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.
To put it bluntly we’ve been spinning our wheels in terms of human space exploration. It was well over 40 years ago that we first placed one of our own on the moon and in the time since then we’ve tentatively sent out our robotic companions to do the exploring for us, staying in the relative safety of low earth orbit ever since. There is no one entity that we can blame for this, more it is a sign of the malaise that took over once the space race was won and there was no longer any political motivation to push the final frontier further. The last decade has seen a few ambitious plans put into motion in order to start pushing that envelope once again, but none of them are to bear fruit for at least a decade.
Of course I’m not expecting that we’ll see another space race any time soon, we’re far too engaged in fixing economic problems right now for another pissing contest between superpowers. However that doesn’t mean that the groundwork can’t be done for a time when countries are ready to pursue space travel with renewed vigour and NASA is doing just that with their roadmap for space exploration:
Human and robotic exploration of the Moon, asteroids, and Mars will strengthen and enrich humanity’s future, bringing nations together in a common cause, revealing new knowledge, inspiring people, and stimulating technical and commercial innovation. As more nations undertake space exploration activities, they see the importance of partnering to achieve their objectives. Building on the historic flight of Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961, the first 50 years of human spaceflight have resulted in strong partnerships that have brought discoveries, innovations, and inspiration to all mankind. Discoveries we have made together have opened our eyes to the benefits of continuing to expand our reach.
NASA’s roadmap lays out 2 options for the future of manned missions beyond low earth orbit with both of them converging on the ultimate goal of sending humans to Mars. The first being called “Asteroid Next” which would see our next target being a near earth asteroid favouring the development of deep space technologies. The second is “Moon Next” which would see humanity return to our celestial sister and use it as a test bed for technologies that would enable humans to survive in Mars’ harsh climate. Both options are equally valid, but they are not without their drawbacks.
First let’s have a look at Asteroid Next. The most interesting part of this idea is the establishment of a Deep Space Habitat at the Earth-Moon lagrangian point. Now you might think that this is somewhat pointless when we have the International Space Station but establishing a base beyond the comforts of low earth orbit poses many significant challenges. The ISS as it stands doesn’t have the required shielding to protect it’s occupants past its current orbital altitude and a habitat at L1 or L2 would need significant redesigns. However such rework would form the basis of the module that would carry our explorers to Mars as the requirements for a habitat and interplanetary transport are nearly identical.
Having a base at the lagrangian points also opens up nearly any destination within our solar system and could serve as an excellent base for future missions. The energy required to go from one such points to anywhere in the solar system is quite minimal and well suited to high efficiency engines like ion-thrusters. Having a presence out there would make a perfect base for sending up unmanned equipment prior to sending them to Mars or beyond.
Asteroid Next however doesn’t make any mention of technology development for Mars settlement meaning that the missions to Mars that followed would probably be short lived like their Apollo ancestors were. Asteroid Next then is very much like its predecessors in that regard, being a lot more like a one-shot event that something that would be repeatable for decades to come. This would see us push the boundaries much more aggressively (we could conceivably send a DSH to Mars by 2030) but at the risk of history repeating itself, seeing such missions as one offs.
Moon Next then sees us forego advancing deep space technologies in favour of returning to the moon and establishing a base there. This delays developing deep space technologies in favour of developing, testing and deploying habitats and supporting infrastructure in a much hasher climate than what will be faced on Mars. Technologies like the Deep Space Habitat will still need to be developed as they are crucial for the journey to Mars however Moon Next would see them developed well over a decade later than Asteroid Next. Moon Next would also see humanities base of operations be that of a small moon colony rather than a base at a lagrangian point which is advantageous in terms of resources (if we can develop technology to harvest some of the Moon’s resources) but does require much more energy in order to launch missions from there.
Going to the Moon before Mars might seem like we’re just repeating what we’ve already done but establishing a base there would be highly advantageous to future missions, and not just future exploration. There are many cases for radio telescopes on the far side of the moon (shielded from all the signals that currently pollute Earth) and there’s the very tantalizing prospect of constructing giant optical observatories that make us of the non-existent atmosphere and low gravity. However going for the Moon first means that a potential Mars shot will be delayed much longer than it would be if we pursued deep space technologies first.
After considering both options I believe our best bet is to go with the Moon Next option. If Mars was the only goal we had Asteroid Next would be the way to go but the potential benefits of a lunar base are just too good to pass up, even if it means not getting to Mars for another decade. Many of the technologies used in developing a lunar base will be transferable to both Mars missions as well as other deep space activities. It’s a tough choice for NASA though as the arguments are equally strong for supporting Asteroid Next and I’ll be watching the debate over these two ideas unfold with a keen interest.