Saturday, April 21, 2012

ALERT! Asteroid Mining to Begin Tuesday

A mysterious Seattle-based company, Planetary Resources, claims that on Tuesday, it will unveil an actual plan to mine actual asteroids for metals.

According to the press release, the company is run by: Peter H. Diamandis, M.D.; leading commercial space entrepreneur Eric Anderson; former NASA Mars mission manager Chris Lewicki; and planetary scientist & veteran NASA astronaut Tom Jones, Ph.D. In case you don't know who these people are, here's some background information on Diamandis:
[Diamandis] is the Founder and Chairman of the X PRIZE Foundation, an educational non-profit prize institute whose mission is to create radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity.[1] His foundation is 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. More recently, Diamandis has created the Rocket Racing League. In addition to serving as chairman of the X PRIZE Foundation, Diamandis is also the CEO and co-founder of Zero Gravity Corporation, which offers parabolic weightless flights to the general public. He is also the co-Founder and a Director of Space Adventures, Ltd, the company that has flown eight private citizens on Soyuz to the International Space Station.
As well as Eric Anderson and Tom Jones. So these are no slouches in the space business. Also, they claim support from some famous dudes as well, who are ready to blaze some new frontiers:
Supported by an impressive investor and advisor group, including Google’s Larry Page & Eric Schmidt, Ph.D.; film maker & explorer James Cameron; Chairman of Intentional Software Corporation and Microsoft’s former Chief Software Architect 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., the company will overlay two critical sectors – space exploration and natural resources – to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP.
Sounds great, right? There's certainly a lot of upside:
Such mining could yield a large amount of water, oxygen and metals to help further space exploration by allowing humans to fuel spacecraft, build space stations and other constructs. The resources could potentially be brought back to Earth as well.
Harvesting raw materials in space is possible with modes of technology currently available or expected to be developed in a matter of decades. A robotic mission may capture a smaller NEA with a diameter of several meters and slow it down enough to bring into low-Earth orbit for further processing. As a bonus, no nation has sovereignty over space, so its riches are free for anyone to come and get it from a legal point of view.
Sounds good, right? Well don't get your nickel pan and prospecting hat packed just yet: But in practice such a mission has numerous challenges, from identifying an asteroid with proper orbit and composition to timing it to return the investment fast enough. Planetary Resources apparently are more likely to become trailblazers of private space exploration than future asteroid-drilling trillionaires. And:
Louis Friedman, a former NASA aerospace engineer who also was involved in the study, said he supports this strategy but noted that it would take "hundreds of millions of dollars" to get started and that Planetary Resources would "need to find a lower-cost way to access space" in order to succeed. He is also skeptical the company could find ways to transfer raw materials extracted from asteroids back to Earth, given the cost of going in and out of earth's gravity well. Thus, he said, the materials could only be useful in space.
Bottom line, though, is that this isn't really all that far-fetched. Others are thinking along the same lines:
Although the general public is mostly unaware of this nascent industry, the notion of mining space has already inspired several other major efforts. Moon Express hopes to make regular trips to mine Earth's Moon, and NASA itself plans to launch an asteroid surveying spacecraft called OSIRIS-REx in 2014. If the hints at space mining mentioned in Planetary Resources' announcement turn out to be on mark, this could very well be the dawn of an exciting new age of extraterrestrial wealth creation and innovation.
So just around the corner...maybe not. But there's a lot of asteroid-mining-based science fiction for a sorta, kinda makes a lot of sense for an increasingly resource-strapped, crowded world to look towards a bunch of uninhabited, metal-rich rocks as an alternate source, doesn't it?