Asteroid Mining as Stepping Stone to Space Colonization

Asteroid Mining as Stepping Stone to Space Colonization

The company Planetary Resources announced it is going to mine asteroids for their resources. The endeavor could yield stellar profits but the true goal is to open up the space frontier.

After a cryptic press release last week about a company operating in two critical sectors -space exploration and natural resources- the press and the web have been buzzing with speculation. The impressive list of investors and advisors including Google executives Larry Page and Eric Smidt and space mining prophet John S. Lewis gave it enough credibility for space fans to seriously get their hopes up.

Today, co-founders Eric Anderson and Peter H. Diamandis unveiled their plans at a press conference at The Museum of Flight in Seattle. And they did not disappoint.

They are going to build robots that will mine Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs) for precious metals, minerals and water.

Asteroids are scattered across the solar system and come in all shapes and sizes. The largest asteroid Ceres is 975 km (605 mi) across, the smallest are just a couple of tens of meters. Their composition greatly varies. Some are mere rocks while others hold large quantities of water, iron, nickel or rare platinum group metals.

Therefore, the first stage of mining is prospecting, determining which bodies hold the valuable resources. After that mining asteroids can be relatively easy because -other than in planets where metals are deposited near the core- metals are evenly distributed throughout the body making it a giant lump of ore.

At the press conference Chief Engineer Chris Lewicki laid out the technology development road map. The first milestone will be the development of the Arkyd space telescope which will operate in low Earth orbit (LEO). Because asteroids are small bodies, earth based telescopes can’t see them very well. The Arkyd will gather the data needed to determine which asteroids are suited for mining.

The Arkyd telescope will be operating in LEO 18 to 24 months from now. For a space program, where projects can take over a decade to complete, that’s pretty fast. Lewicki said they would also dramatically reduce the cost of space and asteroid exploration. At NASA and other government run space agencies projects can cost upwards of a billion dollars. Planetary Resources aims to build its space crafts for tens of millions of dollars. A factor 100 cheaper.

The company is modeling its innovation cycle after Silicon Valley tech startups. A small team will dedicate itself to rapid development without fear of failure. ‘When failure is not an option success becomes really expensive’, Lewicki said. ‘We’re going to launch a swarm of Arkyd telescopes. There will be safety in numbers, the risk will be distributed. And we will learn from our failures.’

Asteroid mining holds a promise of huge profits. In his book Mining the Sky: Untold Riches from the Asteroids, Comets, and Planets John Lewis calculates that one asteroid could produce the world’s entire gold production for a 100 years.

But the prospected profits are not the co-founders primary motivation. ‘The announcement of this company will be a seminal event in the future of entrepreneurial  space and moving off the planet’, Anderson said at the press conference. ‘Not necessarily because I think this company will be the most successful but because I’m sure there will be many who’ll follow.’ Anderson and Diamandis aim to open up the space frontier through commercial entrepreneurship.

Off-planet mining operations can serve as a network of galactic gas stations where space explorers can refuel and stock up building materials. Materials in space are extremely expensive because the cost of getting it off the planet are so high. For example, a liter of water at the International Space Station costs $20,000. If water and other resources could be collected in space, the cost of space habitation and manufacturing would dramatically be reduced. And if water is processed in space and broken down into its constituent elements hydrogen and oxygen it can serve as rocket fuel.

But Anderson’s and Diamandis’ gaze isn’t only directed at deep space, they also look at earth. Diamandis: ‘The vision of Planetary Resources is to make the resources of space available to humanity both in space and here on earth. Whether it is propellant from water on asteroids or strategic metals and minerals that are important to creating and promoting the world of abundance here on earth. Scarcity -which has been the model of the past- is contextual and technology is an abundance liberating force.’

Diamandis gives a metaphore of an orange tree. When you can only reach the low hanging fruit, oranges are scarce. But if you bring in technology as simple as a ladder you can reach all the oranges, creating abundance. He said: ‘The things we consider scarce today like energy, metals and real estate exist in near infinite quantities in space. As we move beyond the bounds of earth to a solar system that is full of resources we can bring those back to humanity’.

Now is the right time to make the leap to a permanent presence of humans in space because exponentially growing technologies enable small teams of individuals to realize projects that before only governments could do.

‘But our team does not need to do it alone’, Chief Engineer Lewicki said. ‘In the last decade we witnessed the power of the connected mind. Things like Wikipedia, distributed science and Do It Yourself have changed the way we solve problems and the way we work together to move things forward’.

‘We will be working together as a planet to make this happen.’

Image: sciencejay.com

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    avatar Tessel Renzenbrink is the editor of TechTheFuture. I focus on disruptive trends in technology.