Asteroid Ida…….credit: NASA/JPL
The race to put a man on the Moon between the United States and the Soviet Union is long over. NASA got there first, national glory was achieved and then NASA and the American public lost interest in the Moon. The Russians’ all out space effort collapsed with the Soviet Union and is slowly rebuilding with intermittently successful commercial rocketry. In the follow-up to the Moon as the Next Big Thing, the International Space Station (ISS) is ‘completed’ and doing far less science, or anything else, than was expected. The NASA shuttle craft that were to establish healthy trade between Earth and the ISS – are finished, history, already on their way to becoming museum pieces. These days, the squabbles over mission priorities and budgets at NASA are tawdry and dispiriting. Budgets for space are riddled with cuts and complex politics in most of the other countries that have a presence in space – except China. China appears to be gung ho about space (if the right expression is gung ho, which in the original Chinese are the two words, ‘work’ and ‘together’); but strangely there’s hardly any reaction to China’s space achievements from governments, the media or otherwise. It appears there will be no space race with China. It’s as if we – the professionals, enthusiasts and the non-space engaged public – have mostly lost interest.
What seems to be missing is motivation, a real and powerful motivation to once again garner the attention and interest of the public in exploring space. With the exception of the Chinese, national pride seems to be out of the picture. Science, for all its true value, has never produced much general passion. There is always economics, but so far the exploration of space is a massive loss operation – as if it had any serious economic intention to begin with. Now that could change, perhaps in a big way.
Enter these gentlemen, multi-multi-millionaires and billionaires all: Larry Page, K. Ram Shiram, and Eric Schmidt (Google), James Cameron (film director), Ross Perot Jr. (Perot Systems), Charles Simonyi, Paul Allen (Microsoft), Peter Diamandis (X-Prize), Burt Rutan (aerospace engineer), Eric Anderson (Space Adventures). They have aligned with a company called Planetary Resources, Inc. that has the express purpose of exploring about 1,500 of the 9,000 or so Near-Earth Asteroids (NEA) with the intention of extracting from them valuable resources such as water and platinum. The company predicts that the value of such extraction will be measured in trillions (dollars, presumably).
Although the company was founded in 2009 by Peter Diamandis (a key figure in the personal space flight industry) and Eric C. Anderson (co-founded Space Adventures with Diamandis), the public launch was a rather eagerly anticipated formal announcement made from the home base in Seattle (Washington, USA) on April 24, 2012. In the years since 2009, the company’s narrative has been developed and more importantly the impressive list of names was added to the support roster. The announcement made a relatively big splash in the news for a company that as yet has far more plans than product. So, what have we here?
First, a disclaimer: Three years ago I wrote a novel precisely about the subject of commercial resource extraction from Near-Earth Asteroids, which means I’ve done some homework and have a bias in the direction of thinking the company’s plans are reasonable and feasible. That said, I’m aware that Planetary Resource’s notion of ‘mining asteroids’ is borderline fodder for late-night comedy. Some say it is crazy; et cetera.
I would say that for most people the idea of mining asteroids is brand new, and I use the word ‘brand’ intentionally. As a rule of thumb, most people know about exploring the Moon; most people are aware of plans to reach Mars – but the asteroids? The notion of reaching asteroids with orbits in the neighborhood of Earth has been a fringe idea. There is an important exception: In 2009, a report by the NASA commissioned blue-ribbon committee, the so-called Augustine Report, examined the future of the American humans in space program and recommended that NASA make reaching an NEA a priority. The recommendation was generally disregarded. The choice of a mission to reach an NEA, compared to return to the Moon or a major deep-space mission to Mars has had little or no constituency. However, some of the people involved with Planetary Resources noticed the Augustine Report recommendation.
To explain all the comparative reasoning behind an NEA versus other missions would require a book; I won’t attempt much here except some key points.
Ease of access: Some of the asteroids that have orbits approaching Earth are at their nearest point relatively as close to Earth as the Moon. Although the navigation is more complicated, reaching these asteroids is not much more difficult or time consuming than reaching the Moon. The major factor is that asteroids have no significant gravity. Unlike the Moon, which has one-sixth the gravity of Earth, there is no gravity well to fight on the way onto or off an asteroid. This is a huge savings in energy and simplifies local maneuvering.
Resources: There are many kinds of asteroids, three are the most common. Some are composed primarily of metals (M-type), mostly nickel-iron, mixed with stone and other metals and minerals. Others are composed mostly of carbon-based materials (C-type) including complex hydrocarbons (e.g. methane, ethane, etc.) and materials containing water. More than 75% of asteroids are C-type. Then there are asteroids composed mainly of stony material, often high in silicon mixed with a wide range of minerals. All types of asteroids contain material of commercial-industrial value, but the two materials that are singled out are water and precious metals. Water is arguably the most important because of its potential as a source of rocket fuel (hydrogen and oxygen), and oh yes, life requires it. Water is unfortunately quite heavy, and lifting it off the Earth’s surface is very expensive. The Moon has some water in deep polar craters, but from what we know; it is not available in industrial quantities and would still have to be lifted out of the Moon’s gravity well.
Precious metals – gold, silver, platinum, palladium, ruthenium, rhodium, osmium, and iridium – are of high commercial value, relatively compact for value, and are present in asteroids in what are believed to be accessible conditions. That is, unlike the Moon, the concentrations are relatively high – possibly high-grade ores – that can be extracted and potentially processed on site. Of course the big draw here is these metals are of extreme value on Earth for cosmetic or industrial uses. A thousand kilos of platinum is worth about $50 million at today’s spot price. Lifting quantities such as that from an asteroid for transportation back to Earth is feasible and potentially profitable.
That’s where Planetary Resources, Inc. comes into the picture.
A single 500-meter platinum-rich asteroid contains the equivalent of all the Platinum Group Metals mined in history. “Many of the scarce metals and minerals on Earth are in near-infinite quantities in space. As access to these materials increases, not only will the cost of everything from microelectronics to energy storage be reduced, but new applications for these abundant elements will result in important and novel applications.”
[Source: Planetary Resources press release]
In short, extracting water especially for rocket fuel and human environment supply and mining of valuable ores is the core of Planetary Resource’s plans. Sounds pretty good, but of course how this is to be done – that’s the thing isn’t it? The good news here, which you would expect from people who are both visionary and carefully rich, is that the company isn’t planning a gold rush. Contrary to some of the gushing media coverage, the program spans many years, perhaps decades, and takes everything step-by-step. The first step is to select, explore and analyze candidate NEAs for their commercial value. This will be done by robotic probes – asteroid prospectors. Planetary Resources is already building the first of these probes called the Arkyd-100 Series, which will orbit Earth and participate in the study of NEA candidates. A follow-up series, Arkyd-300, will journey to the target asteroids to conduct on-site exploration. Launch of the first robotics will be in 2013-2014 aboard various rockets.
Common intuition would caution not to minimize the technical difficulty of what Planetary Resources proposes to do. Launching expensive probes is never a sure thing. Getting them to their targets is not trivial. The technology for gathering the appropriate information, especially material samples, is still largely experimental. Returning samples to the Earth is also difficult. Then there comes the whole business of seriously extracting material from the asteroids – the technology for which exists only in Earth-based experience and the imagination of engineers. Let’s put it another way, the path to profitability is very long and uncertain. Why then are the quite intelligent and successful people who support Planetary Resources willing to put up their name and their cash?
Some of them have spoken about it, but I’ll summarize and extrapolate. In a nutshell: The vision of mining asteroids combines some of the romance of space exploration and development of the human race with the notion of making a great deal of money. It replaces the fading motivations of nationalism, the semi-obscure goals of science, and the abstract ideas about building things for Earth in space with something tangible and lucrative. I suppose one could kvetch about greed and profit motive as a mass motivator for developing our solar system, but few who have thought about it would argue that it would, sooner or later, become the ongoing driver.
Meanwhile, the Planetary Resources program will probably have a couple of important effects: It will provide a continuing story that can be followed by the media and the public. It will also require – and put pressure on – governments and space agencies to collaborate with and support the effort. It’s no secret that Planetary Resources will need to work with the science, technology, expertise and funding of academic and government sources. These folks may be rich, but not that rich. So, the effort to reach the asteroids and develop extraction techniques will be a massive joint effort – or it won’t work at all.
I have no idea whether this will happen. I hope so. In a sense, Planetary Resources, Inc. represents the human race getting off its collective butt and once again trying to do something really ‘out there’ – difficult, challenging, and at least in the long run exciting. There’s no need to romanticize the development of space to make it exciting, making a lot of money will do.