Asteroid Futures: Decades, Centuries, Millennia

Asteroid Futures: Decades, Centuries, Millennia

March 5, 02018: A Long Now Boston Community Conversation with
Dr. Martin Elvis, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

See the after-event writeup for a discussion of this event.

Asteroids serve as convenient platforms for deep space exploration, industrial fabrication and solar system expeditions.

Space exploration in the 21st century has begun a transition towards commercial exploration and development. What factors will be critical to the success of these efforts in the long term? According to Dr. Martin Elvis, asteroids are the key that will unlock a future extraterrestrial economy. Asteroids are plentiful, accessible and resource rich. They will serve as convenient platforms for deep space exploration, industrial fabrication and solar system expeditions.

For example, the resources contained in asteroids are huge. The accessible iron in asteroids is estimated to be a million times greater than proven iron reserves in the Earth’s crust. Technologies being researched and tested today are likely to make asteroid mining a practical industry within two decades. The industry will require new professional labor categories: applied astronomers and extraterrestrial engineers.

Looking one century out, this industry will be able to bring huge amounts – a million tons or more – of iron and other industrial materials from their native orbits to an orbit high above Earth. This will enable massive-scale industrial development using economical space-based solar power and space cities constructed according to designs such as the O’Neill cylinders on the drawing boards today. Enormous telescopes will be built, probing the universe for life as well as insights on the origins of the universe. Sufficient industrial capacity will also be in place to redirect potential killer asteroids, such as the one that caused the massive Cretaceous–Paleogene (K–Pg) extinction event 66 million years ago.

As we approach a millennium in the future history of the space economy, we may begin to reach the limits of solar system resources. Will depletion of solar system resources trigger existential questions for humanity, in the same way the depletion of terrestrial eco-system resources is challenging us today? Should we begin now to ask ourselves: how much of the solar system should we leave as wilderness?

Dr. Martin Elvis is an Astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. In addition to his significant contributions to the science of deep space objects, Dr. Elvis has a passion for near earth objects and the opportunities they offer for future space exploration and development. He is convinced that the commercial potential of asteroids will transform our space endeavors to a truly large-scale, and will, in the process, make access to space cheap and routine. Dr. Elvis has published over 400 journal papers and is one of the 250 most highly cited researchers in astronomy and space physics, with more than 28,000 citations.