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Q. Dear Umbra,

I’ve been reading news about space mining and wondering whether destroying Mother Earth isn’t enough for us, so now we’re invading space! Or isn’t it that bad? Please enlighten me.

N.
Ottawa, Canada

Photo by Puuiki Beach.

A. Dearest N.,

You know the most magical thing about my job? Just when I think I’ve seen it all, just when my brain starts leaking at the thought of answering one more question about lightbulbs, I get a question like yours. You have launched me into a realm of which I knew very little, and now know only a fraction more. Let’s explore together, shall we?

Space mining, as you say, is much in the news of late. We have seen both the successful voyage of the SpaceX Dragon, the first commercial cargo ship to visit the international space station, and the public debut of Planetary Resources, a company that intends to mine asteroids for water and precious metals including gold and platinum.

Science break! As we know from seventh grade or from hours spent in front of the eponymous video game, asteroids are floating chunks of rock and metal — also known as “minor planets” — whose size can range from a few feet to a few hundred miles across. Planetary Resources has set its sights on the type known as near-Earth asteroids, of which there are more than 8,000. Just one asteroid, the company says, could contain as much as $50 billion in platinum.

Helpfully, this enterprise is backed by super-wealthy types, including Avatar director James Cameron, developer Ross Perot Jr., and Google honchos Larry Page and Eric Schmidt. [Ed. note: Schmidt’s wife is a Grist board member.] Within the next two years, it intends to send exploratory mini-spacecraft out to inspect the goods, and over the next few decades its founders predict the addition of trillions of dollars to the global economy. They also want to build a space-based fueling station by 2020. They promise all this will “help ensure humanity’s prosperity.”

Their announcement, along with the SpaceX success, has inspired intrigue and no small amount of tittering around the globe — including on this very site. But is there any merit to the plan? In a hundred years, will we look back and say, “Remember when we thought the idea of space mining was ludicrous, a filthy waste of perfectly good money, and a surefire way to wreak havoc and destruction on the universe?”

Maybe. This optimistic editorial in Nature suggests that the plan could be a boon to science, and could even make it easier for people to settle on Mars. Here we have TIME assessing the pros and cons, including the challenge of reentering Earth’s atmosphere with chunks of metal that were essentially weightless in space — it sounds akin to scarfing lots of donut holes, only to suddenly discover you’re way too full. And Wired takes a long, learned, and ultimately inconclusive look at the legalities of it all as dictated by the wonderfully named Outer Space Treaty of 1967.

The upshot: There are a whole lot of unknowns, logistically, legally, economically, and environmentally. It might be quite some time before the unknowns become better known.

In the meantime, I tend to agree with Jay Melosh, a Purdue University geology professor who told the Associated Press that space exploration is “a sport that only wealthy nations, and those wishing to demonstrate their technical prowess, can afford to indulge.” The word “sport” does seem particularly apt. We live on a planet where people are starving, homeless, jobless, and suffering from plagues and pestilence. If you ask me (and you did), it would be nice to take care of those modest problems before turning our greedy gaze toward the rest of the solar system.

Atarily,
Umbra