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Author Topic: Space Mining (Topic from the tavern)  (Read 2054 times)
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« on: April 28, 2012, 11:30:53 AM »

A few days ago, the following conversation took place in the tavern (note, the oldest post is at the bottom, the newest at the top). I would like to continue the conversation here.

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Nomadic
I agree though with sparkle, this has probably gotten long enough to move to a thread.


Nomadic
Provided they can actually get the resources out of the asteroids space mining is actually more practical than earth mining. Due to asteroid composition a single metal rich asteroid can net you more platinum than all the platinum ever mined on Earth in the history of the human race. It's ridiculously profitable.


Elemental_Elf
Renewable energy is a tar-pit people keep stuffing money into with the hope that, eventually, something will become commercially viable on a large scale. Space research is no different. We should not de-fund either because great advancements and spin-off research cannot be made if the projects are not funded. Both are going to make Humanity, and the earth, a better place.


sparkletwist
I think that this is an interesting discussion worthy of a thread. *cough*


Señor Leetz
Plus, the amount of resources spent versus the amount retrieved is astronomically unbalanced.


Señor Leetz
And by resources we have right now, I mean wind, solar, geothermal, and tidal.


Señor Leetz
I don't see it happening. If these people want to do something useful with billions of dollars, they should focus on the resources we have right now that aren't used to their capacity instead of pouring money into looney space schemes. However, I am with Steerpike in that the idea of space mining is awesome, if not practical. Here's a good article from the BBC about it : http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-17827347

Elemental_Elf
Space Tourism, HE-3 and space metals are going to be the 3 driving factors that push companies out into space.


Llum
Steerpike, every metal is a non-renewable resource. If we replace every internal combustion engine car with an electric car you know what we'll face? Peak copper, and eventually peak nickel, peak platinum etc.  Asteroids are RICH in minerals.


Steerpike
I'm not sure that follows.  If our population continues to increase and we remain dependent on non-renewable resources, then yes we will.  If we can get global population replacement (zero population growth) and switch to renewable resources, we might not have to leave for a ridiculously long time.  Of course, that said, I'm still 100% in favour of badass asteroid mining.


limetom
A very simplistic argument for the economic viability of space exploration: The Earth is finite. Therefore, eventually, we'll have to leave.


Contumelious Che
Always wondered if there's enough profit to offset the enormous cost of exploding ourselves into space.


LordVreeg
Oh, the trouble I can still cause....


Nomadic
Cameron is just one part of a quite interesting group (which includes people like Larry Page and a number of other prominent figures)

http://www.planetaryresources.com/team/


Elemental_Elf
Always liked Cameron, good for him. Space Mining is the ticket to make private enterprises interested in the final frontier.


Superfluous Crow
Now we are talking about the third dimension, did all of you guys hear about the upcoming crazy asteroid mining space venture funded by James Cameron?
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« Reply #1 on: April 28, 2012, 11:52:58 AM »

Yeah, I heard about that. If they can make profit out of it I'd be all for it. It's a relief for Earth, and has the potential to generate mega-bucks.
Maybe it's the next big thing, you know, but that'd come much faster than expected. smile
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« Reply #2 on: April 28, 2012, 12:03:23 PM »

I'm 100% for this, for sure, though I'm curious to see what happens to Earth's economy when the markets get flooded with raw materials.  Imagine if the price of gold suddenly dropped to $100/ounce because a mile-long nugget became our newest moon.
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« Reply #3 on: April 28, 2012, 12:32:18 PM »

Llum

Steerpike, every metal is a non-renewable resource. If we replace every internal combustion engine car with an electric car you know what we'll face? Peak copper, and eventually peak nickel, peak platinum etc.  Asteroids are RICH in minerals.
First off, I'm totally behind the idea of asteroid mining for metal, so don't get me wrong.  I'm also not super knowledgeable on these subjects so it could be I'm just blathering here.  But the idea that metal is non-renewable seems only part of the truth to me.  We can recycle metal by melting it down and re-using it.  Apparently, ferrous metals are already very widely recycled.  According to this major metal recycler in Calgary, copper is 100% recyclable.  So, even if we run out of actual metal to dig up from the ground, we're still not "out of metal."  If our population stops growing or even starts to shrink, we could simply recycle lots of old metal products.  This might not quite make metal a "renewable resource" in the same way that sunlight, wind, tidal, and geothermal energy is, but it's a world away from fossil fuels (wikipedia straight up calls metal a renewable resource).

Again, though, asteroid mining is awesome, so problem solved in any event.

Elemental Elf

Renewable energy is a tar-pit people keep stuffing money into with the hope that, eventually, something will become commercially viable on a large scale.
Again, I'm no expert here, but as I understand it, wind power is becoming hugely more common - not sure about profits per se, but all that really matters at the end of the day is whether we can reasonably switch to a sustainable, renewable model.  This article cites the "Global Wind Energy Council" - who sound like they'd know what they're talking about - saying that the wind industry grew by 30% in 2009, and this report suggests that in 2011, 20% of electricity came from renewable resources and 16% of all energy used globally was renewable.  That's a lot.  Renewable energy is becoming more and more viable and more widely used.

Look at how much things changed over the course of the twentieth century.  In 1900 we didn't have airplanes, automobiles were incredibly primitive and weren't affordable to the average consumer and the closest thing we had to a computer was a punchcard calculator and the half-forgotten pipe dream of Charles Babbage.  We hadn't discovered nuclear fission.  The telephone was still considered "new-fangled."

And look at us now...

So to me, gloomy pronouncements about the implausibility of renewable resources seem unduly pessimistic.  That said, I may be twisting your comment a little, Elf - you're well aware, as you suggest, that sinking money into renewable energy and space are a good idea from the spin-offs.  I'm just making the argument that at least for renewable energy, there are more transparent dividends from a civilizational perspective.
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« Reply #4 on: April 28, 2012, 01:38:33 PM »

Steerpike

But the idea that metal is non-renewable seems only part of the truth to me


A non-renewable resource is one where there is a finite limit of and we cannot create more. Wood is renewable because we can grow more trees, solar is renewable because the sun will ALWAYS shine (from a human perspective anyway). There are a finite limit of metals that we can mine in the earth. Sure we can recycle, but that means every bit of metal HAS to be recycled. Because once something is thrown away, it's out of the cycle.

Peak crises aren't about having no more of said material (which is how the media portray it, we aren't going to suddenly have no more oil anywhere), it's about the demand for a resource out-stripping the supply and reserves (and potential reserves) of a material. Essentially we will never be able to use as much of that material as we previously have before. So regardless of recycling we will hit peak metals, because there's only so much of it.
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« Reply #5 on: April 28, 2012, 01:42:49 PM »

Renewable energy is a quagmire of investment because the industry is changing and evolving so rapidly. What was successful yesterday may not be successful tomorrow. I think some people, and governments, are a bit too gungho about switching from non-renewable to renewable energy sources. I remember reading an article where California shut down one of its biggest non-renewable power plants and opened up a brand new solar plant. The only problem is that the solar plant did not pump out any where near the same amount of electricity as the non-renewable plant.  

Everyone wants something to replace coal as the main energy source used to power electricity plants but there will never be just one replacement - it will be a reliance on multiple kinds of power generation (wind, solar, geothermal, tidal, etc.). The problem with this dispersal of energy sources is that it will take longer for researchers to really crack each source open and create truly powerful devices that can rival the older non-renewable power plants.

Personally, I see a combination of non-renewable and renewable energy sources as the way into the greener future. We need to slowly get rid of our non-renewable energy sources, to give the necessary time to the researchers (and investors) to fully develop renewable sources.

However, like any new industry, renewable energy is quite, quite expensive. It has taken decades of funding to get to where we are today and it will take decades more to get to where we are going. Over this time, we will spend billions and billions of dollars investing in different and unique ideas - many of which will fail miserably. The same is true for space exploitation. It will take decades and decades for the industry to become fully viable against terrestrial rivals but the goal is well worth the investment. Both are worthy goals and both should be fully supported. Regardless of that fact, both industries are tar-pits that people keep stuffing money down with the hope they will eventually get rich (and one day, some one will become quite wealthy).
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« Reply #6 on: April 28, 2012, 04:10:02 PM »

Llum

Peak crises aren't about having no more of said material (which is how the media portray it, we aren't going to suddenly have no more oil anywhere), it's about the demand for a resource out-stripping the supply and reserves (and potential reserves) of a material. Essentially we will never be able to use as much of that material as we previously have before. So regardless of recycling we will hit peak metals, because there's only so much of it.
I totally get that, and it's true that it's not renewable in that sense, but since it can be recycled it's fundamentally different from other non-renewable resources like fossil fuels, which will not only peak but which we can actually run out of and never recover under rational timescales.  All I'm saying is that it's conceivable we could sustain a civilization more-or-less indefinitely even while remaining dependent on metals.  There would be major challenges, our population would have to stop growing, we'd have to become efficient at recycling, and we'd need to build to last whenever possible, but it's conceivable.  On the other hand we can't sustain a civilization if we remain dependent on more broadly defined non-renewable sources which we can neither recycle nor simply dig up more of.

Elemental Elf

Personally, I see a combination of non-renewable and renewable energy sources as the way into the greener future. We need to slowly get rid of our non-renewable energy sources, to give the necessary time to the researchers (and investors) to fully develop renewable sources.
THIS.

ibid

Regardless of that fact, both industries are tar-pits that people keep stuffing money down with the hope they will eventually get rich
This is undoubtedly true for a great many people.  In the case of Planetary Resources, I feel like there might be a bit more to it than the profit motive.  This could be naive, but I feel like a lot of the people they've got behind the project aren't there solely for the money - they're more interested in blazing a trail, being pioneers, being the first ones to do something big, etc.  There's something big R Romantic about the whole thing.
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« Reply #7 on: April 28, 2012, 05:01:31 PM »

Steerpike

  All I'm saying is that it's conceivable we could sustain a civilization more-or-less indefinitely even while remaining dependent on metals. 

I really disagree here, unless we reduce our population, by at least half. In 20 years we're supposed to have 9 billion people, at least that's what is projected. As it stands the only countries with non-positive birthrates are first world ones. So ideally once the whole world is past developing (which isn't going to happen unless we get some kind of global government to keep everything in check, because there will always be some country ahead of the others), or at least to some kind of baseline similar to what we consider a developed country today.

That being said, if/when we reach this point we're going to have a surplus of probably 9-15 billion people. That amount of people is not sustainable in any shape of form on Earth.   Most people in the world have little/no use of metal at all, no access to electronics, no cars, no metal buildings, no skyscrapers nothing. There is not enough copper in/on the Earth to give everyone an electric car. And still use copper like we do today. This same principle can be applied to most metals. The solution to this is just to go mine asteroids and other highly concentrated sources of minerals.

Now I don't disagree that it's impossible to have a globally sustainable society, but it's not likely or even plausible in the near or intermediate future. If we want to eventually reach something like this we're going to have to start exploiting resources beyond Earth to give us time to get things together.

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« Reply #8 on: April 28, 2012, 05:03:57 PM »

On the topic of getting away from coal I personally am all for thorium reactors. Thorium reactors are far more efficient than uranium reactors and use a fuel that is far more abundant (the Earth has thousands of years worth of thorium in it). Additionally due to their design thorium reactors don't go into melt down when they lose power like what happens with the other reactors. They also don't need the huge bulky containment shielding that traditional systems require. They are IMO the next best thing to fusion reactors, which I'd love to see but that technology is in the future while thorium systems can be built right now (if you're wondering why they haven't been built if they're so great... it's because thorium reactors are bad at creating weapons grade uranium as a byproduct).

Regarding the topic at hand personally I am skeptical but optimistic about the whole thing. I'm not sure if they can pull it off. However, if they do the results will be profound for humanity. If you can extract resources from asteroids directly you save huge energy costs (a massive chunk of the millions of dollars it costs to get into space is due to the huge energy expenditure needed to get into orbit). If you combine the ability to store stuff like water up in space and process it into LOX and LH with solar power you basically have orbital gas stations. Combine this with high effeciency spacecraft like SpaceX's Falcon series and sending humans to the moon becomes trivial (and sending them on to mars and the gas giants becomes doable). Mining water in space is HUGE. Water means fuel, and food, and drink, and breathable air, and radiation shielding. If you can bypass the cost of getting water up into orbit you have effectively enabled everyday space travel. The cost to launch plummets since you just need enough fuel to get up into LEO where you can refuel meaning a much lighter and more efficient launch vehicle. Additionally you don't need big huge Saturn V's to send people to the moon or beyond. You just need a little shuttle craft and a couple fueling stations orbiting the Earth and the Moon. Local space travel becomes easy and interplanetary travel becomes much more likely.
« Last Edit: April 28, 2012, 05:12:19 PM by Nomadic » Logged

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« Reply #9 on: April 28, 2012, 05:37:55 PM »

Llum

There is not enough copper in/on the Earth to give everyone an electric car.
This is a fair point, and I'll readily admit ignorance in terms of the actual amounts of stuff in the earth.

Llum

As it stands the only countries with non-positive birthrates are first world ones. So ideally once the whole world is past developing (which isn't going to happen unless we get some kind of global government to keep everything in check, because there will always be some country ahead of the others...
The question of birthrate is linked to development, but I don't think it's linked to the relative affluence of different nations per se.  As I've heard it told, the best way to diminish the birthrate and achieve zero population growth is to promote:

- feminism, gender equality, and the education of women (more career-oriented women = fewer children; more women with sex education = fewer pregnancies)
- affordable, widely available contraception and education about its use
- pro-choice abortion options for unwanted pregnancies (this goes hand in hand with the above two)
- secularism and progressivism to erode the traditional/patriarchal cultural values that lead to large families and vilify the above three points

Whether or not a world government is required to achieve these things on a global level is an open question.  It certainly wouldn't hurt, but my feeling is that by the time a world government is actually feasible, the social trends listed above will already be in place.

Your point, however, that by the time we manage to achieve ZPG we'll just have too many people to sustain ourselves with earth's resources, is a good one, and I'm not sure I have any adequate response for it.  All I would contend is that theoretically one can imagine a stable, sustainable, affluent global society depending on renewable energy and recycling that doesn't require us to eventually leave earth (at least not for an obscenely long time), whereas one can't imagine a stable, sustainable, affluent global society dependent on (traditional) non-renewable energy, without an extremely well-developed extra-planetary economy, por without us eventually being forced to abandon the earth altogether.

Since, as you point out, our demands are going to outstrip the earth's supply before we get our house in order socially, your point that space exploration is necessary does stand.  Point conceded  smile.  Hopefully I've clarified my own position!

EDIT: To reiterate, I'm still 100% pro asteroid-mining!

Also, Nomadic, those thorium reactors sound pretty cool.
« Last Edit: April 28, 2012, 05:46:32 PM by Steerpike » Logged


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« Reply #10 on: April 28, 2012, 05:50:33 PM »

>>If we want to eventually reach something like this we're going to have to start exploiting resources beyond Earth to give us time to get things together.

...I sort of fail to see at what price point it becomes cheaper to pay for fuel to send a shuttle up, fuel to dig the resources, then fuel to get the rocks back- than to just dig for minerals under the earth. Unless you have proven rare metals that are extremely expensive, space mining seems to be a poor investment.

I stand with Steerpike's point about there being enough metals on earth for a good long time. Composites can be a good gapfiller and recycling can solve other issues. Llum is correct that there will/can be a point of peak metal--but there are many cheaper solutions than mining for metal on other planets... and using non-renewable fuels to get there.... we wouldn't want to run out of fuels in an attempt to acquire metals.

One amusing consequence of zero population growth... how do you propose to continue capitalism which is about finding new markets and improving productivity... and how do you propose to continue socialism and socialist programs like Medicare and Social Security, which have upfront payment now for older people's lives?
« Last Edit: April 28, 2012, 05:53:49 PM by Light Dragon » Logged


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« Reply #11 on: April 28, 2012, 06:17:27 PM »

Here are my problems with all of this. First off, our space travelling technology is nowhere nearly advanced enough to possibly make this a viable idea at this time. It will probably be atleast a few centuries before we can make space travel something viable as a "railroading" system in this solar system alone.

Secondly, what about the space politics? I mean you can see what a nightmare it was getting the United States connected to the west via railroads. What if governments started claiming sections of space as their own, or even entire planets? Would there be wars over this?

And thirdly I promise you that if right now is anything akin to what this will be like than there will be nutjobs who think that if we lessen the mass of the asteroids, then that will destabilize our solar system and send us all crashing into the sun.
« Last Edit: April 28, 2012, 06:30:45 PM by Decomentalist » Logged

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« Reply #12 on: April 28, 2012, 06:37:50 PM »

Light Dragon

>>If we want to eventually reach something like this we're going to have to start exploiting resources beyond Earth to give us time to get things together.

...I sort of fail to see at what price point it becomes cheaper to pay for fuel to send a shuttle up, fuel to dig the resources, then fuel to get the rocks back- than to just dig for minerals under the earth. Unless you have proven rare metals that are extremely expensive, space mining seems to be a poor investment.

I stand with Steerpike's point about there being enough metals on earth for a good long time. Composites can be a good gapfiller and recycling can solve other issues. Llum is correct that there will/can be a point of peak metal--but there are many cheaper solutions than mining for metal on other planets... and using non-renewable fuels to get there.... we wouldn't want to run out of fuels in an attempt to acquire metals.

See my points on mining for water in my early post for an explanation for how this becomes a viable option. Water extraction in space is one of the key points to making the jump to an interplanetary society (it's one of the main reasons scientists are constantly looking for water outside earth beyond the obvious connection between water and life). If you can get water in space you effectively overcome a majority of the obstacles to regular space travel.

Decomentalist

Here's my problems with all of this. First off, our space travelling technology is nowhere nearly advanced enough to possibly make this a viable idea at this time. It will probably be atleast a few centuries before we can make space travel something viable as a "railroading" system in this solar system alone.

Not to get overly nitpicky about this but, could you cite your sources for this claim? Looking around at all the recent developments in propulsion, power, and long term habitation I'd say that we already have the technology to do this right now. What we lack is monetary incentive and a system efficient enough to go after that incentive both of which can be solved by the current developments in space commercialism (space x, virgin galactic, blue origin, planetary resources, etc).

Decomentalist

Secondly, what about the space politics? I mean you can see what a nightmare it was getting the United States connected to the west via railroads. What if governments started claiming sections of space as their own, or even entire planets? Would there be wars over this?

Governments cannot claim any section of space due to the Outer Space Treaty

Decomentalist

And thirdly I promise you that if right now is anything akin to what this will be like than there will be nutjobs who think that if we lessen the mass of the asteroids, then that will destabilize our solar system and send us all crashing into the sun.

Fortunately the people running the space industry are engineers, physicists, and so forth all of who would have a field day shredding such claims in front of the public.
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« Reply #13 on: April 28, 2012, 06:48:01 PM »

Light Dragon

I sort of fail to see at what price point it becomes cheaper to pay for fuel to send a shuttle up, fuel to dig the resources, then fuel to get the rocks back- than to just dig for minerals under the earth. Unless you have proven rare metals that are extremely expensive, space mining seems to be a poor investment.
Unless, as Llum suggests, we run out of metal down here.

Nomadic's excellent points about water are also key to what I've heard Planetary Resources talking about.  It's defintiely not just about minerals.

Light Dragon

how do you propose to continue capitalism which is about finding new markets and improving productivity... and how do you propose to continue socialism and socialist programs like Medicare and Social Security, which have upfront payment now for older people's lives
I'm not pretending to have all the answers, here, so these are just thoughts.  They depend on whether you couple ZPG with other things...

Let's say through some combination of a complete switch to renewable resources, asteroid-mining and the like to help bolster our metal supply, social progress to achieve ZPG, and other measures, we were able to create a sustainable, renewable, stable global society with enough resources for everyone, enough totally renewable supply to meet everyone's needs indefinitely.  This society might take a lot of forms.  But let's be optimistic for the sake of argument, since we're imagining how the world might look.  While we're being utopian let's imagine that the vast majority, if not all, manual labour has been mechanized, possibly with advanced computers doing a good portion of the world's mental labour as well, possibly not.  This would effectively be a post-scarcity society: no need for real jobs, no need for conventional trade as such, no need for war (ideology/religion would be the only things left to fight about, but since the world's economic problems have effectively been solved, ideology loses its claws).  Class divisions are erased and hierarchies dissolve.  Money becomes defunct.  Government withers to a vestige.  With the end of poverty, the great majority of crime disappears.  Instead of spending their time fighting one another and devoting their lives to drudgery, people devote all of their time to creative pursuits, games, sports, science, altruistic pursuits (medicine etc), or simply enjoying themselves.  Competition still exists in an abstract, friendly sense (there will still be star athletes, for example, and there may be limited, localized hierarchies in the vestigial government etc).  This is more or less what Wilde is imagining in "The Soul of Man Under Socialism" and a kind of localized, planterary version of Iain Bank's Culture.  This is, of course, a mid-to-far-future, idealistic society.  It's essentially a communist one, but emphatically not in the coercive authoritarian Stalinist/Maoist sense, but in the classic Marxist sense, which is basically hedonistic, utilitarian, and anti-authoritarian.

Less optimistically and far more realistically, if we imagine the ZPG but not the paradigm-changing energy technologies or the mechanized labour, we're in for a more interesting time, but it would still be a way better future than one in which our population continues its rampant expansion.  Capitalism would increasingly do what it's always done to some extent - try to inculcate new desires and thus create new markets, as opposed to simply responding to the needs of the people.

I'd point to my own country's cost-effective and mostly superb healthcare system and similar systems found elsewhere as the most efficient, sensible, sustainable, and ethical approach to healthcare.   Mostly, individuals aren't involved in billing and reclaim.  The costs are pretty much entirely paid for by income tax.  So the question "how do we continue the program" is the same as asking how a government continues any program paid for by tax, such as defense.  Presumably, even if we hit ZPG, people still have jobs with incomes (again, paradigm-changing technologies aside!), so we'd still pay tax, so healthcare would still be paid for.  With an aging population that healthcare might become more expensive, but since people are far more willing to come in to get checked out early (as opposed to a private system, where if they're poor they may try to avoid going to the doctor), a publicly funded system is still way more efficient.  There's no need to worry about up-front costs and like because the entire system is universal and paid for through the public fund, with the costs thus shared by everyone according to their ability to contribute (progressive taxation).

EDIT:

Quote

First off, our space travelling technology is nowhere nearly advanced enough to possibly make this a viable idea at this time.
We won't develop the technology if we don't start... developing the technology.  Technology doesn't just emerge ex nihilo, it has to be developed.  These sorts of ambitious projects, in the absence of adequately funded government ones, are what will develop the technology.

PPS I'm a bit grumpy today so sorry if that has bled into my posts!  They're intended in the most friendly/amiable light possible.
« Last Edit: April 28, 2012, 06:57:58 PM by Steerpike » Logged


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« Reply #14 on: April 28, 2012, 07:20:07 PM »

Nomadic


Decomentalist

Here's my problems with all of this. First off, our space travelling technology is nowhere nearly advanced enough to possibly make this a viable idea at this time. It will probably be atleast a few centuries before we can make space travel something viable as a "railroading" system in this solar system alone.

Not to get overly nitpicky about this but, could you cite your sources for this claim? Looking around at all the recent developments in propulsion, power, and long term habitation I'd say that we already have the technology to do this right now. What we lack is monetary incentive and a system efficient enough to go after that incentive both of which can be solved by the current developments in space commercialism (space x, virgin galactic, blue origin, planetary resources, etc).

Decomentalist

Secondly, what about the space politics? I mean you can see what a nightmare it was getting the United States connected to the west via railroads. What if governments started claiming sections of space as their own, or even entire planets? Would there be wars over this?

Governments cannot claim any section of space due to the Outer Space Treaty

Decomentalist

And thirdly I promise you that if right now is anything akin to what this will be like than there will be nutjobs who think that if we lessen the mass of the asteroids, then that will destabilize our solar system and send us all crashing into the sun.

Fortunately the people running the space industry are engineers, physicists, and so forth all of who would have a field day shredding such claims in front of the public.

Hopefully your right on the last two issues, but if the goal of all of this is to save on earths resources, then I can't see space travel working with our current technology, maybe I'm overstating when I say "a few centuries" but right now I just can't see it working with how many resources it would take to get to the asteroids in the first place, mine them, and then take them back to earth, and were not even taking into account all of the labor safety issues.
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