming sovereignty over any celestial body by granting such rights.

Will we want space mining companies to be like the big mining companies on Earth? Doesn’t it kind of rankle to think of wealthy companies and individuals being given special rights to something that is no more theirs than it is ours? A parallel on Earth would be companies mining on government land—land ostensibly owned by all citizens, including its resources. Yet only the mining companies’ shareholders profit, not citizens (except for the minimal taxes that are collected on any surface buildings). That model came from a time when we couldn’t imagine anyone wanting the patches of distant wilderness where mining companies set up their operations, and we didn’t worry about the places we lived being affected by anything such companies did so far away. But with large scale pollution we’ve discovered that Earth isn’t such a big planet after all. The concept of companies being responsible to remediate land they’ve torn up and polluted is a pretty recent development, and I don’t expect any early space legislation will force businesses to tidy up an asteroid and put it back the way they found it once they’ve extracted all of the metals or water. Who would care? For now.

Mining operations in space will have to be largely self-policing, not only regarding their industrial practices or pollution, but also in the way they treat labourers. Just as governments can’t afford to build and operate mining facilities in space, they can’t afford a constant police or military presence either. And anyone who thinks a phone call will bring the cavalry swooping in within a day or two has never studied physics. So we may be allowing private corporations to set up their own fiefdoms without much prospect of serious oversight. I’m reminded of any number of movie westerns with powerful landowners and downtrodden ranch folk!

Unlike a parcel of land on Earth, where a company’s pollution or damming of a river might cause serious harm elsewhere, an artificially-controlled asteroid or any broken-off parts could become the ultimate planet-killing weapon. It’s not easy to see who should be entrusted with that capability. And that same potential risk means that asteroid mining might not be practical for actually providing resources for those of us on the surface of the Earth. It wouldn’t be especially costly or difficult to sling blobs of ore or metals back to the home planet, but the potential consequences of a mistake are so horrific, who could ever afford the insurance coverage? It doesn’t bear thinking about what could be done with such facilities in the hands of maltreated workers, rioting prisoners, terrorists, megalomaniacs, or any other “bad guys” you could name.

OK, but wait now…haven’t I always sounded like I was in favour of asteroid mining and other space activity by private companies? Yep.

The fact is, we’ll never be able to build colonies away from Earth, or starfaring spaceships, without mining the materials out there—it’s simply too expensive to carry it all up from down here. Governments will never be able to afford to spend the kind of money involved to mount those mining operations, and it isn’t their job. So it will have to be done by private companies.

I just think it’s important to look at all of the implications of technological progress. And I like to point out the scary stuff. That’s what writers do.

On a totally different front, I’ve often written here about space colonies (including my last post) and I deeply want to believe we’ll someday colonize worlds around other stars. Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2015 novel Aurora is a compelling account of a generation ship sent to create just such a colony, and the things that go wrong. I highly recommend it as a great read, but you should also read this excellent feature essay by Robinson on Cory Doctorow’s blog explaining why such colonization will never happen.

I really wish he hadn’t done such a good job of it.


At the recent Ad Astra SF convention in Toronto, Canada, I watched a panel discussion about asteroid mining, the problems and potential. I’ve posted about the subject before because it’s one of the major tropes of near-Earth space exploration predictions and stories. So is it really such a sure thing? The panel (including some PhDs, SF writers and a robotics expert) agreed that it will come down to profitability: revenue vs. cost. After all, you don’t go to the trouble of landing on speeding chunks of barren rock for the beautiful scenery.

There have been estimates that, although many asteroids will be mainly nickel-iron rocks, some will be very rich in platinum group metals, and a reasonable-sized one of those could contain far more than all of the known reserves of such ore on Earth. At first glance, that sounds promising. Of course, platinum and its relatives are costly because they’re rare—a sudden increase in the supply would be sure to cause prices to drop, cutting profits that might already be marginal. Especially when a Keck Institute of Space Studies report estimated that the cost of returning a 500 ton asteroid to low Earth orbit for processing would be in the area of $2.6 billion US. I’ve seen other projections that it would require more like $100 billion to create the infrastructure to make a mining operation, especially since a lot of new technology will have to be developed. Could such a venture possibly pay for itself, let alone make attractive profits? Companies like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries have already declared that they’re in the game, and the people involved are no dummies.

The costliest part of any space venture will be hoisting things up out of Earth’s gravity well into space, and returning things safely to the ground. So space mining may not become cheaper than mining for the same elements here on Earth until all of this planet’s resources are exhausted. If the intention is to return the mined material back here.

But what if the market for the ore you’re mining is out there? Shipping to and from orbital space stations, asteroid facilities, and even moon colonies would be much less costly because of the lower gravity involved. There are also a lot of other materials worth mining for, if your market is a space colony or interplanetary fleet. Water and oxygen for spacecraft fuel and human consumption would be valuable commodities, too, plus many more ordinary metals and non-metals. That certainly increases the potential for space mining, except it still suggests such an industry will have to wait until we make a big push out into space for other reasons, and thereby create the beyond-Earth markets.

One other thing that could possibly tip the balance in favour of space mining is if our current interest in corporate responsibility continues to increase. In the past, mining companies rarely had to factor environmental cleanup into the cost of their operations, but there seems to be a growing taste for making companies protect and rehabilitate the environment from the ravages of their ore removal and processing. If we ever start charging companies a realistic cost for their pollution and for remedial treatment of land and water, that just might raise costs to the point that bringing back ores from near-Earth asteroids becomes a better alternative.

Bottom line? I don’t think SF writers should scratch those grizzled space miner characters out of their stories just yet.


When you think of space travel, do you think of NASA? The Russian space program? The Chinese government?

Old thinking, because the newest players in space may be taking over the game. I’m talking about global corporate interests. Big money. While governments continue to keep the budgets of organizations like NASA in near-starvation mode, the corporate stars of the world are stepping to the front of the line. People like Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines, Larry Page of Google, Elon Musk from PayPal, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. They’ve been getting together over martinis (or something expensive) and forming new companies to explore—and exploit—outer space. We’ve known for some years that Virgin Galactic plans to fly tourists to the edge of space and back (for $200,000 a crack, thank you very much), and they are getting closer to their first paying trips. I’ve written before about SpaceX, whose Dragon spacecraft are already flying supply missions to the International Space Station. But there are also new startup companies like Moon Express, preparing to build (and use) landers for the Moon. Planetary Resources intends to mine asteroids, and maybe even save us from those threatening meteor strikes we keep hearing about. Deep Space Industries is another would-be mining company. And we shouldn’t forget less commercial, but equally enterprising ventures like Inspiration Mars (mentioned in my last post), planning to send a married couple to Mars in about five years from now, and Mars One, a group that hopes to have a colony on the Red Planet by 2023.

These people are not fruitcakes, but some of the most successful entrepreneurs in the new economy. And their plans sound like fantastic dreams, but they’ve got solid scientists working with them. The space race is going corporate.

Was this inevitable? Since we taxpayers tend to cast our eyes closer to home on our hospitals and our roads, maybe governments just can’t continue to back the exploration of space and it’s up to the moneymakers to do it.

You can see the attraction for them. Talk about your offshore tax havens! Claim an asteroid and make the rules—who’s really going to stop them? Laws? The law of gravity is the only really important one, and it’ll ensure monopolies for the companies rich enough to break it. But lets not forget tourist opportunities: what high roller wouldn’t want to show off to his friends in a casino in Earth orbit, with all of we peasants zipping past below?

By the way, we’ll still be funding all of these ventures—by being the customers of Google, PayPal, Amazon and the like, and then buying the products these new companies bring back from way out there.

But we shouldn’t be surprised. Did you think Columbus sailed to America because he felt like tanning on a new beach?


Science Fiction writers have good reason to try to keep up with all of the new scientific knowledge being discovered. We don’t want to be caught with egg on our faces. Once, it might have been fairly easy to stay current. Now, the amount of new information is mind-boggling.

Sure, it’s easier than ever to check the latest facts online, but many times we don’t feel the need to do that because we’re writing about something we “know”. That’s the trap: often the things we think we know are actually only theories. And theories have a way of being proven wrong.

What brought this to mind this week was an episode of “Quirks and Quarks” on CBC radio. For many years, it’s been thought that the Clovis people—North America’s first human inhabitants—originated in Asia and came here from Siberia over a land bridge at what is now the Bering Strait. But a new book, Across Atlantic Ice - The Origin of America's Clovis Culture by Dennis J. Stanford and Bruce A. Bradley argues that the evidence of that human migration route has too many serious weaknesses. The most notable problems are that no distinctively Clovis artifacts have been found in Alaska or Siberia, and relics found along the west coast are newer than those that have been discovered in New England. Stanford and Bradley claim that Clovis flint blades and other tools bear a very close resemblance to a European people archaeologists call Solutrean (after a site near Solutre, France), so the scientists theorize that the Clovis people actually came from Europe across the Atlantic in boats (because of the ice age, the ocean level was much lower and continental shelves were exposed to west of Ireland and east of the Grand Banks, making the trip much shorter than it would be today.)

Is this important for an SF writer to know? Well, it happens that I make a brief mention of the Clovis people in the next novel I’m now outlining. It’s only a small detail, barely relevant to the plot, but the book could have been out of date before it’s even written!

On an unrelated note, my last post was confirmed this past Tuesday as the startup company Planetary Resources (with Peter Diamandis, Eric Anderson, James Cameron et al) will indeed be focused on mining asteroids. In fact they already have contracts involving interim steps in the process, which have given them a “positive cash flow” right out of the gate. I guess that’s how they became billionaires.

On another unrelated note, here’s a link just for fun to a new short video of Saturn, its moons, its storms, and its rings, pieced together from stills taken by the Cassini and Voyager missions. Enjoy the journey.


I recently read an article that suggested humanity’s efforts to explore space are quietly being abandoned. The idea was triggered by the recent transport of the space shuttle Discovery to Washington DC to become a museum display. The argument goes that, while surveys show citizens still want and expect to see a future that includes Star Trek-like space travel, governments are quietly cutting funds and letting the dream die.

While there’s some truth to that, it ignores the way the private sector has been stepping up to the plate, and it’s been doing so in a big way lately. We’ve all heard about Richard Branson’s plans with Virgin Galactic to take millionaire thrill-seekers like Ashton Kutcher to the edge of space, and you may have dismissed it as little more than a carnival stunt. But space tourism is a perfectly valid way to fund other projects, and I’m sure Branson won’t be content with joyrides alone.

Even more immediately promising is PayPal co-founder Elon Musk’s company Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX). NASA has just given the go-ahead for SpaceX to launch a test cargo mission to the International Space Station on April 30th. The mission calls for SpaceX’s unmanned Dragon space capsule, launched by their Falcon 9 rocket, to haul a cargo of food and supplies to the station and bring other cargo back to Earth. It will be the first time a private spacecraft has visited the station, but it’s part of a longer contract to supply the ISS for the next few years. The Falcon rockets have performed well so far, and the Dragon capsule is designed to be able to land on the Moon or other planets in years to come.

Then there’s the Google Lunar X PRIZE offering $20 million to the first nongovernment team that can land a robot on the moon capable of traveling a half a mile or so and sending high-definition video back to Earth before the end of 2015. Second prize is $5 million, and other bonuses are available. A reported twenty-six groups are in the running.

And this coming Tuesday April 24th a new space exploration company called Planetary Resources will be unveiled at a press conference. The high profile names associated with the venture include film director James Cameron, Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, X PRIZE founder Peter Diamandis, former NASA mission manager Chris Lewicki, and politician Ross Perot's son, among others. The project to be announced Tuesday is promised to involve a new industry that will overlay space exploration and natural resources. Industry watchers believe it will be a plan to mine asteroids.

So maybe governments are losing some of their enthusiasm, but private entrepreneurs are stepping forward to pick up the slack and, to me, that signals that the future of space exploration is still bright!