Join 3,512 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Beyond Helium 3
March 12, 2011 5:36 PM   Subscribe

Hypothetically speaking, are there any known elements found only in outer space that might one day economically justify a renewed commitment to space exploration? (Helium 3 not included.)

(For a sci fi story I'm working on.) Helium 3 is very well known, but other than that, are there any materials known to exist (or even SUSPECTED to exist) off-planet that might be valuable enough to merit a vastly larger budget for NASA?

Of course if we poisoned the water or the Earth enough that we needed to move, extra-terrestrial real estate would be in high demand. But I'm not interested in apocalypse scenarios, I'm more interested in the idea of resources farmed in space, that people on Earth could use while still remaining on-planet.

It's okay if it is something that only exists (or hypothetically exists) in deep space, far beyond the reaches of today's technology.

Thanks!
posted by egeanin to Science & Nature (20 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
Consider also not types of elements, but quantity. Lithium, for example, exists on Earth, but a massive supply of easily mined and transported lithium could change transportation, like hybrid cars, that rely on litium batteries.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:40 PM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


You might take a look at this graphic from New Scientist, which ran a couple of years ago. If your sci-fi story is far enough in the future, one of these resources could have been depleted on Earth, requiring extraterrestrial mining operations. Nickel, in particular, might run out in 50-100 years, and is pretty common in certain types of asteroids.
posted by Johnny Assay at 5:54 PM on March 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


Peter Diamandis runs the X Prize, and he proposes, in part, that asteroids be mined for elements that are presently rare or otherwise expensive to procure on Earth.

He has written quite a bit about this topic.

I have no idea how feasible this is.
posted by dfriedman at 5:59 PM on March 12, 2011


Space based resources are not so much to be exploited for earthly consumption. Although just one fairly small metallic asteroid contains a staggering amount of wealth-usually over a trillion, enough to crash the metals market. But for construction infrastructure in space. Things like solar power satellites, orbiting habitats, moon colony, interstellar spacecraft (OK, that one is going to take awhile). Once you get a self sustaining industry going in space you can stop doing a lot of the more harmful industry here on Earth. The big thing to be built will be a 'beanstalk' or earth-space cable that extends from high earth orbit (past geosynchronous) to the surface. Completely infeasible to built from the ground, but once we get large scale nanotube matrix construction done the solar system will be ours.
posted by bartonlong at 7:35 PM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


There are certainly elements that are more common in space than on Earth, or at least within the crust. Iridium is the classic example; it was an iridium band at the 65 MY mark that led to Alvarez proposing the now generally accepted idea that a meteor killed the dinosaurs, for example.

At the moment, iridium doesn't have any particularly crucial uses, but if you're writing sci-fi, you could certainly invent one.
posted by tau_ceti at 8:15 PM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


... are there any known elements found only in outer space...

Unfortunately, there isn't anything like that. But it's possible that there are things which are extremely rare here which might be more common out there. For purposes of fiction you could postulate such a thing.

My nominee would be Gallium. I remember 30 years ago someone proposed that the entire semiconductor business might transition from silicon to gallium arsenide. But then someone else calculated that if they did, the entire world supply of gallium would get used up in 3 years.

If you hypothesize that a breakthrough in technology makes large quantities of gallium vital for semiconductors, and likewise hypothesize that gallium could be found in large quantities in asteroids, then you're set.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:25 PM on March 12, 2011


Two elements that are relatively scarce are as mentioned; indium and gallium. Indium is already a critical element for solar photovoltaic technologies and for flat panel displays, lots of folks are trying to find a replacement, its not a real easy problem to solve. However the indium industry is confident it's not a problem. Gallium used to be just a specialized material for very high performance semiconductors, it was too expensive and too difficult to work with for much wider use, and silicon continues to be pretty great. However, the shift underway to LED lighting and further down the road possibly to higher efficiency gallium arsenide solar panels will probably increase the demand a lot. It's worth noting that recycling of both metals is already an important part of maintaining supply.
posted by Long Way To Go at 8:50 PM on March 12, 2011


Gallium does turn out to be very important for LEDs, and if we switch our lighting over, we're going to need lot of the stuff.

There may well actually be a lot of Gallium on the earth, but like most of the heavy elements, the vast majority of the quantity which was incorporated into the earth originally would have sunk to the core, leaving lighter elements (calcium and aluminum and silicon) on top to solidify and make up the crust.

That's why you might be able to get away with asteroid mining as a source: since the asteroids didn't successfully combine into a single planet, then if you assume approximately the same proportions of heavy metals as for the earth as a whole, then the proportion will be vastly greater than earth's crust, where heavy metals are disportionately rare.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:05 PM on March 12, 2011


Energy?
For example, if you have a process that is incredibly energy intensive - like smelting aluminium but x1000, it might make sense to put the refinery on a planet with liquid methane oceans where fuel energy is unlimited and emissions are irrelevant, burn through tonnes of fuel per microgram produced of refined material, thus the material is valuable enough to justify space travel not by dint of being a rare element on earth, but of having extreme value-added in a way that is more economical in space than on earth?

Economic restrictions on earth related to energy scarcity or greenhouse emissions controls could also contribute. Energy scarcity is a tricky issue when talking about space travel though.
posted by -harlequin- at 9:08 PM on March 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


Perhaps the energy-intensive process is creating the anti-matter that powers the space travel?
posted by -harlequin- at 9:10 PM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Here's an interesting read from the Royal Society of Chemistry on elemental scarcity.

We're going to need a whole lot of Neodymium for all the magnets we need for hybrid cars, etc.
posted by beepbeepboopboop at 9:12 PM on March 12, 2011


nergy?
For example, if you have a process that is incredibly energy intensive - like smelting aluminium but x1000, it might make sense to put the refinery on a planet with liquid methane oceans where fuel energy is unlimited and emissions are irrelevant, burn through tonnes of fuel per microgram produced of refined material, thus the material is valuable enough to justify space travel not by dint of being a rare element on earth, but of having extreme value-added in a way that is more economical in space than on earth?


actually you can distill metals in orbit. Use a large mirror to concentrate sunlight on a point (this might work as far out as Jupiter if you have enough mirror) and boil the metal. Use a centrifuge to separate the elements and you get incredibly pure metals for no energy cost (well except for sunlight, but then that is free isn't it?).

The biggest advantage to space is a very hard vacuum and unlimited energy (in sunlight). Like i said above solar power satellites are probably one of the greatest benefits a space infrastructure could give Earth (and no, it wouldn't start fires like in Simcity unless you designed that as a feature). It would use microwaves, not a laser. It could use a laser but microwaves propagate better through the atmosphere i believe.
posted by bartonlong at 9:33 PM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Harlequin, the problem with your idea is that in the places where there are methane oceans, there is no oxygen to complete the combustion.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:26 PM on March 12, 2011


Aside from taking stuff to earth, there are lots of reasons to mine stuff in space if you intend to terraform other planets -- for example, taking water from an asteroid to venus or mars.
posted by empath at 10:58 PM on March 12, 2011


Condensed matter such as white dwarf substance, neutronium, hypothetical condensed strange matter (made of strange quarks, possibly formed in pair-instability supernovae), and singularities (black holes) are "materials" that only occur out in outer space, far from planets. These aren't elements, and there would be technical problems in obtaining and handling any of them. It was even hypothesized that strange matter might convert anything it touched into more strange matter, one of the more far-fetched ways that the Large Hadron Collider was predicted to destroy the earth.

A few stories have focused on the idea of small black holes as easy energy sources. Put even a little mass into a black hole, and a lot of radiation (energy) comes out just before the mass crosses the event horizon. Therefore, there would be black hole miners who would sail around trying to find a black hole to capture and sell.
posted by Protocols of the Elders of Sockpuppetry at 4:42 AM on March 13, 2011


As bartonlong says, space is very, very attractive from a manufacturing standpoint. There are many things that would be possible in micro-gravity and hard vacuum that are extremely hard to do on the earth's surface: Growing/casting single-crystal machine parts, which could be many times stronger than conventional multi-crystaline parts; large single crystals for electronics fabrication; access to very cheap power, and so on.

In addition to that, if your main consumers are down the gravity well and all you have to do to ship your anywhere in the world in hours is do a cheap, unpowered reentry from orbit. From LEO, not only can you beat all earth-bound factories on quality, you can do 8-hour deliveries to anywhere on the planet too.

Raw materials are actually hard to get in space. They're either at the bottom of expensive-to-climb gravity wells, or months-to-years away in the asteroid belts, assuming conventional rocket/solar sail transportation.
posted by bonehead at 9:05 AM on March 13, 2011


-harlequin-: " it might make sense to put the refinery on a planet with liquid methane oceans where fuel energy is unlimited and emissions are irrelevant, "

I don't think that's going to work- you're just having the limiting reactant be hydrocarbons instead of oxygen.
posted by dunkadunc at 11:09 AM on March 13, 2011


Unobtanium.
posted by squasher at 11:48 AM on March 13, 2011


I have a different possibility: Palladium.

Remember "cold fusion"? Suppose, just suppose, that someone figured out how to make it work. In that case, the demand for Palladium would explode. The stuff just isn't that common here. In that case, mining it in space (e.g. the asteroid belt) really could end up being reasonable.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:27 PM on March 13, 2011


Peak Phosphorus + asteroidal schreibersite = grizzled asteroid miners?
posted by hattifattener at 5:01 PM on March 20, 2011


« Older After having drainage and a su...   |  Help me support the arts in Ch... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.