by RS Bailey
The idea of mining asteroids has been around along time. It’s been the subject of science fiction stories since the 1930s. But recent studies and books have taken the idea seriously and come up with a plan. One study sponsored by the Keck Institute for Space Studies and conducted by Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory under a contract with NASA lends new credence to the idea.
So much so that Peter H. Diamandis, M.D., founder, Chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation; leading commercial space entrepreneur Eric Anderson; former NASA Mars Mission Manager Chris Lewicki; and planetary scientist and NASA astronaut Tom Jones, Ph.D.; are moving ahead with a plan to mine near-earth asteroids with the backing of an investor/advisor group that includes Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, Ph.D.; film producer/director James Cameron; Chairman of Intentional Software Corp. and Microsoft’s former Chief Software designer Charles Simonyi, Ph.D.; founder of Sherpalo and Google Board of Directors founding member K. Ram Shriram; and Chairman of Hillwood and The Perot Group, Ross Perot, Jr.
Their company is called Planetary Resources. The goal is to find small asteroids in near earth orbit that are roughly 7 meters in diameter or about 250,000 to 1,000,000 kilograms earth weight; capture them and bring them into lunar orbit where robotic equipment and solar mirrors would be used to mine and process the materials. Every thing from water, to nickel, iron, gold and platinum could be extracted. The materials would be used for numerous projects including supply stations for interplanetary space ships. They are hoping to have an asteroid in orbit around the moon by 2025.
As wild as it sounds, there is a solid business plan at work. Having fueling stations in orbit off planet drastically reduces the weight required to get an interplanetary mission off the earth and going to Mars, Saturn/Titan or wherever. According to Diamandis it costs “$20,000 per kilogram to get a liter of water into orbit. If you’re able to buy it on orbit for one-hundredth of that cost, it would be transformative.” It also opens up the possibility for construction off planet, using materials mined from the asteroid. NASA has already designed large scale 3D printers that can be put to use building structures from available materials.
But the business plan doesn’t have to wait until 2025 to start paying off. The first phase is designed to generate income almost immediately. Planetary Resources points out that the first step is finding what’s out there. To that end, their first project is the lightweight Arkyd-101 personal space telescope which is designed to be launched from currently available systems and commercial rockets in development by other ventures. The telescope will be used not only to find appropriate near earth asteroids, but to watch for potential asteroids on collision curse with our planet.
The telescope can also be turned earthward where it will have a resolution of a couple of meters per pixel. The current satellite imagery market is a multi-billion dollar industry. Several generations of the telescope are on the drawing boards with the first being planned for launch within two years. An entire network is eventually envisioned. But what about the real mining? Diamandis said, “a single asteroid in the range of 200 to 500 meters in diameter could contain more platinum-group metals than has ever been mined in the whole of human history. When the availability of these materials increases, the cost will reduce on everything, including defibrillators, hand-held devices, TV and computer monitors, catalysts; and with the abundance of these metals we’ll be able to use them in mass production, like in automotive fuel cells.”
According to Eric Anderson, “A water-rich asteroid would greatly enhance the large-scale exploration of the solar system; water has many uses in space. For instance, it would not only be used for hydration, but also would be broken down into oxygen and hydrogen, for breathable air and rocket propellant.” Tom Jones adds, “Even dirt is valuable as a radiation-shielding material”
In short, virtually everything on an asteroid has a potential use. Planetary Resources expects to build a business worth trillions of dollars and is currently planning at least 20 to 30 years ahead. When it comes to a time line, Lewicki said, “Three, four, five years out, depending on trajectory, is when we envision getting up close and personal with an asteroid.”
On the immediate downside the US military is cutting back on its purchases of satellite imagery from private sources. It should also be kept in mind that if they mine as much gold and platinum as they expect those prices will drastically fall. How much will it cost to get that stuff back to earth? It will certainly provide high tech jobs earthside but when and if it all really gets going, much of construction of the needed facilities will be robotic and take place in space.
Not talked about so much is the possibility of a greener planet because mineral resource mining will be off planet instead of polluting the earth. There is also the unmentioned possibility of gathering solar energy for transport to earth as electricity. Systems exist to do it but they currently present their own ecological problems. But problems can be solved and the prospect of the decreased need for fossil fuels is enticing.
The solar system is a vast, virtually limitless resource. While there are those who shudder at the thought of the commercialization of space it should be remembered that the opening of the new world in the 15th through the 18th centuries was propelled by the thirst for raw materials and fueled by ventures such as the Hudson Bay Company.
There are 7 billion people roaming over Planet Earth these days and 14 billion is not far away. Where are we going to put everyone? We are already witnessing the results of overpopulation and we’re a long way from sending large numbers of people off planet, even though the Chinese are discussing plans to do it. Still, most everybody will be living earthside and our rapidly growing population is going to need resources and fuel.
Where’s it going to come from?