What once was solely the realm of science fiction is increasingly becoming part of the world we live in. A cadre of somewhat eccentric billionaires has backed a startup that aims to mine near-Earth asteroids, and now we have all the details. At first glance, this has all the earmarks of a fly-by-night operation destined for failure. However, the plan is well thought-out and the personalities involved aren’t just looking to make a quick buck.
The company, called Planetary Resources, was founded by Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis, who were involved with the X-Prize space race. The money is coming from people like Larry Page, Eric Schmidt, and James Cameron. This isn’t just some hair-brained scheme devised in a basement — this is actually happening. The press conference announcing Planetary Resources’ efforts is embedded at the bottom of this story.
A cautious approach
The headline is “asteroid mining,” and that gets a lot of eyeballs, but no one is about to strap a giant drill to a rocket any time soon. Planetary Resources is going to start next year with a robotic survey mission to hunt down the right space rocks. For everything we know about where near-Earth asteroids are, we don’t know exactly what they’re made of. This first phase will start with small orbital Arkyd telescopes, and will later progress to powered probes that will get up close and personal with some asteroids.
There are potentially thousands of suitable near-Earth objects (NEOs) that could be accessible to robotic missions. The survey mission will catalog the asteroids in convenient Earth-like orbits to see which ones have the necessary resources. It’s not just precious metals Planetary Resources is looking for — there are other compounds needed to make the project work.
Water, oxygen, nitrogen, and other materials with low boiling points are hard to come by in space, and will be necessary for further exploration. It costs quite a lot to get into space, and anything that can be waiting for you up there is money saved. Water in particular is expensive because it is incompressible and heavy. So setting up resource depots in space will be necessary before a single speck of mineral is extracted.
The next part of this monumental effort will be to actually start mining for resources. The company will have to develop the technology from scratch to do this, but it might involve slowly dragging an asteroid closer to Earth — possibly even putting it in orbit around the moon. According to Planetary Resources, there could be as much platinum in a single asteroid as humanity has mined in all of history.
What about profits?
So the money is going roll in, right? By all accounts, it’s actually going to take many years before Planetary Resources makes any money at all. It isn’t the kind of endeavor you get into expecting a quick return on investment. For the people behind this venture, it’s not just about the money. They are willing to put their deep pockets to work developing a completely new industry.
When and if a mining project gets up and running, it will prove to be an expensive but ethical source for precious metals. Much of the material needed to build the modern gadgets and widgets we have come to rely on is obtained under dubious circumstances. Tin, coltan, and gold are all sometimes bought and sold at the expense of human rights, but minerals from space come with little ethical baggage.
This is as much about a human future in space as it is about scraping some gold out of an asteroid. The fuel and resource depots developed for the mining project could serve as a jumping-off point for both robotic and manned missions to the outer Solar System. Planetary Resources is run by people that love science and technology, and want to see humans continue advancing.
Planetary Resources Chief Engineer Chris Lewicki has been making the rounds online talking about the technical side of the initiative, and he indicates that there is still another advantage to the mining project. When we’re not scooping out their insides, asteroids sometimes make suicide runs at Earth. Numerous mass extinctions have been caused by large impact events.
When we as a species know more about the composition of these objects (and maybe have even moved a few of them around) the tools will exist to stop a large impact from happening. It would be the first time in Earth’s history that a species existed with the capability to deflect a dangerous space object.
Is it possible?
Despite sounding like a near-future hard sci-fi novel, the physics of Planetary Resources’ plan aren’t outlandish. There is a lot of engineering and science to be done, but many experts believe it’s possible. This is an era where government funding for space exploration is falling just as private space enterprises picks up. This is the time for something like Planetary Resources to happen.
The difference between a government agency like NASA, and a private business like the orbital launch company SpaceX is that SpaceX needs to make money. Planetary Resources might be a little of both. It has lofty ideological goals of restarting a human era in space, but there is that payout from mining precious metals from asteroids at the end of it all.
Along the way to that mine in the sky, new technologies will be developed, and science will be advanced by leaps and bounds. This is just the beginning of the process, but at least someone is doing what needs to be done to assure humans have a foothold in space. We could be on the verge of an era unlike any other.
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