As I’m sure many of you have heard in the news recently (ABC News, Fox News, NPR, Space.com), there was a very big announcement made last week by a group of very wealthy businessmen who are planning to mine asteroids and possibly other heavenly bodies. The new space venture firm, named Planetary Resources, Inc., is focused on “looking for ways to extract raw materials from non-Earth sources” in an effort to “add trillions of dollars to the global GDP”, according to the company’s press release.
An artists’ rendition of what Planetary Resources‘ asteroid mining project might look like. Credit: Wired.com.
Now while hearing this all may make you roll your eyes, it’s not a terribly bad or new idea. Granted it is something straight out of science fiction (see Avatar), but many of the metals we consider “precious” or “rare” on Earth are abundant in the asteroids that populate our solar system. If we find an asteroid made out of pure platinum, the potential fortune it would be worth would be well worth the investment in infrastructure to be able to mine it. Plus, if we find enough minerals in space that we can construct equipment for space exploration and colonization in space, then that saves us a huge amount of money that we would have had to spend for launch. As Bad Astronomer Phil Plait detailed on his blog, Planetary Resources has a very legitimate shot to make this happen. Here are several reasons why:
They have the personnel, talent, and experience. The first thing you need to understand about Planetary Resources is that it isn’t a single or group of billionaires with too much money on their hands who have decided that they want to build their own rockets to got to space; not that there’s anything wrong with that (Richard Branson et al.). This instead is a very serious undertaking set up by some of the leaders of the private space exploration sector with very specific goals in mind and very practical steps in order to achieve them. The founders and co-chairmen of Planetary Resources are Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis. Anderson is the co-founder and chairman of Space Adventures, a space tourism company started in 1998. You may remember Space Adventures because they’re the ones that helped Dennis Tito become the first space tourist back in 2001. The company currently offers zero gravity flights, orbital spaceflights to the ISS, and plans to offer suborbital spaceflights and flights to circumnavigate the Moon. Diamandis may very well be the father of the space tourism industry. He is the founder and Chairman of the X PRIZE Foundation, best known for offering the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE for private-sector manned spaceflight, a prize that was won in October 2004 by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and famed aviation designer Burt Rutan with SpaceShipOne, the world’s first non-government piloted spacecraft. These guys are titans of the space tourism/commercial space exploration industry and have very impressive track records in their accomplishments. In addition to the company’s founders, they also have several former NASA scientists and astronauts working in the company. The first and probably most important is Chris Lewicki, Planetary Resources President and Chief Engineer. Lewicki served as Flight Director for NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity Mars rover missions, and also Mission Manager for the Mars Phoenix lander surface operations. He’s qualified to say the least. The company also has some pretty serious advisers signed on: former astronaut Tom Jones, planetary scientist Sara Seager, and James Cameron. Now, I must not that most news outlets have been making Cameron seem like an investor, but at this point he’s signed on as an adviser. Although I’m not sure what technical expertise he has to offer, unless he thinks making a movie about mining another world actually makes him an expert in the field…
They have the cash. The newly revealed list of Planetary Resources investors is impressive to say the least. It includes Larry Page (co-founder and CEO of Google), Eric Schmidt (Google’s executive chairman), Ross Perot, Jr. (son of the former electronics executive turned presidential candidate, who has been a longtime space enthusiast), and Charles Simonyi (an early manager at Microsoft who led the team that devised Microsoft Office- he’s been a space tourist not once but twice, using some of his personal fortune to pay for trips on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station). These are no pushovers. Each of these men alone could probably finance a space-related endeavor alone, a la Elon Musk’s SpaceX or Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, but together they have the financial clout to do just about anything they want…including investing billions of dollars in the technology needed to mine asteroids in space. And hey you know what, it’s great that billionaires like these guys are finally putting there money in places where it can be really useful. Don’t get me wrong, any type of philanthropy is great, and I admire Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and the other billionaires who pledged to donate half of their fortunes to charity, but these space venture capitalists are basically investing in the future of mankind and at least attempting to ensure that future includes space exploration. As Phil Plait heard from Lewicki, “The investors aren’t making decisions based on a business plan or a return on investment. They’re basing their decisions on our vision.” As the company’s press release says, that vision isn’t just about resources or space travel: “Not only is our mission to expand the world’s resource base, but we want to expand people’s access to, and understanding of, our planet and solar system by developing capable and cost-efficient systems.” Now that to me sounds like a great mission.
They have a reasonable plan to accomplish their goals. For the full details of their plan, I’ll direct you back to Phil Plait’s post, but from his conversation with Lewicki, this doesn’t seem like some hare-brained, hell-bent attack on unsuspecting asteroids. As Plait explains, the process has three basic steps:
- Find a suitable asteroid by launching small telescopes and probes, possibly by the end of 2013.
- Once they identify an asteroid, they won’t start hacking at it, they plan to try to tap the rock for volatiles, elements and molecules with low boiling points such as water, oxygen, nitrogen that can easily be burned off in space (possibly even blown off to help move the asteroid), captured, and then possibly sold. This would be to help that idea of building space components in space, or as Plait suggests, constructing supply depots in space.
- Then they’ll actually try to mine the minerals and return them to Earth (or other space colony, like the Moon). There aren’t many details on this aspect of the mission yet, but this step is still a bit in the future. But only a few weeks ago a white paper was written by several researchers (two of whom were from Planetary Resources) about the feasibility of such an endeavor. One possible idea is to alter the asteroid’s orbit so that it moves into an orbit around Earth or the Moon. So they’re working on it and the idea of it happening does not seem totally ludicrous.
In any case, Planetary Resources is an endeavor which I can get behind 100%. They have all of the necessary tools to reach their objectives and are doing it for the right reasons: to engage humanity in space exploration and ensure the preservation of our species. At least that’s what they say and I’m inclined to believe them. For awhile now I’ve been listening to arguments from Neil de Grasse Tyson and ex-Apollo astronauts who have claimed that NASA is doing the country a disservice by not launching another Apollo-type project of human space exploration. And while I agree, that this country does need something huge to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers, I don’t think that NASA needs to do it. I think that’s exactly where Planetary Resources fits in. These men and women have the drive and money to undertake this project and just the fact that it’s happening should excite people all over the country. I know I’ll be excited to apply for a job with them once I get my PhD and I’m sure that this 10-year-old wanna-be astronaut will be too.