Has President Trump kick-started a new interplanetary gold rush?

19-12-2017 | By Paul Whytock

Space. Not so much the final frontier but definitely the next frontier. No surprise then that President Trump has signed off a $20 billion funding package for NASA.

The presidential brief is easily spelt out; get the USA back on the moon and from there colonise planet Mars. But fulfilling it will take huge amounts of technology-related work and, as always with space exploration, electronics will play a leading role.

So electronics companies, their engineers and eventually the consuming public can expect some huge technical advances and life style benefits from President Trump’s NASA investment. And given the breakthroughs that past space exploration has given us such expectations are entirely reasonable.

But is this latest cash injection into NASA purely about the progression of electronics and related technologies. Of course it’s not.


Military and Minerals

It would be nothing short of monumental naivety not to recognise the military and security advantages that winning a planet Mars space race would provide. And lets not forget the huge environmental and financial gains to be had by being the first to grab the rights to the mineral wealth that Mars promises; something that would make the historic Californian gold rush look like chicken feed.

But before getting into that, lets just glance back at a few examples of what past space exploration has provided.

The first integrated circuit was built by Texas Instruments but funded by NASA for its Apollo programme. This formed the foundation for the microchip and billions of them have found there way into our communication systems. However, those systems would be nothing without the satellite communications that space exploration created.

On a more down to earth note the thermometers for measuring body temperature that are placed in your ear are the result of space and planet radiation measuring technology.

These of course are just a few of thousands of innovations and no one would be more pleased about them than Russian mathematician Konstantin Tsiolkovsky who back in 1902 studied and wrote about the idea of using rockets to travel in space.

But let’s get back to those mineral rights and the financial and environmental advantages of being first to set up working space stations orbiting the moon and from those pioneering the colonisation of Mars.

A clue to what Mars has to offer in terms of precious minerals is in the meteorites that have come from that planet. Analysis of these has shown some major reasons for embarking on the “Mar’s Mineral Rush.”

Amongst the most prevalent are; aluminium, iron, titanium and chromium. In lesser amounts that nonetheless confirm their existence are gold, copper, zinc, tungsten, nickel, cobalt and lithium.


Environmental Damage

All of these have high commercial value and manufacturers of electric cars like Tesla will be licking their corporate lips at the thought of lithium and cobalt being of sufficient quantities on Mars to make mining them feasible. Why, because as the growth of electric vehicles gradually takes over from combustion engine vehicles the mining of lithium and cobalt to make lithium batteries will not only further deplete the planet Earth’s resource but also cause huge environmental damage. And let’s not forget that currently about 40% of global cobalt supplies is swallowed up by manufacturers of lithium batteries. Far better then to look for future supplies elsewhere.

But the future feasibility of lithium battery power is also inextricably linked to Earth’s capability to supply the electricity to charge the batteries. And as the use of these batteries relentlessly soars each year there are serious concerns that electricity grids will not be able to cope.

However space exploration may provide an electrical power solution. It is now considered a possibility that large solar energy harvesting facilities could be constructed on or either orbiting around other planets and then sending power back to Earth via microwave or laser transmission.


Bon Voyage

So personally I wish President Trump’s space exploration ambitions bon voyage but I doubt if other world leaders will be feeling quite so benevolent, particularly when it comes to missing out on the potential mineral wealth buried on Mars.

Russia’s Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and China’s Xi Jinping would definitely like a slice of the red planet. But are they truly worried at this stage?

Possibly not. The $20 billion funding for NASA certainly appears to be a sizeable amount of cash. But if we look back to the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, the funding of the space programme at that time was in the region $25 billion which in today’s money equates to approximately $150 billion.

Colonising planet Mars will cost far more than that.

And now for something closer to home. Myself and all the team on Electropages would like to wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year.


By Paul Whytock

Paul Whytock is Technology Correspondent for Electropages. He has reported extensively on the electronics industry in Europe, the United States and the Far East for over thirty years. Prior to entering journalism, he worked as a design engineer with Ford Motor Company at locations in England, Germany, Holland and Belgium.