Saturday, 28 April 2012

About The Future Of Human Activity In Space

A company called Planetary Resources intends to mine asteroids. I think this could potentially change everything. I've been waiting and hoping this might happen for a long time, thinking about the possibilities. Here is a short outline of what the company hopes to achieve, and where I hope we'll end up.

First the company plans to mine minerals and fuel from asteroids. The minerals will be returned to Earth, which they claim will make formerly rare things like gold and platinum common, and add trillions of dollars to the global economy. Technologies could develop on Earth which were too expensive otherwise. The fuel could make the cost of space travel much, much cheaper.

They're sincere. They have backing from some big investors. Chris Lewicki, President and Chief Engineer, almost started crying at the press conference when he talked about the positive reception from the public. That shouldn't mean anything I know, but it made me think, "shit just got real".

Now I'm going to speculate wildly.

The more mining can be done, the more mining can be done. The wealth it creates will bring greater investment. Rare minerals like gold and platinum will become abundant. All the while, economies of scale, development of new technology and especially the massive amount of fuel mined (which is actually water - it can be split into H and O) will make it ever cheaper.

So we have all these robots out in space, and the tech is improving, and the investment is growing along with it. And there will be space manufacture. We no longer have to build space craft on Earth and waste time and energy to send it up. The material gathered directly from asteroids will be used to build in zero gravity. Space manufacturing enables more spacecraft to be built. Which leads to more mining, and more factories. I'm talking about an exponential growth of the industry.

This would involve swarm robotics:

And technologies like 3D printing:

Space based solar power
We could build megastructures in space. For example, massive solar arrays which power factories, and maybe beam down energy to Earth as microwaves.
Space Habitat

One of the hardest things to do, but I think one of the most exciting: the colonisation of local space, by building Space habitats.

We may develop Von Neumann probes - self replicating spacecraft which could travel to other star systems, build more copies of themselves and then head off to explore other systems.

Perhaps it would eventually be feasible to finally build a gigantic nuclear pulse propulsion spacecraft to fly to the nearest stars within a human lifetime, rather than the 50,000 years it would take with current technology.

I think this could be a catalyst for exponential wealth and development. A second industrial revolution. The graph below shows population and oil production. If you included average lifespan, literacy, technological development and many other factors, they'd all be doing the same thing - going up exponentially.

Oil production and population
See where those lines take a sharp angle upwards at the end of the graph? I think (hope/speculate) we're again sitting in that corner just before everything changes. This could possibly be one of those moments.

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