Op-ed | Why tapping the solar system’s far-flung resources would be better than building new ICBMs

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The United States is on the verge of making a profound strategic mistake. The nation is preparing to spend $85 billion replacing working nuclear-armed Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles with a new “Ground Based Strategic Deterrent.” Like the old missiles, the new arsenal will consist of silo-based rockets with nuclear warheads.

This vast expenditure will make the nation’s strategic deterrent exactly as overwhelming as it is today. It will have zero utility in any war the United States is likely to fight and survive. It will increase the national debt with no corresponding increase in economic productivity to pay off that debt. The $85 billion estimate assumes no cost overruns, or technological or logistical problems along the way. History shows that’s extremely unlikely, especially since Boeing declined to bid for the contract, giving the program to Northrop Grumman by default.

Spending this kind of money should change the status quo, not simply maintain it.

No state actor (i.e., nation state) is likely to directly attack the United States with nuclear weapons today or in the foreseeable future. Doing so would result in their certain destruction by U.S. retaliatory forces. Perfect reliability is not required to effectively destroy any attacker.

Non-state actors — broadly, “terrorists” — might try a nuclear attack, although the technological and logistical challenges would be immense. Terrorists are not likely to be deterred by the threat of destruction by ICBMs, making missiles with nuclear warheads ineffective at deterring them.

Meanwhile, submarine-launched ballistic missiles remain hidden up to 240 meters beneath the oceans and are far newer. Twenty-four Trident missiles, with up to eight nuclear warheads each, arm reactor-powered USS Ohio-class submarines, which were commissioned starting in 1981. Eighteen Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, each displacing 18,750 tons submerged, are in active service, although the four oldest have been seconded to special operations and conventional land attack.

These submarines are currently being refurbished and refueled in rotation. The submarine-launched ballistic missile force remains a secure, relatively modern deterrent.

According to a Congressional Research Service report published in November, the U.S. is preparing to build 12 new Columbia-class submarines to replace the Ohio boats for a Navy estimated cost of $109 billion. Likewise, the U.S. is well into procuring the new B-21 bomber for another $50 billion — all capable of delivering nuclear weapons to their targets.

New hypersonic weapons being developed by China, Russia, and the United States are unlikely to change this picture in practical terms in the near future. As Russia discovered earlier this year, these weapons will take time to develop and may not work at all. At the Nyonoksa State Central Navy Testing Range on Aug. 28, Russia experienced the apparent explosive failure of a possibly nuclear-propelled cruise missile, possibly the 9M730 Burevestnik, or a nuclear-propelled torpedo. The explosion killed several military and civilian personnel and irradiated the town of Nyonoksa, which was evacuated. Some of the deaths appear to be from acute radiation exposure.

RESOURCES, NOT REPRISAL

Instead of “fighting the last war” by guaranteeing that we can more reliably destroy the world, $85 billion could buy the United States far more strategic, tactical and commercial power if used constructively. Political and military power derive as much from control of resources, and secure access to them, as from purely destructive military capacity alone.

The United States should use this money to reach the resources of the inner solar system. Most nonreligious wars between state actors are economic and over control of resources. Particularly fraught today are the heavy metals and rare earth minerals used in modern electronics, some of which have very limited sources of supply in exploitable concentrations. They are essential to the military, as well as to civilian commerce, yet they are often located in unstable countries or controlled by China.

Many of these critical resources are available in outer space. Since these elements were created in supernovae explosions of early generations of giant stars and scattered throughout the galaxy, they were incorporated into literally everything that went into forming the solar system. They still reside in asteroids, probably in accessible form.

In addition, some asteroids are the metallic cores of minor planets. When a relatively large body was assembled in the early solar system, the heat generated by its formation, and later from the decay of incorporated radioactive elements, caused it to melt. Very small bodies partially melted and quickly re-solidified, while larger worlds fully melted and remained partially molten for billions of years.

Heavy elements such as lead, nickel, platinum and radioactive and rare earth elements sank toward the centers of melted newly formed bodies. Lighter rocks rose to the surface forming crusts. Earth is so large that, more than 4 billion years after its formation, it is still mostly fluid, with a thin and fractured refractory crust floating on top of a circulating mantle. Venus, Mars, and Mercury also are likely to have fluid interiors.  Even Earth’s moon appears to have a remnant liquid core.

At some point in the long history of the solar system, a few early proto-planets were shattered in collisions with other minor planets. Fragments of their metallic cores were exposed and are now metallic asteroids.

One such asteroid, 16 Psyche, was discovered in 1852 and resides in a five-year orbit in the asteroid belt. Its average diameter is 226 kilometers, although it is probably shaped like a potato. Its composition is believed to be very similar to that of Earth’s core: mostly iron and nickel, with minor amounts of many other heavy metals. Crucially, this metal does not need to be extensively refined — it is already separated from refractory elements.

Led by Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and assembled by Maxar Technologies near San Francisco, NASA’s Psyche spacecraft will be the first mission to visit a metallic asteroid. Scheduled for launch in August 2022, the vehicle will use SPT-140 electric thrusters to swing by Mars in 2023, adjusting its orbit to reach 16 Psyche in 2026.

The spacecraft is designed to orbit the asteroid for at least 21 months, studying it with a multispectral camera, gamma-ray and neutron spectrometers and a magnetometer. Its radio link will map the body’s gravity field and thus its internal structure.

The mission will also function as a prospector, determining what resources might be available on metallic asteroids.

Instead of building missiles that cannot be used without destroying human civilization, $85 billion would buy a lot of prospecting. If spent buying relatively inexpensive, semi-commercial launch services from private companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, $85 billion could build and deploy much of the infrastructure required to access these resources.

The resources go far beyond metals. Carbon is available on certain asteroids. Water, accessible on Earth’s moon and some asteroids, is vital to almost everything.

Most obviously, humans and other organisms need water to drink. Once the oxygen is split from hydrogen, it can be breathed in artificial atmospheres, and used as oxidizer for rocket engines and other high-energy chemical reactions. Hydrogen is an ideal fuel for deep space rockets. Oxygen and hydrogen can be recombined in fuel cells to release part of the energy used to split the water molecules, creating efficient, long-life storage batteries. Placed around human habitats, there are few substances better than water at blocking galactic and solar radiation.

However, water is very heavy. If found in cislunar space, it does not need to be expensively lifted from Earth’s deep gravity well. The earliest water source will likely be the probable polar deposits on Earth’s moon. Even if water does not exist in accessible form at the lunar poles, some lunar and asteroidal rocks are heavily oxidized and the solar wind has deposited hydrogen in the their regoliths — allowing water to be manufactured in space.

Measured by its useful value, water is like the oil of the solar system. In the past century, they who controlled the oil controlled the world. In the century ahead, those who have access to water in cislunar space will control access to the increasingly important data, communications, and resources available in and from space.

Any nation that wants a say in that future should not be wasting $85 billion in borrowed money maintaining the status quo with tools that we all hope will stay in silos, forever unused. Using that $85 billion to build a polar lunar water mine and launch asteroid mining expeditions is the best way to ensure long-term security, strategic or otherwise, and to make war of any kind less likely.


Donald F. Robertson (@donaldfr on Twitter) is a San Francisco-based writer who follows the space industry. Analyst Tim Kyger provided information used in this article.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 11, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

CORRECTION:The print version of this story referred incorrectly to an August 2019 test failure of a “possibly nuclear-armed cruise missile, possibly the 9M730 Burevestnik, or a nuclear-armed torpedo.” Russia’s experimental 9M730 Burevestnik cruise missile relies on nuclear thermal propulsion for nearly unlimited range. While these nuclear-powered missiles are being designed to carry a nuclear weapon,  there has been no suggestion that the cruise missile or torpedo that failed in August was nuclear armed.