How Will the Next Space Age Unfold?

I wanted to create this thread because my imagination has been brimming for years about this topic, but ever since the BFR, there are so many possibilities that I didn’t think would happen in my lifetime. I thought it was going to be some nutty futuristic breakthrough. With BFR coming out, I see a much greater age of exploration coming. So, feel free to just dump your colonization ideas (especially those of you in STEM areas who have a more educated sense of this stuff).

So, the Falcon Heavy has already enabled a bit of a paradigm shift, but the BFR is going to be the secret sauce.

Mining is Now Seriously Possible

Asteroid mining is the first that comes to mind. BFR’s return payload is 50 metric tonnes. If it delivered 50 metric tonnes of cargo precious metals to earth, each return trip would be coming back with 114 million to 1.9 billion dollars worth of cargo per launch should it be extractable. So, if this stuff was just floating around in space in a way that was easy to find and all you had to do is bring it down and you could do it at the rate you could launch the BFR, we’d be talking about making ~1 billion per launch at 10->20->40->80->160->320->640 and so on launches per year. So, maybe in a year you could look at bringing a trillion dollars down. That’s the thought experiment to show the kind of economic return this provides if you can extract that resource directly from the asteroids. It would lower the market value of these metals, but only after a large sum of money has been made and significant infrastructure has been built.

Larger vehicles could be optimized for return mass. So, that raises the next question: how do you actually extract all of that ore? Well, the cost of creating an in situ refinery in the asteroid belt, the cost of doing the science of determining the compounds of these asteroids by exploration may not be prohibitively expensive if you’re bringing down a billion dollars by spending 5-10 million on a launch.

So, lets do a little financial analysis. The value of an asset is the sum of all future cash flows divided by their respective interest rates. So, the bottleneck will be how quickly you can refine the material (which is also the thing in this topic that I know the least about). So, there will be a specific problem of “how well do you refine ore” and measure that against the launch cost of the BFR and its successors.

If you play around with parameters of a revenue growth rate of 30% a year off of a starting revenue of 20 billion at an interest rate of 10% for 20 years, about a present valuation of a trillion dollars would happen somewhere between 10 and 15 years.

That’s a lot of wiggle room to start your refinery and exploration project - but it has to pan out. You need to have some capital first, and you need to start on a smaller scale. What works here is that the market for metals is clear. The question here is if you can produce the cost-benefit necessary to compete with on-earth production. Given the abundance of these metals in space, it probably isn’t too terrible, and once a foothold is reached and tech incrementally improves, it’ll be the thing that gets an economy in space going. So, the market will flood, but the infrastructure in place will be paid for by the initial projects.

As this happens, more factors of production go into space so that you lower your annual costs. Reusable rocket tech will have advanced a great deal by this point. You can now mine and produce rocket fuel in space, which means that you can refuel spacecraft that get into LEO. With factors of production in space, it may even be cheaper at this point just to build vehicles in space. So, earth to space travel will be less prohibitive and necessary. Information is basically free to transfer to space, and some more complex things with more factors of production like computer chips would be best processed on earth. But hulls, frames, wires and things of that nature might be produced in space. It will all depend on what’s available. This process will likely transform and incrementally improve, with gradual shifts from mere fuel production to full-on space assembly.


We are going to the Moon and I’m going to have beer there. :full_moon::beer:

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Wouldn’t this just crash the market and leave you with piles of these materials, with no buyers, and a very expensive mining program with no way to sustain it?

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For asteroid mining to be useful you need an extreme level of automated self-replicating manufacturing that isn’t quite there on earth. What you really want to do with asteroid minng is to build and manufacture stuff in orbit. Considering this though, if this becomes an area of interest in space then we’d probably feel the advancements here on earth and vice versa. It’d be another case of a space race pushing technology forward.

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I was originally going to reply along these lines, but there are other ways that the markets can play out. Imagine if you found a platinum asteroid. Suddenly, all those catalytic reactions that call for expensive platinum can come to fruition. Platinum could remain expensive because the demand for it might never cease. The same could be true of Lithium and “rare earths”.

Here’s a chart of the rarity of elements in the Earth’s crust

What would happen if someone stumbled upon an Iridium asteroid? What would industry be able to do with a huge supply? What processes and applications would become possible that were not possible before?

Not at all. Mine rare elements, send them to Earth, profit. Separately, manufacture whatever is needed using the highly optimized infrastructure on Earth (including common materials and so forth), then send that stuff into space via cheap rockets. For a while (perhaps a long while), that will be the optimal way to build up infrastructure.

I’m a big fan of automated off-planet manufacturing, but I don’t see the lack standing in the way of asteroid mining. That off-planet manufacturing is all about creating stuff for off-planet use. Asteroid mining is certainly useful for manufacturing on Earth.


I have dreams of giant platinum 3d printed wiffle balls gently falling into a desert from space…

really though, I’ve heard the guys at Planetary Resources discuss an idea very much like that.

Then you have Deep Space Industries.

They’re both starting with small exploratory satellites, but it should be interesting to see how quickly things move along as space becomes more accessible.

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If you find a precious/rare element asteroid… What’s the purest you could possily find? Is there a chance to find one that you could cut up load into the cargobay and still make a profit even without refining it?

Thing is, those rare materials still exist on earth. They arent used because of extraction difficulty and the expenses involved, for new industries to emerge to use those things in bulk you’d need it to be so cheap that its far beyond even BFR levels of efficiency. On the other hand, material already in space saves a lot in launch costs and you don’t really need to find a new use for materials in space, we already have plenty of uses that don’t need to be invented from the realms of theoretical material science like sattelite and spacestation construction, and you’d be saving a bunch of launch costs. It does depend which comes first though, bulk uses for those rarer materials or advancements in automation. I feel like automation in manufacturing is a much faster growing field than material science right now, but certainly could go either way.

The prevailing thinking is that asteroids are pretty much iron-nickel or oxygen-iron, with everything else requiring standard processing. That said, the dinosaur-killer was rich in Iridium, so who knows what’s possible in the asteroid lottery?

Note the mention of 3554 Amun below.

Iron asteroids or meteorites are 91% iron (thus the name), 8.5% nickel and .6% cobalt. One large meteorite could produce a great deal of iron for manufacturing buildings. For example the 3554 Amun asteroid is a mile wide and by itself could give us more iron than mankind has processed in all its history!

Stony asteroids and meteorites typically contain 36% oxygen, 26% iron, 18% silicon, 14% magnesium as well as smaller amounts of aluminum, nickel and calcium. With the proper refining technology a stony meteorite could produce plenty of other building materials (silicon and aluminum are used on Earth in construction projects of all kinds). Earths crust has oxygen, silicon aluminum iron and other minerals, so the processing of an asteroid wouldn’t require totally new technology, just a few refinements to account for gravity and other conditions particular to space mining.

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While the common response here to “flooding the market” is “new applications,” I actually disagree that this is the best answer. The best answer is this: flooding the market is what covers your initial infrastructure cost. After you ‘flood’ the market, those metals will still be expensive because by the time you flood that market, you will have made an insane amount of money in the process of flooding the market. You’d probably make a few trillion dollars before the market got so bad that it was no longer profitable.

The BFR enables space mining because its cost per kilogram for launch and return is a tiny, tiny fraction of what anyone had ever anticipated would be possible for another 20-40 years.

I seriously don’t know where the ‘trillions’ are supposed to come from, if you look at the common scenario of catching an iron asteroid and bringing back 50 metric tonnes with the current price of around $80 per metric ton, the total is $4k which is a complete waste of a BFR trip.

Obviously you could assume it’s bringing back rare earth or precious metals, but that would probably be a lot harder to find and somewhat uncommon.

Some young budding genius is going to be inspired by all the stories of Stephen Hawking going around, spend 10 year researching gravity and accidentally invent a warp drive using a cup of strong tea (10 points for the reference).

At this point I emigrate to a comfortable planet about 20.7 light-years away and play I:B on the interstellar network.

I find this idea highly improbable.


I have a different vision.

Massive Alien attack almost erradicates humanity.

I lead a successful rebellion and capture the alien ships and technology.

I then take the fight to their homeworld and I go down in history as saviour of the human race.


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Iron isn’t a precious metal. You wouldn’t mine iron for sale on earth. The abundance of metals like gold and platinum is what makes this feasible.

You might mine precious metals and land them on mars because the return payload would be higher and a refinery might be easier to build in a gravitational field. That is probably 20 years of development past what I am talking about.

Are we still going to be able to launch anything into space by the time the infrastructure (orbital refineries etc) for asteroid mining has been built? Can’t remember right now, if those rockets work with a type of fuel that is limited.

A geomagnetic storm hit Earth sometime in the first half of the XXIe Century, causing massive damage to electrical and electronic infrastructure.
With 24 h of warning, most governments take some emergency measures, and a somewhat functional basic electrical and communication grid survives. But with electrical power severely curtailed and immense loss of data, processing power, high-speed communication and autonomous vehicles (including about every single satellite), the entirety of the globalized trade grinds to a halt.
Drought hits in the next few days. Then food riots start.
Some governments manage to keep control a fraction of their former territory. Most of the world turn into chaos, violence and death.

Decades later, things have gotten somewhat better. World population is about 2 billions. Large swathes of the world are still dead lands or in violent anarchy. The great cities of old are population centres again, but most of their buildings are still abandoned to disrepair, destitute and criminals. Elsewhere, some order is maintained by corrupt, brutal tyrannies, but that’s still better than the alternative. Culturally, so much has been lost that many are restarting from scratch and half-remembered historical references. Nihilism, hedonism and extremism of all kinds are common.
Available technology is a weird mix of XVe to XXIe century tech. A surprisingly large amount of knowledge has been kept, but organisation, industry and raw materials are missing to make good of it.
One big problem is that most easily-accessible natural resources have been exploited already. Recycling and scavenging will go only so far. And without both fossil fuels and reliable nuclear industry, getting enough energy is a struggle.

The Museum Militia was born in the streets of Paris, a group of art and history lovers who fought doomsday cults trying to burn the Louvre. Long story short, they now control half of Western Europe.
They decided to fix the problem of raw materials by getting it where it is: in space. Being one of the few polities with actual economy surplus, the invest in Project K: a new space program, going for cheap, numerous rockets. (Note the absence of “reliable” in the description.) Having access to old rocket plans and equations help a lot with R&D.

After years of effort, they have an operational rocket assembly chain. Solid rocket boosters use aluminium nanopowder/water, liquid fuel rockets use methane and, surprisingly enough, nitric acid. They also have a partially reusable ramjet/ramrocket-powered spaceplane. Useful for long-range reconnaissance. (Mach-3 close ground-hugging flyby may have a military usefulness, but this is, of course, purely accidental.)

Their mining technique is relatively crude. Get a NEO asteroid. Use a thin mirror to concentrate sunlight and use it to melt some of it and separate its components. Use some of the result to make a bigger crude mirror. Keep at it until you have ingots of somewhat separated material. Shape it in equally crude lifting body shapes, add a minimal control system and drop the result in one of those still-growing deserts in Spain. (It may sound like a big target, but one that is surprisingly easy to miss.) Use some pebbles to make pretty shooting star spectacles.
Keep some of it around as it is not immediately useful. Better control systems may or may not be installed on those in order to hit military targets, but I’m sure those are baseless rumours.

The rocket payload doesn’t really apply here. You’re not putting something in space, your bringing it back. In theory, you can just drop part of a raw asteroid into Earth’s gravity and let it fall in some unpopulated safe zone. It doesn’t need an expensive reentry vehicle. Of course the issue is safety, it’s probably unacceptable to just drop it. Maybe it needs some minimal reentry vehicle to guide the asteroid fragments to the proper landing zone. That should be much easier/cheaper than getting living people down safely to a launch pad.

I wouldn’t think you would be doing this with iron, and I doubt you would find a large enough block of high purity gold or platinum to send down, but there may be options in between. The point is, the refining doesn’t need to happen in space, all you need is a way to cut apart the asteroids. And of course you need a way to detect which ones have more valuable material content. Bonus points for doing this using an automated system so that the mining ship doesn’t require a crew.

That’ll blast things into tons of pieces and make them land all over the place.

The last thing you want to be doing is intentionally lobbing rocks at Earth. The infrastructure required to get asteroids to Earth safely would most likely vastly outweigh the benefits of the program.

Just mine them in space and send the good shit back down in capsules, preferably processed on site if possible.