Capitalism in space

When Wal-Mart began branching out of America in the 1980s, it showed the world one thing: The hand of capitalism is not restricted to America. When Wal-Mart began opening in countries that will not soon find their name on the list of allies to the United States, it showed the world something incredible: The hand of capitalism can reach the entire world.

The possibilities seemed endless when the foray began by American companies into less-than-capitalistic markets. The whole world seemed to be an opportunity to expand to. Now, something entirely different is upon us.

Not one year ago, a company called Planetary Resources announced they were going to launch a survey mission and eventually mining mission to asteroids that are nearby earth. Now, another firm called Deep Space Industries is planning much the same, with a survey mission set for 2015. A growing movement may be upon us.

While the goal of the survey mission is obviously just that, to survey (explore, learn, test), the long-term goal of these two firms is not the same as Star Trek. The short-term goal is to mine the asteroids to provide fuel for satellites currently in orbit so that they do not have to return to earth or have a shuttle flown up to refuel it. This alone will save each satellite up to $8 million per month.

In the long run, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries are part of a growing body aiming to stake a permanent claim in human presence in space. These companies enter the industry with the aim of mining valuable resources in the asteroids such as platinum and nickel. With the sudden interest in mining asteroids, one has to draw the comparison with the gold rush of the latter half of the 19th Century. While the stake are much, much higher in the sense that the capital required to start these missions is extensive and looking at the legal framework for doing so will give any good lawyer nightmares.

The following months shall provide a keen insight into the industry. It will answer questions about whether this is a fad that has fooled more than one company or if it is the legitimate frontier of a new space (pun intended) that has remain untapped. As Deep Space Industries goes to venture capitalists and investors, time will tell the confidence of people.

There are several ramifications to consider in this great fever to mine asteroids. The supply of minerals that could be retrieved are, well, astronomical in size. Taking an economic view, this could exert such downward pressure on a certain market, such as platinum, that it could undermine the whole promise of the venture in the first place. It would not do well for investors to support mining deep and wide for platinum if the prices of it would plummet.

But if there is one thing Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries is trying to tell us, it is that capitalism knows no bounds.