Writers of speculative fiction as well as scientists and engineers since Konstantin Tsiolkovskii (b. 1857) have suggested that future space travellers will mine the moon, asteroids, and other planets for raw materials. Recent books such as Mining the Sky by John Lewis and Doomsday Asteroid by Donald W. Cox and James H. Chestek (see books) reiterate this theme of "mining the sky" as a way to reenergize flagging space programs.
In the next century comets and asteroids may provide the bulk of the raw materials needed to colonize the solar system. We may even move some asteroids or comets to Earth orbits to access them more easily. Interestingly, it is the most dangerous near-Earth objects that offer the easiest access.
Asteroids could provide precious metals like natural stainless steel to be used in space contruction projects, such as the space cities envisioned by the PERMANENT project. One cubic kilometer of a nickel-iron asteroid is estimated to contain seven billion tons of iron, one billion tons of nickel, and sufficient cobalt to supply the Earth for three thousand years. The total current value would exceed five trillion U.S. dollars. The total mineral wealth of the main belt asteroids would probably exceed one hundred billion dollars per person living on Earth today.
Comets could provide vast quantities of water to an Earth threatened with a decreasing supply of fresh water. Comets could also supply large quantities of liquid hydrogen and oxygen, two principal ingredients of rocket fuel.
This view transforms near Earth objects from a source only of potential danger to a source of potential wealth and economic renewal. If we capitalize on this wealth we should be able to forestall a Malthusian tragedy for millenia. Moving off the Earth to self-sustaining colonies avoids the problem with having "all our eggs in one basket." Should a doomsday comet or asteroid strike the Earth before we have the technology to divert it, humanity and other Earthly forms of life will be able to survive in those colonies. Their survival will have been made possible by the very objects that most threaten our continued survival here on Earth.
In addition to the following sites, you will find others about space resources and travel on my astronomy page.
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Last modified by pib on May 12, 2009.