One of the plotlines for season 4 of the hit TV series “For All Mankind” is an attempt to use a Mars colony as a base to mine the asteroids of the main belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. It turns out, that at least one study suggests that Mars would be the perfect jumping-off point for an asteroid mining operation.
The Harvard and Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics asserts that instead of staging from Earth or Earth orbit, staging from Mars orbit to access the main belt makes a lot more sense because it involves less delta-V. Delta-V is defined as the amount of impulse a rocket must produce to launch from a planet, land on a planet or change direction in space.
In layperson’s terms, it is easier and cheaper to travel to a main belt asteroid and back staging from Mars orbit than it is to go to one from Earth and back again.
The study states that a base or a settlement on Mars, including a station in orbit, would make an asteroid mining operation much easier. Many other questions will have to be answered before a Mars-based asteroid mining operation can be developed so that it makes economic sense. For example, having mined resources from an asteroid and brought them back to Mars orbit, how does one ship them to Earth, where they can be of use? How much would a Mars base or settlement aimed at asteroid mining cost to set up?
Those questions could be settled by SpaceX’s Elon Musk. For a long time, Musk has dreamed of setting up a Mars settlement, even going so far as to wish that he might die on the Red Planet “just not on impact.” His reasons tend toward the mystical, about “expanding consciousness” beyond Earth.
Musk is currently engaged in the first practical task needed before humans settle on Mars: developing the most powerful rocket ship ever built, the Starship, at SpaceX’s facility in Boca Chica, Texas. The Starship will have other applications, from taking astronauts back to the lunar surface to launching huge payloads into low Earth orbit and elsewhere. But Mars is the ultimate destination in Musk’s mind.
Musk has been quite ingenious in finding ways to monetarize his space dreams. His Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rocket ships have reduced the cost of space launches by orders of magnitude, attracting numerous customers from the public and private sectors. Musk’s space communications system, Starlink, recently hit break-even cash flow, according to Forbes, well on its way to profitability.
As a bonus, the Starship that Musk is developing to take settlers and the material they need to survive to Mars can also serve as the basis of an asteroid mining transportation infrastructure. Thus, the Mars settlement that Musk wants to build can have a practical, profit-making basis.
Imagine, perhaps as soon as two or so decades hence, a Starship rocket takes off from Mars orbit and brings a cargo of mining robots to a likely asteroid. Psyche, the so-called “golden asteroid,” worth by some estimates in the quintillions, would be a prime target. The robots would mine minerals and store them in the Starship’s hold. The rocket would return to Mars orbit with its rich cargo. The Mars settlement would use some of the minerals. Most would be sent to Earth on board a Starship for export. The first interplanetary trade route will have been established.
As technological civilization grows in size and complexity, the need for raw materials will only increase. The amount of such resources is limited on Earth and extracting them has an environmental cost. The resources available in the asteroid belt are abundant and mining them does not affect the Earth’s environment.
In times past, space exploration has been regarded as either a nice-to-have but not essential program or a needless diversion of resources from earthly needs. Elon Musk has been criticized by politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for his dreams of developing Mars, demanding that the SpaceX CEO and other billionaires pay their fair share of taxes.
However, if there is one thing that the new age of commercial space has taught us, it is that there is money to be made beyond the Earth. A Mars settlement as a base for asteroid miners would be the ultimate example of that truth.
Mark R. Whittington, who writes frequently about space policy, has published a political study of space exploration entitled “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?“ as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and, most recently, “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?“ He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.
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