There’s a hidden harvest awaiting us in space. It comes from the 500 square miles of land inside an O’Neill Cylinder. Proposed in 1974 by Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill, an O’Neill Cylinder is a pair of giant cans in the sky made of concrete and steel, cans twenty miles long and four miles in diameter. An O’Neill Cylinder is big enough to house millions. Big enough to have forests, farmlands, parks, puppies, and cities. The O’Neill Cylinder’s rotation produces artificial gravity. It is parked in permanent sunlight and has unending energy. Its raw materials—glass, steel, and the stuff of microchips—is made of moon dust and the minerals of asteroids. Its water comes from the giant ice-balls known as comets.
From 1500 to 1600, the opening of the New World more than tripled the gross domestic product of humanity. In the same way, O’Neill Cylinders will provide one of the biggest economic boosts man-and-womankind has ever seen. And O’Neill colonies will provide ecosystems with whole new landscapes in which to flourish, evolve, and thrive.
Asteroid mining refers to the possibility of exploiting raw materials from asteroids and other minor planets, including near-Earth objects. Minerals and volatiles could be mined from an asteroid or spent comet then taken back to Earth or used in space for space-construction materials. Materials that could be mined or extracted include iron, nickel, titanium for construction, water and oxygen to sustain the lives of prospector-astronauts on site, as well as hydrogen and oxygen for use as rocket fuel. In space exploration, using resources gathered whilst on a journey is referred to as in-situ resource utilization
Russia recently revealed that the crater of a meteorite that landed in Siberia 35 million years ago, contains trillions of carats of rare diamonds. The Soviet government discovered the deposit in 1970s but it’s only now that documents have been disclosed revealing the true extent of the diamond hoard, which scientists say could supply the entire world for 3,000 years.
Based on known terrestrial reserves and growing consumption in developing countries, there is speculation that key elements needed for modern industry, including antimony, zinc, tin, silver, lead,indium, gold, and copper, could be exhausted on Earth within 50–60 years. In response, it has been suggested that platinum, cobalt and other valuable elements from asteroids may be mined and sent to Earth for profit, used to build solar-power satellites and space habitats, and water processed from ice to refuel orbiting propellant depots.
In fact, all the gold, cobalt, iron, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, osmium, palladium, platinum, rhenium, rhodium, ruthenium, and tungsten mined from the Earth's crust, and that are essential for economic and technological progress, came originally from the rain of asteroids that hit the Earth after the crust cooled. This is because, while asteroids and the Earth congealed from the same starting materials, Earth's massive gravity pulled all such heavy siderophilic (iron-loving) elements into the planet's core during its molten youth more than four billion years ago. This left the crust depleted of such valuable elements until asteroid impacts re-infused the depleted crust with metals. Some flow from core to surface seems to occur, e.g. at the Bushveld Igneous Complex, a famously rich source of Platinum group metals.
The world, it seems, is stuck in a catch-22 situation – it needs money to fund mining and it need mining to make money. The question is, should scientists, entrepreneurs and governments wait until earth’s reserves run out or take a giant leap of faith?