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Planetary Resources to Begin Mining Asteroids

Planetary Resources to Begin Mining Asteroids A spacecraft investigates an asteroid. Credit: Planetary Resources

By Paul Gilster

May 7, 2012

Paul Gilster

Paul Gilster is a longtime technology and aerospace writer with a fascination for how we use computers.

Learn more about Paul Gilster

Apollo 11 landed on the moon after a multi-stage Saturn V rocket funded by the U.S. government was developed in the midst of a massive, Cold War-era program to achieve the goal. But in 1950, science fiction writer Robert Heinlein envisioned a different kind of space program. In his book, "The Man Who Sold the Moon," Heinlein wrote about one Delos D. Harriman, a multimillionaire and business wizard, who put together a moon program using his own money and the resources of private companies. Now, with Apollo shut down, NASA crippled for funding and the moon seemingly as distant as it was in Harriman’s day, Heinlein may be getting the last laugh.

Planetary Resources (www.planetaryresources.com) is a startup backed by as impressive a team of entrepreneurs and business tycoons as the writer could ever have imagined. Its April 24 press conference in Seattle introduced a venture involving Ross Perot Jr., son of the former presidential candidate, Eric Schmidt and Larry Page of Google, movie mogul James Cameron, X Prize founder Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson, who is behind a space tourism company called Space Adventures. Also involved is Charles Simonyi, a software magnate and space tourist who has flown into space twice to visit the International Space Station.

We are entering the long-delayed post-Apollo space boom, the one that will be built upon the shoulders of private industry, philanthropy and corporate bottom lines, and because of it  — or successor companies inspired by its early lead — the world of 2050 is going to be a far different place. Planetary Resources isn’t fueled by political contingencies or driven to reach its goals before some other nation gets there first. Instead, it’s a market-based solution, with a plan to study nearby asteroids, pick the best candidates, and begin the process of mining resources. We studied the moon scientifically through a series of highly successful landings, but nobody ever figured out how to make money out of it. Planetary Resources may know how to do it.

Asteroids are valuable because they’re loaded with things we need. For one thing, many of them are rich in water, and when you’re building a presence in low-Earth orbit and beyond, water is a precious commodity, one that’s prey to the current $10,000 per pound price tag for a launch. Water in space doesn’t have to be sent to Earth — it can be used not only for maintaining crops on future space habitats but also for shielding manned spacecraft from dangerous radiation, just the ticket for protecting a Mars-bound crew on a journey that could last many months.

Break water into its building blocks — hydrogen and oxygen — and you’ve got the basic components of rocket fuel, another item you would not need to lift first into Earth orbit for it to be used. If we’re ever going to build a true space infrastructure, one that can support our near-Earth activities and help us expand outward into the solar system, we need to start mining the resources of the medium, and these the asteroids provide in abundance.

Water is hardly the only component of Planetary Resources’ plan. Asteroid impacts throughout Earth’s history have delivered small amounts of metals like rhodium, palladium, iridium and platinum to our planet, metals that do not occur naturally in the Earth’s crust. These metals are so scarce that their price is high, but the company is saying that a single 500-meter asteroid has as much of a concentration of these platinum group metals as has ever been mined throughout the history of our species. Suddenly prices would fall, and with them the price of the electronic devices in which we use them on Earth. The entrepreneurs are coming to space, seeing a clear opening for their talents, and willing to bet that their venture will more than pay for itself.

Add plentiful iron and nickel and you’ve described an ideal target for miners. If the idea sounds crazy, so was the idea of going to the moon when Heinlein wrote his novel. Some 1500 high-interest asteroids move near the Earth’s orbit, a far easier target that objects in the much more distant asteroid belt, and because they have little gravity, landing on them is actually more like making a rendezvous with another spacecraft. Planetary Resources intends to spend a decade picking out the best targets with a series of small space telescopes whose first launch could be within two years. Robotic missions to begin mining operations could be a decade away.

What has held us back in terms of space development has been the issue of sustainability. We’ve built huge rockets to take robots and crews on highly targeted missions that relied critically on resources available only on Earth. The new model of space development will focus on what author and physicist Gregory Matloff has described in the title of a recent book: "Living Off the Land in Space." And while NASA plans an asteroid mission of its own — OSIRIS-REx is to launch in four years — it will return only a tiny sample of an asteroid’s surface materials. At a stroke, Planetary Resources wants to move beyond that model, way beyond it, to bring big money and idealistic enthusiasm to bear on making our presence in space permanent.

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