Where we'll build our space mines when Earth's resources run low

One day, maybe in your lifetime, Earth will run out of helium. We could also have a huge shortage of clean water. And what happens if we run out of usable iron? How do we replace these vital resources? Don't panic — there's plenty more out there in space, much of it in our own solar system.

Here's our handy guide to the best places to go rip off some resources, in the solar system. Even diamonds are out there to be grabbed. Let's put that space program to work, with our shopping list for the universe!

We are told two things constantly these days: 1) We should conserve our precious resources, and 2) we should devote more time and money to the space program. And let's face it, these two goals are directly opposed to each other. Not just because the space program takes up resources, but because if we have a space program that's sufficiently advanced, we shouldn't need to conserve resources. We should be able to grab them from other worlds. Let's go through our shopping list:

Water

When looking for water, we face the age-old question; are we willing to go the distance to do it right, or do we settle for something quick and easy nearby? Of course, being us, we'll exhaust the easy option first. The closest place to find water is the Moon. It's tough to say exactly how much is there. Ice on the Moon was discovered in a crater about twenty meters wide, which scientists estimated to have about a hundred kilograms. It's now believed that the Moon has more water on its surface than many of the drier deserts on Earth.

But you don't go to the desert to get water. Enceladus, a Moon of Saturn, is covered in ice, but a faint atmosphere around its pole has more or less proved that it has liquid water below its surface. And Europa, the smoothest object in the solar system, is entirely covered with ice. Cutting out blocks from it should be easy enough.

Where we'll build our space mines when Earth's resources run low

We could also wait for ice to come to us, since comets are covered in ice and sometimes have ice in their nucleus as well. But if we really want water, we should send an expedition to the largest source of it in the known universe. At about 12 billion light-years away, it's a trek — but we wouldn't need to go back for a long time. A quasar is twin bursts of matter spewed out by a black hole. In the case of quasar APM 08279+5255, the matter is water vapor, which is collected in gaseous clouds hundreds of light-years across. Light-years of water. That ought to sate our thirst for a while.

Helium

Helium is a pressing issue, since it's used for things like cooling medical equipment. It's only found in underground reservoirs, and floats up out of our reach when we release it into the atmosphere. We may be out of it by 2020. Helium is actually one of the rarer elements on Earth. Which is annoying, because it makes up about 24 percent of the matter in the Universe. Almost all the heavier elements are made by fusing lighter elements together inside stars. Since helium is the first thing to be made by this fusion (which starts with raw hydrogen), there's a lot of it around.

Where we'll build our space mines when Earth's resources run low

The problem is, helium is mostly floating free in space or being produced in the middle of suns, and it's hard to pick stuff off of there. Fortunately for us, Jupiter, it seems, has helium rain. Why doesn't it float away from Jupiter, like it does the Earth? Well, Jupiter has a lot of neon in its upper atmosphere. Helium combines with the neon, the two condense into drops, and then they rain downwards. Granted, it won't be easy capturing helium from the atmosphere of Jupiter, but it's better than trying to design a space suit that can withstand nuclear fusion.

Air

There's a rumor going around that we're doing some damage to our atmosphere. But it seems like it would be a lot of trouble to change our ways. It would be easier to just change the atmosphere, with the right combination of gases. The atmosphere is twenty-one percent oxygen, seventy-eight percent nitrogen, and incidental traces of carbon dioxide, argon, and other gases. We have plenty of carbon dioxide. Now we need the rest.

Where we'll build our space mines when Earth's resources run low

Oxygen would have been a big problem, since until recently we didn't have another source for it. For hundreds of years astronomers had been searching for it in vain. At last they found it, in a nebula. The Orion Nebula is made up of many tiny grains of ice. When astronomers caught those grains of ice warmed by starlight, they noticed traces of oxygen escaping from the newly-melted water. Two birds, one stone. Water and oxygen in just one trip.

Now, we have to get a lot more nitrogen than we do oxygen, but fortunately, nitrogen is closer by. It's been found in the atmosphere on Mars and even in the soil on the Moon. We can extract it from there, mix it up with the oxygen we have, blow some of our ruined atmosphere out into space, and enjoy our new and better climate control system.

Precious Materials

Where we'll build our space mines when Earth's resources run low

What are the basics without a little fun? How about some gold and diamonds that we can wear while bathing in our space-water and breathing our new atmosphere? A study of an asteroid, Eros, looks promising. It seems that Eros is filled with gold, platinum, and zinc. Plus, it appears as though a good bit of the precious metals we have now came from asteroids, and there's still about 20,000 million tons of gold up there, zooming around on space rocks. There's just as much platinum, as well as less flashy metals like aluminum and zinc. That'll be a fun and safe mining expedition for the gold hunters of the future.

As for diamonds, head on over to Neptune. Diamonds are one of the few elements that, like water, expand when frozen. It's believed that on Neptune, there are diamond ice bergs floating in diamond seas. Bringing these to Earth would leave us all dripping in space diamonds. Possibly literally.

Life

Ah. Well. This is awkward. It's possible that life could exist in Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, or Europa, a moon of Jupiter. Both are covered with ice, but a geyser on Enceladus and a weak electromagnetic field on Europa indicate liquid beneath the surface. This liquid is cold. Very cold. The average temperature on Europa, for example, is negative 163.15 degrees Celsius. If there's any life on either of those moons, it's kept going by the minor thermal energy provided by the tidal forces of nearby planets. (And since we are planning to plunder both moons for water, if there is life there, it probably won't stay for long.) Although there are a few exoplanets, like the famous Zarmina, in the habitable zone of their stars, the chance that any of them have life is slim.

I guess if we want life in the universe, we have to keep it bubbling along right here.

Top Image: NASA

Quasar Image: NASA and ESA.

Helium Balloons Image: D Sharon Pruitt

Orion Nebula Image: NASA

Neptune Image: NASA

Via The California Academy of Sciences, MSNBC, NASA, Universe Today, Space.com, NASA, and the BBC.