A recent article in the UK Guardian suggests that the old dream of space colonies is an idea whose time may well have finally come. But their genesis will be a little different than imagined during the golden age of space exploration.
The idea is that instead of governments being at the forefront of colonizing other worlds, the private sector will take the lead. Certainly there is no shortage of plucky entrepreneurs with dreams of space colonies. SpaceX’s Elon Musk makes no secret of his desire to found a colony on Mars. Bigelow Aerospace envisions a mining colony on the moon. Others imagine floating cities in deep space as first imagined by Gerard K O’Neill and depicted in the TV show Babylon 5 and the movie Elysium.
The trick, as with anything that happens in space, is finding the money to pay for such undertakings. Setting up a community in space with thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of people who will live there permanently would be a burden even for a powerful nation-state. Private companies, which thus far are either struggling or else making a good living on government contracts, would ordinarily find the idea beyond their capabilities.
Ordinarily, until someone finds a way to make sufficient money to build the first space colony. That someone may be an asteroid mining firm such as Planetary Resources or Deep Space Industries.
The Week noted that a single mile long asteroid could contain as much as $20 trillion worth of resources. They would include platinum and rare earths and water, useful for rocket fuel or for sustaining future space colonies.
A company that strikes it rich by mining an asteroid would have the resources to build the first space colony. It would even have an incentive for doing so.
A free flying space colony would serve as a base of operations for further asteroid mining operations. It would either fly from asteroid to asteroid, attach itself, then exploit it six ways from Sunday, or it would stay in one place, say at one of the Earth/Moon Lagrange points and have asteroids brought to it.
The beauty of the idea is that such a space colony would declare itself its own independent city state, albeit built around a single industry. The colony can set tax and regulation rules to suit it and then negotiate trade agreements with Earth countries and, eventually, other space colonies. It would not just be a vanity project for a rich person with dreams, but would become a money making machine such as has never been seen before,