Lindy Elkins-Tanton is leading a NASA mission to explore an asteroid rich with metals supposedly worth $10 quintillion that’s orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter. The asteroid’s name is Psyche, after the Greek goddess of the soul.
This is totally cool, but there are a few caveats on that eye-catching dollar value. First, it’s Elkins-Tanton’s own estimate, which she told me she ballparked about six years ago when reporters first came calling about the mission. (She estimated that the nickel alone was worth that much.) Second, to sell all the metal in Psyche someone would have to bring it all to Earth, which is almost inconceivable. And third, if that much metal really could be brought to Earth, there would be far more than anyone needs, and its value would crash.
The $10 quintillion figure is “fallacious in every way,” Elkins-Tanton cheerfully told me in an interview this week. So why talk about the mission to Psyche at all? Partly because the word “quintillion” is just fun. Also because it’s a teachable moment for the economics of costs, prices, supply and demand. And most important, because learning more about asteroids has value above and beyond money. As Elkins-Tanton told me: “It’s fundamental science. We’ve never visited an asteroid with a metal surface. It’s a whole new kind of object in our solar system.”
Let’s start with how much $10 quintillion is. It’s $10,000,000,000,000,000,000. Equivalently, it’s $10 million million million. Let’s say a very nice new car costs $100,000. With $10 quintillion in your wallet from asteroid mining, you could buy one of those cars for each person on Earth, and then replace it with an even newer car every hour, and keep doing that for every person hourly for the next year and a half before your money would run out. Kind of silly, even aside from where you’d park all of them.
One flaw in the quintillion calculation is that how much something is worth is inseparable from the question of whether you can obtain it. When a young lover says, “I would give you the sun, the moon and the stars,” consider it cheap talk. (Try asking for $100 instead and see what you get.)
The Society of Petroleum Engineers deals with the issue of recoverability all the time. If the technology for extracting oil from the ground gets cheaper, oil companies are allowed to report bigger “proven” reserves, even if there’s no change in how much oil has been discovered. Oil that’s potentially recoverable, but only if the technology improves, is classified as a “contingent resource.” Earth has way more minerals than Psyche, but we don’t go around bragging about the sextillions of dollars’ worth of minerals that lie (inaccessibly) beneath our feet.
It’s true that minerals have been mined from asteroids and brought to Earth, but mostly in quantities of grams or less. NASA’s $800 million OSIRIS-REx mission has picked up about 60 grams of stuff from the surface of the asteroid Bennu for research and is slated to return to Earth in September. Psyche would cost much more to corral than that palmful considering that it’s about as wide across as the distance from Los Angeles to Tijuana, Mexico.
For argument’s sake, let’s say Psyche were pulverized and carried to Earth. Human beings would be richer in one sense, because they would have all the iron and nickel they would ever need. But for precisely that reason, prices of iron and nickel would drop close to zero, even though people would doubtless dream up ways to use more of the suddenly cheap resources. Any intrepid miners who tried to make a business out of it would probably go bust.
The certain price crash caused by excess supply is an example of the diamond-water paradox that’s in every introductory textbook in economics. What makes diamonds expensive and water cheap, considering that diamonds aren’t necessary and water is? Because diamonds are scarce and water isn’t. Ordinarily, anyway. If you were dying of thirst in the desert you would gladly give all your diamonds for one glass of water.
Considering the daunting economics, it’s amazing that some smart people are trying to make a business out of mining asteroids. A first generation of companies in the space (or rather outer space), Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, never mined anything, but others have arisen, including AstroForge and TransAstra Corporation.
I interviewed Matthew Gialich, the chief executive officer and a co-founder of AstroForge. He said he and his fellow forgers plan to keep costs down by mining an asteroid that orbits the sun near Earth’s orbit, not one in the asteroid belt beyond Mars, where Psyche is. They’re going for platinum, which sells for a little under $1,000 an ounce, and related metals, such as palladium. They intend to extract and refine the metals in situ and bring back only the good stuff, not low-value ore. And they intend to rely on space transportation, such as SpaceX, that wasn’t available to the previous generation of would-be miners.
I told Gialich that it seemed to me he was aiming for a sweet spot, one where the costs of bringing minerals to Earth are low enough to make it worth mining but not so low that everybody would start doing it and flood the market. He said: “This is a massive market we’re entering. Only at massive scale would this be a problem.”
Elkins-Tanton ginned up the $10 quintillion valuation for Psyche based on her training as a mineralogist, but for the space mission she’s wearing a different hat, that of principal investigator of the mission to Psyche, which NASA selected for support in 2017. She is a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University with three degrees from M.I.T. who, in addition to her adventures in the asteroid belt, has led four field expeditions to Siberia to unearth the cause of the Permian extinction 250 million years ago.
The inner planets of the solar system, such as Earth, are rocky, and the outer planets, such as Jupiter and Saturn, are gaseous, whereas Psyche is neither, Elkins said. It appears to be mostly made of metal. In the beginning of the solar system, she said, dust and gas formed into planetesimals. Some planetesimals coalesced into planets, others were flung into the sun, and yet others were stranded in the asteroid belt, she said. Psyche, possibly the partial core of a shattered planetesimal, could be similar in composition to the core of Earth, which is unreachable. “Perhaps we’ll learn about Earth’s core,” she said.
“We’ve never had a flyby of Psyche,” Elkins-Tanton said. The spacecraft will orbit it and study it with the aid of radio waves, a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer, and a multispectral imager. To use the analogy of diamonds and water, the data the Psyche mission produces will be like a diamond: precious because it is not available anywhere else. By comparison, platinum doesn’t seem so rare after all. It’s like water.
Elsewhere: Who’s Working in Manhattan
A survey by the Partnership for New York City of more than 140 major employers in Manhattan last month found that 82 percent plan to maintain or expand their square footage in the borough. In late January 52 percent of Manhattan office workers were at their workplace on an average weekday, up from 49 percent in September, the survey found. About 9 percent were in the office five days a week, unchanged from September. The organization represents the city’s business leaders and largest employers.
Quote of the Day
“To what baneful quarter, then, are we to look for the cause of the stagnation and misery which appear so general in human affairs? War! is the answer. There is no other cause. This is the pestilential wind which blasts the prosperity of nations. This is the devouring fiend which eats up the precious treasure of national economy, the foundation of national improvement, and of national happiness.”
— James Mill, “Commerce Defended” (1808)
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