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The Business of Mining Asteroids

May 3, 2012, 9:08 PM

Recently, a group of Google and Microsoft billionaires, film maker James Cameron, directors of the X-Prize Foundation (Peter Diamandis), founder of the commercial space tourism company Space Adventures (Eric Anderson), former astronauts, etc. have banded together to propose a new, game-changing technology: mining the asteroids. Although much of the details of their mission are still under wraps, it is possible to piece together what their grand strategy is. It is also possible to envision how they might succeed, as the group backing the project is made up of exactly the kind of risk takers who have the daring and the financial means to pull it off.

The new venture called Planetary Resources, Inc. has a variety of videos published on their YouTube Channel including the official April 24th press conference (below). Their website however includes further details about the Mission, Technology, Team, Opportunities, and News -- with a statement on the main page of "establishing a new paradigm for resource discovery and utilization that will bring the solar system into humanity’s sphere of influence. Our technical principals boast extensive experience in all phases of robotic space missions, from designing and building, to testing and operating. We are visionaries, pioneers, rocket scientists and industry leaders with proven track records on—and off—this planet."

Watch the video below for additional details about Planetary Resource's plan to mine asteroids for water and precious metals 

Basically, they hope to create a vast new source of natural resources by mining the heavens. There are positive and negative aspects of this grand vision. On the positive side, there are valuable minerals that might be found in asteroids, such as platinum-type metals, which may yield a bonanza for future space prospectors. In fact, these visionaries foresee a time when trillions of dollars may flow into the coffers of the entrepreneurs who dare to think in terms of these grand schemes.

On the negative side, however, is a long list of potential problems, starting with cost. It costs $10,000 to put even a pound of anything into near-earth orbit. That is your weight in gold. It costs roughly $100,000 a pound to put you on the moon. And roughly a million dollars a pound to put you on Mars. So the costs of mining the asteroid belt are truly astronomical.  

Second, there are dangers and technical problems. Our astronauts have never been in deep space for more than a few days on missions to the moon. The asteroid belt is an entirely new frontier, fraught with dangers. We would need new booster rockets, new space stations, a new space infrastructure, etc. etc.

However, it is possible to modify the original dream of science fiction writers to reduce the cost. First, one can use robots instead of human astronauts to cut down on costs and dangers. Second, one can let the asteroids come to you, rather than going to the asteroid belt. As we now know, asteroids the size of battleships regularly whiz by the earth, totally unnoticed until recently. So, one can envision grabbing such a near-earth object, modifying its orbit, so that it orbits the earth, where it can be safely mined. So we never have to go as far as the asteroid belt at all. Third, one can envision that one day, a booming mining industry will supply distant colonies with basic raw materials. In other words, most of the metals and resources will not be used for the earth at all, but for maintaining colonies already in space. This way, we do not need to bring these materials back to earth at all, which would be very costly.

Wisely, this group of visionaries is starting with very modest goals first. They plan to fund private space telescopes, so that private enterprise can safely analyze what is out there in space and then make a decision about sending astronauts to rendezvous with an asteroid. This baby step is far more reasonable than starting a crash program to build booster rockets to mine asteroids now.

President Obama speaks of encouraging our youth with a new "Sputnik moment." That is very difficult, since the government has cancelled Sputnik, i.e. the manned space program. I am all in favor of new Sputniks to inspire the next generation of scientists, especially when it is funded by other people's money. Visit the White House Blog where Obama speaks about our generation's Sputnik moment being now -- "In 1957, just before this college opened, the Soviet Union beat us into space by launching a satellite known as Sputnik.  And that was a wake-up call that caused the United States to boost our investment in innovation and education -– particularly in math and science.  And as a result, once we put our minds to it, once we got focused, once we got unified, not only did we surpass the Soviets, we developed new American technologies, industries, and jobs. So 50 years later, our generation’s Sputnik moment is back. This is our moment."

But there is one attractive feature to this proposal. It's all funded by private investors, not tax payers, so the public does not lose a cent. Sadly, the US government will no longer boldly go into space. Its up to private enterprise to now pick up the slack and it appears that is exactly what its doing.


The Business of Mining Aste...

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