Solar system colonisation might not be driven by economics

by Stuart_Armstrong1 min read21st Apr 202044 comments

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EconomicsSpace Exploration & ColonizationWorld ModelingWorld Optimization
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This is a stub of an argument that I don't necessarily agree with, but that I think deserves to be thought about and analysed more.

Why would we expand into the solar system? What's the actual point - what would we get out there?

I'll argue here that there may not be good economic reasons to go to space; therefore space colonisation would be driven by non-economic reasons, which suggests a different pattern of expansion.

The revenues of space

Mining

How could we make money in space? The obvious answer is mining. Asteroids and planets are full of resources, carbon, iron, gold, rare earths, and so on; the value of these resources, at current prices, is staggering.

But note "at current prices". Obviously, if we brought down a few trillions of tons of copper, the price of that metal might suffer a slight dip.

So what's the economic value of current mining? Well, mining represented of world GDP in 2016; but roughly of this is coal, which is mainly used for energy (we'll get to that later). This is a small fraction of the current economy, and one that is in decline (over the century span, if not the decade span).

The attraction of space mining is that we have access to immense resources; but what we need is access to resources at a cheap marginal cost. If space mining doesn't offer that, then we just won't use it, just as there are ways of getting resources on Earth (eg some forms of recycling, distilling resources from the sea, very deep mining) that we are just not using because they're currently too expensive.

Or, put another way, if you're thirsty, the glass of water a metre away is of more interest than the vast reservoir just over the mountain range.

Other revenue generators

There are other things we can do in space. Some scientific experiments require micro-gravity; we can harvest energy via solar panels in space; new manufacturing methods may be usable in zero-G.

But these things can be done in near-Earth orbit, on some nearby space station, or on the moon if we really need some gravity or some mining. Deeper space seems to have little economic advantage. Is it any easier to design AI in space versus doing it on Earth?

The incidental economics of a colony

It's possible to do some agriculture is space; solar energy collection can be done almost anywhere; water is a useful resource for a colony, and, of course, once you have a colony anyway, shipping resources back might be relatively cheap.

But these are all things that make a space colony "not quite as expensive". They are not reasons to have a space colony in the first place. In no sane world would it be cheaper to do agriculture in deeper space and ship that to Earth, as opposed to doing that on Earth or in near-Earth orbit - the technologies that allow the first also help the others.

Why we would go to space

This doesn't mean that we won't go to space. We might go there for exploration; for military reasons; for tourism; for prestige; for escape. And once there are space colonies, they may become self-sustaining, and have trade with Earth. But resource economics is not why we'll go there in the first place.

And a military/exploration/tourism/prestige/escape expansion into the solar system will look very different from an economics driven one, and would be far less predictable.

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Vastly cheaper average cost for resources that can be mined in space might open up opportunities for economically valuable things that we currently won't do on account of the Earth cost of those resources. To use your glass/lake metaphor, if all we have available for water is a dozen glasses per day per person, we probably won't have much of a swimming pool or sprinkler system industry. If we find ways to pipe water from the lake, we might see much more demand for large volumes of water.

I think that space colonization is not on any critical tech paths. In a bit we will probably invent molecular nanotech or superintelligence, and then the game changes. Until then, it doesn't really matter if we expand into space or not. We probably won't get far with current tech, compared with what happens with those techs. I suspect that any attempt at space colonization without enough tech will do little more than fill science news columns. If the ISS had never been made, humanity would be in roughly the same position.

SpaceX does develop radically different tech then current tech with their Starship.

The ability to grow crystals better in zero g might help with developing molecular nanotech.

What timescale are you talking about? I guess it's asking "are we going to colonize the solar system before growing a lot here on earth?" I agree that seems pretty unlikely though I'm not sure this is the best argument.

My default expectation would be that humans would be motivated to move to space when we've expanded enough that doing things on earth is getting expensive---we are running out of space, sunlight, material, or whatever else. You don't have to extrapolate growth that far before you start having quite severe crunches, so if growth continues (even at the current rate) then it won't be that long before we are colonizing the solar system.

(Even if people did expand into space before we needed the resources, it wouldn't matter much since they'd be easily overtaken by later colonists.)

We won't run out of space, material, or energy on Earth in any meaningful sense for a long time (when adding substitution and recycling possibilities), especially as growth seems to be in the services sector. My old post is related: http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2011/11/we-dont-have-a-problem-with-water-food-or-energy/ ; since then, most of the technologies I talked about have gotten cheaper.

(Even if people did expand into space before we needed the resources, it wouldn't matter much since they'd be easily overtaken by later colonists.)

The early expansion might pay the large fixed costs, allowing economically viable expansion to start much sooner...

I think we have about 10 more doublings of energy consumption before we're using most incident solar energy. We're currently doubling energy use every few decades, so that could sustain a few centuries of growth at the current rate. (Like many folks on LW, I expect growth to accelerate enough that we start running up against those limits within this century though.)

I think the argument can be reformulated like this: space has very large absolute amounts of some resources - matter, energy, distance (distance is a kind of resource useful for isolation/safety). The average density of these resources is very low (solar in space is within an order of magnitude of solar on Earth) and for matter it is often low-grade (Earth's geophysics has created convenient ores). Hence matter and energy collection will only be profitable if (1) access gets cheap, (2) one can use automated collection with a very low marginal cost - plausibly robotic automation. (2) implies that a lot of material demands on Earth can be fulfilled that way too on Earth, making the only reason to go to space that one can get very large absolute amounts of stuff. That is fairly different from most material economics on Earth.

Typical ways of getting around this is either claiming special resources, like the Helium-3 lunar mining proposals (extremely doubtful; He3 fusion requires you to have solved lower energy fusion, which has plentiful fuels), or special services (zero gravity manufacturing, military, etc). I have not yet seen any convincing special resource, and while nice niche services may exist (obviously comms, monitoring and research; tourism? high quality fibre optics? military use?) they seem to be niche and near-Earth - not enough to motivate settling the place.

So I end up roughly with Stuart: the main reasons to actually settle space would be non-economic. That leads to another interesting question: do we have good data or theory for how often non-economic settlement occurs and works?

I think one interesting case study is Polynesian island settlement. The cost of exploratory vessels were a few percent of the local economy, but the actual settlement effort may have been somewhat costly (especially in people). Yet this may have reduced resource scarcity and social conflict: it was not so much an investment in getting another island as getting more of an island to oneself (and avoiding that annoying neighbour).

I agree with that reformulation.

Weren't the early british and french colonies in North America driven by geopolitics rather than economics?

I was a little confused by this post. Is tourism not an economic reason? But I now think the claim is something like "there may not be any benefit to the Earth economy from going to space"

Yes, tourism is economic, but most accounts I seen of economic reasons to go to space focus on primary and secondary sector ideas, not services. I decided that the phrasing I used, though technically incorrect on that point, was easier for most people to parse.

I didn't have the economic sector concept before this comment. Thanks!

Fully agreed. I'd argue that non-accounting reasons such as prestige and individual comfort drive far more human behavior than measured, monetary forces.

That said, whatever the actual motivations, there will be a whole lot of economic impact. That may not be the WHY of space exploration, it will certainly end up a big part of the HOW and the WHAT and the WHEN.

There are multiple different things that we call space colonization that all have a different case.

1) A Mars base

2) A base on earth's moon

3) A base on other moons

4) A base on an asteroid that's for mining the asteroid

5) A base in low earth orbit

6) A base simply floating around in deep space

So what's the economic value of current mining? Well, mining represented 1.2% of world GDP in 2016; but roughly 50% of this is coal, which is mainly used for energy (we'll get to that later). This is a small fraction of the current economy, and one that is in decline (over the century span, if not the decade span).

The noncoal portion is still 375 billion per year. That's a lot of money.

But note "at current prices". Obviously, if we brought down a few trillions of tons of copper, the price of that metal might suffer a slight dip.

That's an argument that can reduce the size of space colonies but not one that leads us to have no space colonies at all.

Is it any easier to design AI in space versus doing it on Earth?

It's plausible that it's helpful to have computers that are stored at a place that can easily be cooled down to very cold temperatures. Maybe someone finds a way to build quantum computer that needs superconductivity.

At a time where our moon isn't used at all, it's the prime place if you want to build a building that needs to cool a lot of things down to temperatures at which superconductivity happens.

If that industry picks up on our moon, the moon will get warmer and there's a reason to go to other moons that are used and still very cold.

It might also be that you have quantum computers that have to additionally be shielded very strongly from radiation and vibrations to work.

There are multiple different things that we call space colonization that all have a different case.

Agreed. "A base in low earth orbit" and "A base on earth's moon" have much stronger economic cases than the others.

But note "at current prices". Obviously, if we brought down a few trillions of tons of copper, the price of that metal might suffer a slight dip. That's an argument that can reduce the size of space colonies but not one that leads us to have no space colonies at all.

The advantage of space is that there's a lot of resources available; the disadvantage is that there are huge fixed costs to getting there. I'm highlighting why the "lots of resources" is not enough to overcome "huge fixed costs".

It's plausible that it's helpful to have computers that are stored at a place that can easily be cooled down to very cold temperatures.

Interesting argument, but wouldn't bases in low-to-moon Earth orbit be enough for this?

the disadvantage is that there are huge fixed costs to getting there.

If SpaceX manages to produce Starship at the planned cost, you get 100,000 kg of stuff to the asteroid of your choosing for single-digit millions.

It's not clear to me where the huge fixed costs are supposed to come from. SpaceX manages to do their tech development for single billions per year. The cost for mining might be similar and pale in comparison to the hundreds of billions made with mining every year.

Interesting argument, but wouldn't bases in low-to-moon Earth orbit be enough for this?

Getting rid of heat when you are in space isn't easy. It's easier when you are in touch with a large body of mass that's very cold

I read a bit more and the price is a bit higher then I initially assumed. The planned marginal cost is 17 million for SpaceX as you need a multiple launching to bring the fuel up.

17 million buys you the Starship (so that it can travel a while to the asteroid) and 6 launches to get the fuel up.

That's the capability that Elon expects to exist next year.

Is it any easier to design AI in space versus doing it on Earth?
It's plausible that it's helpful to have computers that are stored at a place that can easily be cooled down to very cold temperatures. Maybe someone finds a way to build quantum computer that needs superconductivity.

Just a reminder that the LHC is pretty big, and cooled to 3K. Superconductivity produces very little waste heat. Refrigeration isn't that hard. We aren't going to see space based quantum compute until keeping it cool on earth is impractical. By the time we are dealing in quantum computers larger than the LHC, we are looking at more than enough compute to brute force superintelligence. (Probably, there is some chance of giant space computers but no superintelligence if people are really squandering the compute.)

Cooling the LHC does cost massive amounts of electricity:

CERN uses 1.3 terawatt hours of electricity annually. That’s enough power to fuel 300,000 homes for a year in the United Kingdom.

It's plausible that shipping a kilo to the moon with SpaceX starship will soon cost ~50$. That's a low cost for shipping computer chips.

In addition iron/alluminion is very plenty on the moon so you can easily create things that are to be used on the moon but that isn't complex like casing out of them.

The LHC seemed to cost around $4.75 billion to build and weights around 14,000-tonne. That suggest you need something like 140 starship trips to bring it up. At $5 million per trip that's $1 billion.

If a LHC that that would operate at -240 C would cost half of the amount to build you might save a billion by shipping it up to the moon.

I think it is worth noting that the main foreseeable draw for companies, very specifically energy companies to space, in my opinion, is the lack of planning permission. Perhaps that is putting it a little blase but when constructing solar panel arrays, the Earth is expensive for a project that necessarily wide, and on Earth the energy gain is, at a maximum, cut in half due to nighttime. Not considering that the absorption of higher frequency bands such as UV by the atmosphere would be entirely eliminated with a space situated solar-array.

I do rate energy as a plausible reason to go to near-Earth orbit.

I agree with the thrust of this article, but I think it will still look a lot like an economics driven expansion.

One of the things they teach in mining engineering is the notion of the "social license to operate". Essentially, everyone, from your local government, to the UN, to the nearby residents need to sign off on whatever it is that you're doing. For often quite legitimate reasons, mining has acquired a reputation as potentially environmentally disastrous. As a result, you need to effectively bribe the local residents. This is easy to do when the locals are poor third worlders who make a few dollars a day. However, the world will develop and more people will be lifted out of poverty and become more environmentally conscious, as a result the price of these licences will shoot up dramatically.

One of the greatest advantages of space are that there are no environmentalists or natives in space and the ones on earth can't muster the political will to stop you because environmental costs are much smaller and externalized. Once it becomes cheaper to blast off and mine in space than to wade through years of paperwork, you'll see immediate economic expansion into space.

Cmon dark side of the moon space telescope and weapons test range.

Is there any economics 'research' on redundancy, i.e. humanity surviving Earth ceasing to be habitable? I'd think that would dominate sufficiently long-term considerations.

I agree with you that there are no strict economic benefits to space colonization – not in the 'near-term' anyways.

humanity surviving Earth ceasing to be habitable?

The problem with most of those arguments is that almost anything we can do in space, we can do better on Earth. If we can make a a self-sustaining closed ecosystem is space or on another planet... then we can do the same on Earth, more easily, in almost all circumstances (including nuclear war, supervolcano, massive global warming, meteor impact...).

It makes sense to expland if the Earth is an easy target; eg in a war or a meteor impact. But if we can expand into space, then other planets also become realistic war targets, AND we should have the capacity to deviate a meteor.

But maybe I'm missing some other scenarios?

Yeah, I wasn't thinking of circumstances where you, rightly, point out that it would be easier to create 'closed habitable systems' on Earth.

The only examples I can think of would be, in essence, very large meteors, e.g. very large meteors or a rogue planet or rogue black hole.

I'd expect any closed habitable systems to be more at risk of failing tho if they were on Earth, were a disaster to occur there, e.g. by 'invasions' from others fleeing the disaster that know of the closed system.

Maybe you're right that the costs of creating closed habitable systems off-Earth will 'always' be greater than just protecting Earth, but my intuition is that there's still a non-zero probability that it might payoff from doing so.

Certainly tho, sufficiently far enough in the future (e.g. many billions of years from now), that cost-benefit analysis might change radically (e.g. when the Sun dies).

I'd expect large benefits from developing the knowledge and understanding sufficient to being able to create closed habitable systems too.

It's also possible that the relevant constraints for avoiding or adapting to some disasters aren't strictly economic or financial but social or organizational, in which case multiple closed habitable systems could payoff in that sense too.

In these comments, I am, maybe obviously, thinking of people living off-Earth as hedging. From that perspective, the optimal costs paid for developing the ability for people to live off-Earth doesn't seem to be literally zero.

From the perspective of weathering large disasters, and not just ensuring the survival of people at all, even not-strictly-closed habitable systems might be worth investing in. If we could grow food in space, it could possibly help feed people on Earth in the aftermath of a global nuclear war, even if it's not strictly necessary to ensure that anyone survives.

I am, maybe obviously, thinking of people living off-Earth as hedging.

I also think that mastering closed systems in space would help a lot for having semi-closed systems on Earth.

The claims you make seem plausible, but I'd like to see some numbers crunched a bit more. For example:

The attraction of space mining is that we have access to immense resources; but what we need is access to resources at a cheap marginal cost. If space mining doesn't offer that, then we just won't use it, just as there are ways of getting resources on Earth (eg some forms of recycling, distilling resources from the sea, very deep mining) that we are just not using because they're currently too expensive.

My gut tells me the fixed costs of space mining are huge, but once you pay them, the marginal costs will be tiny. Do you have reason to think this is not true? Also, outside view says there are various companies hoping to do some sort of extraterrestrial mining, so that means some experts must think it'll be profitable. And surely they'll have anticipated the objection that the prices will drop once they start producing.

My gut tells me the fixed costs of space mining are huge, but once you pay them, the marginal costs will be tiny. 

This seems likely true for other sorts of mining as well; presumably finding oil and drilling to it is more expensive than operating the pump afterwards. This seems less obviously true for recycling or distillation.

My understanding is that ordinary mining suffers from increasing marginal costs as you have to dig deeper and deeper into the earth and/or process veins of ore which are less and less rich.

I'd like to see some numbers crunched a bit more.

So would I ^_^

My gut tells me the fixed costs of space mining are huge, but once you pay them, the marginal costs will be tiny.

Yes, but is the demand huge enough to pay those fixed costs? If demand is not very eleastic, then no-one will pay them.

To develop the metaphor I used: given the glass a metre away, the lake a kilometre away, and the vast reservoir over the mountain. Suppose that, given a pipeline, the marginal cost for the reservoir is cheaper than the cost of filtering the lake water. That's as may be, but if we're a small village (or if we're just me), it makes no sense to pay the immense cost of the pipeline.

This will change, of course, if space infrastructure can also serve other purposes (in the metaphor, if we have other reasons to build a pipeline or at least explore the mountains).

It's currently hard to know with any certainty what the marginal costs of space mining might be. Currently, everything is manufactured on Earth and then must be launched into space. It's not clear what the path(s) to escaping that constraint might be and how long they'll require and at how much cost.

As just one possible cost that might remain relatively high indefinitely is protecting the Earth from 'mis-delivery' of mined resources. Being able to 'land' large masses on Earth is very powerful weapon! Defending against even accidental 'attacks' might remain prohibitively expensive indefinitely.

Also, outside view says there are various companies hoping to do some sort of extraterrestrial mining, so that means some experts must think it'll be profitable. And surely they'll have anticipated the objection that the prices will drop once they start producing.

This seems like slightly weaker evidence than it might otherwise be because I'd expect interest in extraterrestrial mining to be caused by much different motivations than terrestrial mining opportunities.

But yes, I'm sure they're running the numbers for the scenarios in which their additional supply of whatever they're able to mine causes the relevant prices to drop.

I'm still convinced that solar system colonization simply won't happen.

You mine in space to build in space, mostly. But removing the ecological stress of deep mining, sea mining, and processing oxides instead of pure metals is not minor.

He-3 is certainly worth shipping back to Earth (for space nuts to use to fuel He-3 mining ships, obviously).

We've gotten too used to politically generated stagnation, with resources burned up in phony wars and competition for corporate welfare... people in 1910, with 6% economic growth rates, were a lot more able to understand that it was time to start thinking about Tsiolovsky's ideas.

Why would we ever want to stop growing our economy and accomodating ever more people? We have always expanded and organized matter into valuable forms, why would we forever settle for the matter and energy available to us on Earth? We can create so much value with even just the matter inside the Moon or Mercury, let alone Jupiter or the Sun. Why would we pass up on it?

We can create so much value with even just the matter inside the Moon or Mercury, let alone Jupiter or the Sun. Why would we pass up on it?

Because the value, in GDP terms, is currently very low compared with the costs.

Why doesn't NYC build bridges anymore as they did when Robert Moses was around? Why are they passing up on it?

Bridges might not be the most valuable thing you can build with your resources right now, but that's different than just letting the resources go unused

That would be a valid argument if we would be good at building other things like new houses and tunnels. Unfortunately, we have cost-disease and aren't building much in the west.

True, but what I'm arguing against here is the point of the post:

there may not be good economic reasons to go to space; therefore space colonisation would be driven by non-economic reasons

I'm arguing that there are good economic reasons to go to space. (There are also good economic reasons to build things that we're not building here on Earth, but that's tangential to the discussion.)

Economic reasons to go to space are reasons that are about space ventures resulting in more value on earth.

If you mine things in space it might help you to build more stuff on earth if the materials would be a constraint. It doesn't help you if the materials are no meaningful constraint on building on earth.

I don't think it has to be value on Earth; economic reasons to go to space can also mean creating value in space.

The difference between economic reasons and altruistic reasons is that economic reasons are about people participating in the economic exchange gaining value.

That means people on earth that expand resources that go into space need to get value in return.

Yes, but a person on Earth can create value in space that they obtain by moving into space. An example would be low gravity retirement communities paid for by the retirees.