There are no known commodity resources in space that could be sold on Earth

One common trope of space journalism these days concerns the mining of asteroids or the Moon, sometimes combined with environmental handwringing over the aesthetic destruction we may bring to these soulless dino-killing space rocks. Moon mining, we are told, is a gold rush about to happen. In the process, a few people will get super wealthy selling shovels or shiny metal of some kind, and hopefully a few big cities will get built in space. Indeed, space mining is sometimes seen as the “killer app” necessary to fund and motivate large scale human occupation of space.

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Advocates of the industrialization of space usually envision a bootstrapping process, wherein one core product provides the profit margin necessary to build out infrastructure and, eventually, move most of Earth’s industry into space.

The question: Where is the space gold mine? While industrial processes add value at every step, space is often seen initially as a source of raw materials. Specifically, asteroids, the Moon, or Mars are seen as sites for future mines. These mines could produce anything from water to gold, Helium-3 to platinum. In this post, I will cover factors general to all material products before diving into specific examples.

My contention is that there are no known commodity resources in space that could be sold profitably on Earth.

The key to a successful business is to obtain feedstocks for cheap and to sell products at a tidy profit. The problem with space mining is that the feedstocks are generally much more expensive than on Earth, and there is an extremely limited market for products, except on Earth. More broadly, for every industrially valuable ore, there is already a competitive and adequate, if not spectacular, supply chain here on Earth.

If and when cities are built on the Moon or Mars, then local sourcing of raw materials makes sense in that context. But until then, the money, the financial resources, are here on Earth. So to make a killing in space, some sort of commodity needs to be obtained, transported to Earth, and sold, all for less money than conventional supply chains.

The challenge is that raw commodity margins on Earth are already super slim. The problem is that there are very few natural monopolies in mineral supply, so mining companies have to compete for market share, lowering prices.

More broadly, it is instructive to consider the value chain as raw materials are gradually processed into high value commercial goods, such as cell phones. Primary production obtains the ores needed to produce chemically pure elemental feedstocks, which are usually packaged in some standard, fungible way. Secondary production processes those feedstocks into individual components, such as the machining of an aluminium cell phone chassis from a raw billet. Finally, the various components are assembled, packaged, and sold. In something like a cell phone, value accrues at every step along this process, representing the revenue stream for each specialized supplier. As the designer and marketer, Apple pockets something like 30% of the sticker price of each phone sold, while the aluminium smelter takes home much less than 1%. A billet of aluminum is much closer in value to raw bauxite than a finished phone.

Similarly for minerals from space. The value per kg is of crucial importance for products where shipping costs are important, and the value per kg of nearly every commodity good is next to nothing.

But just how important are shipping costs? On Earth, bulk cargo costs are something like $0.10/kg to move raw materials or shipping containers almost anywhere with infrastructure. Launch costs are more like $2000/kg to LEO, and $10,000/kg from LEO back to Earth. Currently there is no commercially available service to ship stuff to and from the Moon, but without a diverse marketplace of launch providers, there’s no reason to expect that the de facto monopoly or duopoly of SpaceX and Blue Origin would sell it for less than $100,000/kg, literally a million times more expensive than shipping anywhere on Earth. Before we hate SpaceX for price gouging, it’s not certain that shipping for less than this amount is even possible, but one could relax this assumption by several orders of magnitude and still arrive at the same answer.

For nearly all commodities, shipping costs are a smallish fraction of the overall costs of purchase. More generally, of all the energy and labor embodied in a finished product, most of it is spent in refining, processing, design, and assembly, rather than transport. There are a handful of exceptions where shipping costs dominate the sticker price, usually in industries where transport is itself the product, and the cargo is extremely time sensitive. Shipping perishable food, flowers, and people are a good example.
Given that the Moon is not likely to (initially) be a source of perishable commodities nor enormous numbers of time-poor humans, it is safe to assume that whatever is produced there has to be so valuable on a per kilogram basis that buyers on Earth can absorb the shipping cost. The question then becomes, what commodities cost in the ballpark of $100,000/kg?

As an aside, one obvious way to sidestep the mass transportation requirement is to choose a product with no mass, such as electromagnetic radiation. And indeed, the most vibrant commercial space product is communications, which are beamed using microwaves. Raw microwaves can be used to transmit electrical power, but in a former post I demonstrated that space based solar power can’t compete with the rapid evolution of ground based solar power. Not even a little bit!

There are actually plenty of things which cost $100,000/kg or more in the high tech industries, such as advanced computer chips. The reason computer chips are so expensive (relative to mass) is that they’re extremely hard to make even at the Intel factory, which is stuffed with super smart people. In terms of the value chain, computer chips are at the complete opposite end to raw bulk commodities. Both items are sub ideal for obtaining in space, though for different reasons. Raw commodities have too little intrinsic value to justify the transport costs from space, or even usually from another continent. And high technology products are too expensive to make in any but ideal circumstances here on Earth.
There is a middle ground. The German economy, in particular, is powerfully driven by thousands of small specialty companies that make relatively small numbers of custom machines and tools. Individually, the machines are much more valuable than raw materials, and much less difficult to make than computer chips. But their true value derives from the network effect of having thousands of companies feeding off each other and, fundamentally, building the infrastructure of industrial automation for the rest of the world. There are a number of companies, such as Made In Space, which are actively pursuing bespoke in-space manufacture of specialty items, and there is every indication that their schemes are economically viable. But while they represent a golden ticket for one small engineering company, they lack a path to generalized space industry and the trillion dollar revenue that implies, at least without enormous advances in robotics.
So we’re left with a question about what commodities cost $100,000/kg, or $100/g, and could be found in space. In a previous post, we dispatched the idea of selling lunar water, which in any case is basically free on Earth. Comsats are routinely launched to space at vast expense, but fall in the category of advanced technology which is prohibitively difficult to manufacture in space. Launch may be expensive but it’s cheaper than launching the whole factory!

Let’s consider a representative list of the most expensive materials in the world. In descending order, they are:

  1. Antimatter, currently $62.5t/g.
  2. Californium, $25m/g.
  3. Diamond, $55k/g.
  4. Tritium, $30k/g.
  5. Taaffite, $20k/g.
  6. Helium 3, $15k/g.
  7. Painite, $6k/g.
  8. Plutonium, $4k/g.
  9. LSD, $3k/g.
  10. Cocaine, $236/g.
  11. Heroin, $130/g.
  12. Rhino horn, $110/g.
  13. Crystal meth, $100/g.
  14. Platinum, $60/g.
  15. Rhodium, $58/g.
  16. Gold, $56/g.
  17. Saffron, $11/g.

The previous ballpark estimate for transport costs was $100,000/kg, or $100/g. Since I want to be inclusive, I’ll include everything down to saffron in the list above, whose cost is roughly equal to the current LEO-surface transport cost.

Despite their high value density, none of these make good candidates for commercial extraction from the Moon or asteroids, for a few different reasons.

  • Many do not exist on the Moon at all, or in relatively poor abundances compared to the Earth. This includes everything except for Helium-3, which is slightly more abundant in Lunar dirt.
  • Many are only valuable because of artificial scarcity, such as the illegal drugs or diamonds.
  • None of the products represent large markets, due to their prohibitive price or relative scarcity. As a result, they are subject to substantial price elasticity depending on supply. For example, the global annual market for Helium-3 is about $10m. Double the supply, halve the price, and the net revenue is still about the same. No-one seriously thinks that Lunar mining infrastructure can be built for less than many billions of dollars, so even at a price of $100,000/kg, annual demand needs to exceed hundreds of tons to ensure adequate revenue and price stability.
  • Tritium, helium-3, platinum and antimatter represent speculative future markets, particularly where increased supply could help develop an industry based on, say, fusion, exotic batteries, or a bunch of gamma rays. If fusion-induced demand for helium-3 reaches a point where annual demand has climbed by three orders of magnitude, then I am willing to revisit this point. But current construction rates of cryogenically cooled bolometers are not adequate to fund Lunar mine development, and solar PV electricity production has every indication of destroying competing generation methods, including fusion.
  • Some relatively expensive minerals are only expensive because low levels of industrial demand have failed to develop efficient supply chains. If demand increases, new refining mechanisms are invariably developed which substantially lower the price. A salient example here is rare platinum group metals.

In summary, the Moon seems to have nothing that large numbers of humans are willing to part with large sums of cash to obtain.

This is a recognized problem in science fiction, usually solved by the discovery of some otherwise non-existent and commercially crucial material. For example, in James Cameron’s film “Avatar”, the moon Pandora was a source of “unobtanium”, a room temperature superconductor that justified the enormous expense of mining it. In Cordwainer Smith’s novel “Norstrilia”, giant mutant sheep produce “stroon”, a medicine that provides longevity. In “Dune”, the crucial mineral is “spice”, a powerful drug.

The elixir of life is something that no shortage of people would pay arbitrary prices to obtain. Alternatively, while extremely unlikely, it may be discovered that living in Lunar gravity extends lifespan. If something like this exists, then I think there is a clear business case to be made for the industrialization of space. Without it, I don’t believe that mining the Moon for rocks and metals makes economic sense.

As a final note, while I think there are exactly zero hard-nosed mining executives who believe there are trillions to be made mining asteroids or the Moon, I don’t think this means that humans can’t live and work in space. The faulty assumption is that the activity needs to make lots of money, throughout the process. While a lowered profit motive changes the nature of the game in all kinds of ways, it doesn’t rule out progress, which could be driven by philanthropy or strategic imperatives.
In a future post I’ll explore the “why” of humans exploring space, but for now just remember that if no-one can make money mining the moon, no-one is going to do much of it.

29 thoughts on “There are no known commodity resources in space that could be sold on Earth

  1. The idea to extract minerals on the moon or from asteroids and sell them on earth clearly won’t work. The more interesting question is can lunar and asteroid mining be used as part of a space economy.

    I am not sure how the economics work out, or what would really be needed to start that. However it is a more interesting approach.

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  2. Have there been any more developments in terms of things that require zero gravity for their manufacture? I know one company is talking about making clearer optical fiber. Did any of the other ideas pan out?

    If they got stem cell organ printing to work and it only worked/worked best in zero g, that could be close to your elixir of life notion. But they still don’t know how to do commercial organ printing, and if it requires zero g they’ll probably just keep working on it until it doesn’t (all the research labs where they’re working on it are in 1 g anyway). But maybe some small medical device/product like that. Contact lenses are widely used and incredibly expensive per mass, for example, had they required zero g they might actually have justified a space station.

    Tourism to LEO and the Moon would probably be viable at Starship’s (ideal) launch cost, given that thousands climb Everest at similar prices. Zero and low g can’t be had anywhere but space. You could probably also do pay-per-view zero g sports, and film and TV shooting of zero g scenes at those launch costs. Would a casino in space have any regulatory advantages over Earth?

    Are there any things that are worth doing on the Moon just to not have them on Earth? Storage of samples of dangerous pathogens, perhaps? Nuclear waste disposal? (probably a non-starter for the risk of a launch mishap)

    Servicing and troubleshooting of some space mirror geoengineering scheme? Maybe even partial mirror production from a C-type asteroid if you just need simple plastics and deposited metal?

    The only other thing I can think of is the obvious geological research on the Moon and final assembly/checkout and trouble-shooting of really big space telescopes, which is more of a governmental/academic activity than an industrial one.

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    1. That’s a really nice list of ideas. As far as I can see, however, they can be grouped into:
      – Niche manufacturing/R&D
      – Niche luxury tourism
      – Science/tech (government funded)

      By my numbers, none of these have the required combination of volume and revenue per transaction necessary to drive a large-scale industrial migration to space. It’s better than nothing but it’s not enormously compelling. We’ll see!

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  3. Lunar helium-3 will always be worthless, for a simple physics reason: it’s easier to get net power from pure deuterium fusion (D-D) than from He3 or D-He3 fusion, and the waste produces of D-D fusion are He3, and tritium which decays to He3 with a 12-year half-life.

    D-D does produce neutron radiation, but it’s comparable to fission reactors, not the extremely high-energy neutrons of the easiest fusion reaction, D-T. It will always be easier to fuel He3 reactors from D-D fusion, and produce energy in the process, than to sift through millions of tons of lunar dirt.

    There’s a fusion startup right now, Helion, which is attempting a hybrid D-D/D-He3 reactor, saying the combination will produce only 6% of its energy as neutron radiation (compared to 80% for D-T). Deuterium, of course, is absurdly abundant in seawater.

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  4. This is a rather silly article. The big initial market for lunar materials will be creation of materials for use in construction of terrestrial satellites. It will be much cheaper to create materials on the moon than to launch them from earth. O’Neill outlined this in the High Frontier decades ago

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  5. The cost of transport by SpaceX Starship is on the order of $100/kilogram, or a thousand times less than you have it. Perhaps as low as $35/kg. Now for that price, you get the return journey for free, plus the capacity from LEO down to sea level will be rather more than the capacity to LEO.

    The ∆v even from the Moon surface is much less, and so the cost in terms of propellant is much less. But you still are thinking in terms of chemical propellants, whereas especially the Asteroid Belt would do with electric propulsion: mass drivers or ion thrusters.

    Whereas SpaceX may well be a monopoly for the foreseeable future, there is no reason to expect they will gauge the price to the point of economic unviability for the mining project. If a mining company offers SpaceX a contract to buy gold at Earth-Moon L1, cash on collection, at 50% Earth spot prices, they will take it.

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  6. Three thoughts on this:
    1: I’d like to think that a cheap supply of platinum ( crashing the current commodity price) could lead to the economic viability of new products in energy production and storage
    2: Terrestrial mining is becoming more and more expensive as the easily-mined deposits are depleted, and resistance to new mines from environmental groups increases. British Columbia, Canada, has a large amount of mineral wealth, but new mine proposals are invariably rejected due to the resistance and protests from environmentalists, to the point where industry doesn’t even bother trying anymore. Appeasing those groups appears to be prohibitively expensive.
    3: Of course, the best case for mining in space is for building in space.

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  7. I think you dismiss space mining to lightly. The main argument is that shipping costs are prohibitive but with some imagination this can be solved. What about processing and then carrying back 150,000 pounds of gold and rare Earths at a time. That’s about $3 Billion a trip for gold and a lot more for some rare Earths! What about processing in situ and sending 10 KG chunks back to Earth using cyclotrons?

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      1. I am not entirely convinced by this; while it’s partially due to scarcity, I think that a greatly increased supply of all of the precious metals (except silver) would probably find demand in various technological applications.

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  8. Shipping costs are prohibitive today but ressources are limited on earth and will ineluctably be depleted (physic law). Remember earth is a finite world. One day, space ressources will be virtually abordable because on earth some ressources will become very rare (therefore expensives).
    If we can’t get out of our finite world, our civilisation will inevitably cease to exist because of a lack of ressources. However ressources in space can be considered infinite.
    I am thinking particularly of the rare metals needed for energy production.
    What do you think ?

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    1. I think there’s orders of magnitude more matter in the crust than all the asteroids combined, let alone near Earth ones. We have to get cleverer about mining and recycling, but that’s always been true.

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      1. Yes, but mining and recycling have a limited yeld (100% is impossible in physics). In long term, it will cost a huge amount of energy (and so $) to mine or recycle more and more scattered resources. We will get to the point that it will cost fewer energy to mine highly concentrated resources in asteroids.

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  9. https://spacenews.com/elon-musk-space-pitch-day/ claims, that Elon said 100t to LEO would finally come down to just 2M$, which is 20$/kg , which in turn is much less then your baseline of $100,000/kg, right?
    Platinum is currently around 30k$/kg
    Moreover the price from earth to LEO might be 20$, but the price from LEO to earth should be less, since air braking does most of the work and Starship need to come back anyhow.
    Therefore asteroid mining for platinum and sending to earth should be profitable at least as far as the transport costs are concerned.

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    1. Nothing makes me happier than having to redo calculations.

      Platinum price is elastic, determined by scarcity. Total market size is quite small. Also, no platinum ingots hanging out in LEO.

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  10. I’m not convinced that high-tech automatically means it can’t be made in space. We can’t get anything like the complete stack, but lifting a specialized system to produce a handful of high-volume high-tech items seems as though it could be feasible.

    I think lunar mining may be doable for not many billions, because I don’t think we’ll be mining rare stuff like water, let alone He3. I think we’ll be mining ordinary rock, to produce O2, Al, and basalt fiber, and maybe Fe. Aluminum makes good wires, and slag is an insulator. If you get the aluminum and oxygen from a rock, silicon is almost a byproduct. Calcium-oxygen and sodium-oxygen are both usable battery chemistries. From there to one kind of circuit seems likely to be feasible with a few Starship loads of equipment that can be operated with a couple seconds of light-speed lag. Better to lift rare elements and a few components like CPUs from Earth than whole systems.

    Of course, these would be inferior substitutes, produced at great expense to support the Mars colony or asteroid mining, not something that would be exported back to Earth. On the ground we can make the robots that will unpack and set up the factories. On the moon, I don’t see us doing anything like that for a long time. But I do think we can make the second generation of lunar mining equipment there, including the circuit boards (but not the CPUs). And then I think we can make export goods, using a few low-mass imported components, that will compete with alternatives lifted from Earth.

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  11. Personally, I completely agree that off-earth mining is infeasible for terrestrial applications, at least until there’s a complete exhaustion of a given resource.

    However, I’d definitely argue for a use you didn’t really mention. It’s not part of todays market, but will potentially be very important for “tomorrow’s” (in a figurative sense).

    That is large-scale orbital construction. As you yourself state, mass is a significant cost barrier. If you were to try to build something significantly larger than the ISS, you would start to need absolutely excessive launches to get all the components up there. Not to mention, while these days we might be able to “flat pack” to some extent, ultimately we can’t send anything up larger than our largest fairings.

    If we were able to intercept and “capture” a near earth asteroid, we could potentially use the extracted ores to build significantly larger structures in-situ. In particular, we could capture one or more of the ERO (Easily Recoverable Objects), all of which require

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  12. I agree with this to a significant degree, though I also think that future high-tech industry likely will have more demand for scarce minerals that may change the economics.

    The main thing I question is the transport cost. Most proposals I’ve encountered aim to bring down a LOT of asteroidal material with only a little hardware, maybe even something that can be launched on a single heavy-lift rocket. These are, of course, mostly or entirely robotic projects.

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  13. I am not good at all calculations, but I have read how rare earth metals, needed for different batteries are getting to be hard to find. These metals are needed for some very high tech items. They also pollute a lot of areas, according to some articles I have read. That maybe were the mining goes, looking for hard to find and really polluting minerals. It will be expensive, unless they find larger quantities in space.

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