What happens when we suddenly have a billion times more of everything?
There is a revolution brewing. It’s an economic revolution, like the Agricultural or Industrial Revolutions, but this one is the Space Resources Revolution, and I think it will be the greatest one of all. It will bring the billion-fold greater resources of our solar system into the economic reach of humanity. It could end poverty. It could pay off all the world’s national debts. It could open up amazing possibilities for our future. It could bring in what many have called the “post-scarcity economy.” These are some of the benefits of a Type 2 civilization.
Earth is special because it has everything life needs in one place. Other parts of the solar system aren’t so good in that way, but all told their material wealth is a billion times greater than the Earth’s. That’s a billion with a “B”. Not just a number I’m throwing around because it sounds big, that’s the actual order of magnitude of many of the resources in space. Two billion times more solar energy leaves the sun every day than what falls on the Earth. One billion times more metal resides in the main asteroid belt than all the high grade ore buried in the crust of the Earth. The four largest moons of Jupiter — the Galilean moons — have a billion times more water than all the oceans, rivers, and ice caps of Earth. And the largest asteroid, the dwarf planet Ceres, has by itself a million times more water than the Earth; but then, a mere million is negligible compared to the water and other volatiles of the outer solar system. There, we find entire worlds composed of frozen water instead of rock, and other worlds composed of frozen methane, nitrogen, and such. The volatiles of the Trans-Neptunian Objects and Oort Cloud may be better described by trillions with a “TR” than mere millions or billions with an M or a B. Truly, we live in a wealthy home, this, our solar system. It has far more energy, material resources, and space than we can meaningfully comprehend.
But the Earth has some things that the rest of space doesn’t. It has forests that give us wood, farmland that gives us crops. Humans can hunt and gather and farm here. We are a species adapted to this biosphere, living at the top of a food chain. Before we appeared, microbes and worms spent billions of years breaking down the minerals of the regolith, combining them with carbon from the atmosphere to make topsoil. Then the plants lived in the topsoil, and then the animals lived upon the plants. This biosphere is something we need, and outside of the Earth the solar system doesn’t supply it. When we go to the Moon, we find barren regolith instead of topsoil and life. On Mars, it’s more barren regolith. On Titan, barren regolith. On asteroids, barren regolith. Everywhere in space, the regolith is barren, unconverted by life into higher grade resources that we could have easily used. This is part of the barrier that makes it hard to leap from a Type 1 to a Type 2 civilization.
But the good news is that, still, we have the technology to leap this barrier, to go beyond a single planet and access the billion-fold greater resources of space. We can build machines that will convert raw regolith into higher-grade resources, just like life did here on Earth. And whereas life did it across the span of billions of years, these machines will do it within just a few human generations. The machines will run on solar energy, just like most life does on Earth. They can pull elements from the atmospheres of planets and moons and combine them with other elements from the ices and rocks to make whatever molecules we need. They can manufacture goods via 3D printing or casting or any other method. They can do all this in an environment where biological organisms cannot live, because we can design them to thrive in that environment. In short, what we can do with modern technology is put the functional equivalent of life into space, making it no longer barren. Robotic industry, as a form of life, would serve us, first, by gathering its own energy and materials to sustain itself, and second, by acquiring and processing resources to make whatever goods and services we need. (This may sound really, really crazy if you have not been exposed to these ideas before, but in my lab at the Kennedy Space Center we have already developed some of these technologies, and as I will explain in future posts the rest of the technologies are just a few years away.)
So then, with a billion-fold greater resources than what biological life has here on Earth, the artificial life can do amazing things like terraform Mars to make its air warm and breathable, dense enough to stop cosmic radiation and sweetened with the aroma of martian forests and wildflowers. It can build institutes for the humanities in space, fully endowed by the robots so that anybody who wants can spend their lives writing literature or making music or studying. It can build giant particle accelerators for scientists to solve the mysteries that are presently beyond our reach. It can construct cities on distant moons, working with human designers to fill them with architectural wonders and art. It can build generation ships for pioneers and their children to travel to the stars. In short, it will enable us to live at the top of the food chain throughout the solar system as we do here on Earth — and much, much more. It will be the great prerogative of future generations to decide what things they will do with such wealth.
In the next post I will talk about the distribution of resources in our solar system, how they exist in a pattern because of the way they formed. This pattern indicates a strategy we need to adopt to really reach the pinnacles of a Type 2 civilization.
Soon, in the coming posts I will shares practical strategies and things we can all do today to make space colonization a reality. If you’re a space enthusiast, or if you think these ideas are in any way interesting, then please share this blog with others!