Space Scientist John S. Lewis on Prosperity and the Colonisation of the Asteroid Belt

I found this really interesting, optimistic passage below in John S. Lewis’ Mining the Sky (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley 1997).

John S. Lewis is the Professor of Planetary Sciences and Codirector of the Space Engineering Research Center at the University of Arizona-Tucson. Subtitled, Untold Riches from the Asteroids, Comets and Planets, the book discusses the ways the immense mineral wealth of the solar system and the access it gives to the energy available from the Sun through solar power can be exploited through the colonisation of the solar system with present-day space technology, or developments from it that can reasonably be expected. The chapter ‘The Asteroid Belt: Treasure Beyond Measure’ describes the vast resources of the tiny, rocky worldlets of that part of the solar system, situated between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Not only does he describe the various metals and other minerals available there, but he also discusses the vast increase in personal wealth that would be given to nearly everyone on Earth if the money gained from the mining of these minerals were shared out equally.

I do not want to leave the impression that enough mineral wealth exists in the asteroid belt to provide $7 billion for each person on Earth. That would not be fair. In fact, this estimate completely ignores the value of all th other ingredients of asteroids besides iron. We know, for example, that for every ton of iron in the asteroids, there’s 140 pounds of nickel. That comes to about $6 billion worth of nickel. Meteorite metals contain about 0.5 percent cobalt, which sells for about $15 a pound. That gives another $26 billion each. The platinum-group metals, which sell for about $460 per troy ounce ($15 per gram, or $6,800 per ound) make up about fifteen parts per million of meteorite metal. That comes to another $1.6 X 10 X 20, which is $32 billion per person. So far that is about $72 billion each, and we are not close to done. Add in gold, silver, copper, manganese, titanium, the rare earths, uranium, and so on, and the total rises to over $100 billion for each person on Earth.

It appears that sharing the belt’s wealth among five billion people leads to a shameless level of affluence. Each citizen, assuming he or she could be persuaded to work a forty-hour week, could spend every working hour for 70 years counting $100 bills at the rate of one per second (that’s $360,000 per hour) and fail to finish counting this share of the take. If we were instead to be satisfied with an average per capita wealth comparable to that in the upper economic classes of the industrialised nations today, roughly $100,000 per person, then the resources of the belt would suffice to sustain a million times as many people on Earth. These 10 to the power of 16 people could all live as well as ninety-fifth percentile American of the late twentieth century. With recycling and an adequate source of power, this immense population is sustainable into the indefinite future. The best use of the wealth of the asteroid belt is not to generate insane levels of personal wealth for the charter members; the best use is to expand our supply of the most precious resource of all-human beings. People embody intelligence, by for the most precious resource in the universe and one in terribly short supply. (p. 196).

Now clearly, this is the ideal situation, presented without the risks and costs of actually reaching the asteroid belt and extracting the wealth bound up in its rocks. I also believe that in practice, much of that wealth would also be consumed by the mining companies or terrestrial government agencies responsible for the belt’s commercial exploitation. But it is refreshing to see humans viewed not as a cost in the process of production, which needs to be eliminated as much as possible, but as a valuable and indispensable resource, which needs to be used in the process of exploration and commercial exploitation as much as possible, and handsomely rewarded for its contribution.

On the next page, Lewis also describes the advantages of solar power for the future miners and colonists over fossil fuels and nuclear fission.

But wait a minute! Why not use solar power? The Sun pumps out power at the prodigious rate of 4 X 10 to the power of 33 ergs per second, equivalent to 4 X 10 to the power of 26 watts. Our supercivilisation needs 10 to the power of 19 watts to keep going. The Sun is pumping out forty million times as much power as we need! But what do we need to do to capture and use that energy? The simplest answer (not necessarily the best-there may be even more desirable options that we have not thought of yet) is to use vast arrays of solar cells to convert sunlight into electrical power. If the cells have an efficiency of about 20 percent, similar to the best commercial cells made at present, then each square meter of cell area exposed to the Sun near Earth’s orbit would generate 270 watts of electrical power continuously. We would need thirty-seven billion square kilometers of solar cells to provide our power needs, an area comparable to the total surface area of our habitats. At about 0.1 grams per square centimeter for the solar cells, we would need about 3.7 X 10 to the power of 19 grams of silicon to make the cells and perhaps three times as much metal to provide the supports and wires for the power-collection system. The asteroids give us 4X10 to the power of 23 grams of silicon, more than ten thousand times the amount we need for this purpose. The cost of the solar power units is set by the need to construct a few square meters of solar cells per person. The cost would be about two hundred dollars per person at present prices, or a few dollars per person at future mass-production prices. That is not your monthly electric bill: it is a one-time-only expenditure to provide all the electric power you will need for the rest of your life.

All this reckons with 1997 technology. New types of high-efficiency solar cells made of gallium arsenide or other exotic materials, combined with ultra-lightweight parabolic reflectors to collect and concentrate sunlight onto small areas of these cells, promise to perform much better than these highly conservative estimates. (pp. 197-8).

This is the solar power available for the asteroid colonies near Earth. In a later chapter, 14, Lewis discusses ‘Environmental Solutions for Earth’.

Lewis certainly isn’t against private industry in space. Indeed, in an imaginary scenario in one of the first chapters he has a future businessman enthusing about the profits to be gained from mining the Moon or other parts of the Solar system. But he’s clearly like many space visionaries in that he believes that humanity’s expansion into the cosmos will bring immense benefits in enriching and raising the personal quality of life for each individual as well as benefiting the environment down here on Earth.

But reading that paragraph on the benefits of solar power does show why some politicians, particularly in the Tory and Republican parties in Britain and America, who are the paid servants of the nuclear and fossil fuel companies, are so dead set against solar power, as well as other renewables. Quite simply, if it’s adopted, these industries immediately become obsolete, the obscene wealth enjoyed by their CEOs, senior management, and the aristocracy of Middle Eastern oil states, like Saudi Arabia, vanishes along with their political power. And the proles have access to cheaper power. Indeed, people using solar power today are actually able to reverse the usual norm slightly and sell power back to the grid.

No wonder the Tories are trying to shut it all down in favour of nuclear and fracking.

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4 Responses to “Space Scientist John S. Lewis on Prosperity and the Colonisation of the Asteroid Belt”

  1. joanna Says:

    Hi Beast Merry Christmas.

    Sorry to go off topic, but this year has been tragic!! with much loved celebrities dying. Carrie Fisher died today aged only 60, and I only just found out that George Micheal died Christmas day.

    Some are saying that 2016 was cursed!
    With some talented people, hard living has caught up to them, it so very sad!!!

    I hope you and your family and readers, have a great 2017!!!!!

    • Beastrabban Says:

      Hi Jo – it is sad that Carrie Fisher and George Michael have passed away. I don’t think you can say that 2016 has been cursed, as every year celebrities die like the rest of us. But this year does seem to have had many great musicians and performers taken from us.

      I don’t think, however, that Fisher had been well for some time. A lot of people were struck by how old she appeared when she appeared at an event promoting the latest Star Wars film, The Force Awakens. She did have mental health issues – it’s why she had that small dog with her. So perhaps her death wasn’t an entire surprise.

      George Michael’s death did surprise me, as he was only in his fifties. I was really impressed by how much he secretly did for charity. He personally worked at a homeless shelter, and gave vast sums to a variety of causes. According to the ‘I’ newspaper, he even gave money to a woman to have IVF after he saw her appear on ‘Deal or No Deal’.

      While their passing is sad, we also need to remember the immense joy they gave to people, both through their art – in Fisher’s case, acting. I also think she taught drama, so perhaps she encouraged and passed on her experience to fresh generations of actors, who’ll delight us in the future.

      In the case of George Michael, he also brought a lot of people happiness through his music and his personal generosity. And the ‘I’ also paid tribute to the work he’d done to make gays more respected and fight prejudice.

      What they’ve achieved will live on after them. People will still enjoy Fisher in the Star Wars films, ‘The Blues Brothers’, and ‘Postcards from the Edge’, and they’ll still be grooving to the sounds of George Michael. They’re gone to a better place, but their legacy lives on.

  2. joanna Says:

    I totally agree with you beast, but the one person who did die year, Who I have loads of respect for, is a hero to many in the world, Mohammad Ali! He sacrificed so much for his values, he never back-peddled when it got rough for him.
    It is sad to see people die but it is part of life.
    It reminds me of the poem, there is a season for everything under the sun.

    • Beastrabban Says:

      Absolutely, Jo. Ali fought hard for his people. I can remember hearing him on the radio when I was at junior school saying he became a boxer because he wanted to give his people a hero. He was definitely one of the great sporting personalities of the 20th century. Even so, he suffered in his later years from Parkinson’s, so it might be his death, although sad, was also a release.

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