Mining Asteroids May Not Be Science Fiction For Long.

I’ve long heard tales of how profitable asteroid mining could be. This is because asteroids, unlike Earth, tend to have higher concentrations of rare minerals with some even being almost entirely metallic, in essence taking out all the hard work of digging it up out of the ground. However actually mining asteroids or other heavenly bodies is a devastatingly expensive exercise as you have to haul all your equipment up there, conduct the mining operation, and then safely get the minerals back to Earth. Nothing along the way is trivial and whilst there’s been a great number of advancements making the trip there and back easier no one has yet tried to tackle the problem of mining in space.

However news has started circulating of a new company that’s setting its sights on just such a lofty goal and its name is Planetary Resources.

Now any company with such a lofty goal would attract some attention from the press but Planetary Resources is doing so for additional reasons: the people who are backing this project. We can count amongst them people like Tom Jones (a former NASA astronaut), Larry Page and Eric Schmidt (Google co-founders) and none other than James Cameron himself. The list seems to go on and it’s clear that this company must have some concrete plans to actually achieve their vision in order to attract such talent and some of those plans have just come to light.

Planetary Resources has already done some of the groundwork required in order for their business model to work. They’ve set their sites initially on Near Earth Asteroids of which there are about 8,840 known (although more are discovered every year). Of those known objects approximately 150 of them are thought to be water rich and require less energy to reach than going to the moon. They are then going to launch a high powered space telescoped designed to prospect these asteroids from afar within the next 2 years. It is likely that they will attempt to find the largest of these asteroids that are close enough together, allowing one launch to reach multiple asteroids.

Part of Planetary Resources goal is to make accessing such asteroids cheaper and this will be accomplished by establishing orbital refuelling stations on the way to those near earth objects. I’ve written in the past how these kinds of stations are required if we want to be serious about exploring and establishing a human presence beyond that of our current planet and it thrills me to see a company making this idea a reality. Such stations will not only make their activities much more economically feasible it will also allow agencies like NASA to be far more ambitious with their future projects, something which they’ve been lacking of late.

Details beyond that however are somewhat scant. Planetary Resources has declined to say when they’ll be breaking ground on an asteroid so the only solid timeline we have from them is that they’ll launch a telescope in under 2 years. Whilst there’s been some research showing that a mission could potentially be done by 2025 that was entirely theoretical and put the cost somewhere north of $2 billion. Now that’s not out of reach of Planetary Resources, several of their backers have fortunes that amount to several times that, but there’s no indication that they’ll be able to meet that schedule. I’m hopeful that they’ll be able to reach their goal eventually but until we start to see some real progress from them it’s best to not speculate too heavily.

Regardless of my apparent scepticism I’m still very excited by this announcement. We’re starting to see the combined efforts of many disparate companies beginning to create a snowball effect, one that’s creating a flourishing private space industry that was only recently a science fiction fantasy. We are so incredibly lucky to be living in a time that’s akin to the aviation revolution of the last century. I’m a fervent believer that within our lifetimes we’ll see commodity level space travel and I cannot wait to be a passenger.

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  1. Mining an asteroid is just a -little- bit too super-villain for me. But hey, if it will help fix the problems on Earth (the jury’s out), then I’m all for it.

  2. It will definitely help down here on Earth. Many of the technologies developed for such activities will naturally flow downward to other industries, just like it did back in the space race days. The rate of return for most NASA projects is well above parity and I’d expect nothing less from a venture like this.

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