Science Channel - InSCIder

23 Apr

Asteroid Mining: The Get-Rich-Quick Scheme of the Future (or Today!)

Asteroid Mining CREDIT: ThinkStockOn Tuesday morning, in an event at Seattle's Museum of Flight, there's going to be a little announcement by a company called Planetary Resources that might completely change everything. And I mean everything — the world economy, the balance of power among nations, the very course of human civilization. It conceivably could launch a technological version of the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment, rolled into one. And it could make at least a few men on Earth almost unimaginably rich — far, far wealthier than anyone has been since the Chinese started using cowrie shells as money 3,200 years ago. What's this all about? Like that guy who advises a young Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, "I just want to say one word to you, just one word...Plastics," I'm going to whisper a magic word in your ear. Actually, two words: Asteroid mining.

You're probably thinking: "Huh? So that's what you wanted to tell me? You want to peddle some science-fiction pipe dream about the incredible mineral wealth to be gleaned from asteroids, those stray hunks of rock floating around in space like leftover bricks from the construction of our solar system? Next thing, you’ll be telling me that personal jetpacks are going to replace the minivan."

But don't scoff. Okay, I grant you that the notion of getting rich from asteroid mining has been around for a while, at least since Jules Verne's posthumously published 1908 novel, The Chase of the Golden Meteor. In that flight of fantasy, intrepid French scientist-inventor Zephyrin Xirdal invents a ray gun that enables him to lasso an asteroid composed of solid gold and guide it into a crash-landing on Earth. That sounds like the sort of far-fetched idea that some desperate screenwriter might pitch to filmmaker James Cameron as a big-budget sequel to Avatar, provided that he could work in some more blue-skinned aliens with creepy cat-like features.

As it turns out, though, Cameron may actually be interested in doing some asteroid mining, and not on a 3D Cineplex screen, either. The filmmaker is part of the investment group behind Planetary Ventures, a company whose other backers include Google's Chief Executive Larry Page and Chairman Eric Schmidt; former Microsoft executive Charles Simonyi; venture capitalist Ram Shriram; and Ross Perot, Jr., son of information-technology trade pioneer, billionaire and past Presidential candidate Ross Perot. Co-chairing the company is Peter Diamandis, the man behind the Ansari X-Prize competition meant to spur private-sector space flight. The specifics of Planetary Resources' big announcement are still under wraps, but the company's press release, reprinted by Technology Review, gives us a tease:

The company will overlay two critical sectors — space exploration and natural resources — to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP. This innovative start-up will create a new industry and a new definition of 'natural resources.'

Trillions, huh? We're obviously talking about something bigger than the Star Trek pizza cutter. The word around the Web hints at asteroid mining. Earlier this year, in an interview with Forbes, Diamandis let slip: "I can tell you, since my childhood, I've wanted to do one thing —be an asteroid miner. So stay tuned on that one."

As we will. But even if Planetary Resources doesn't turn out to be an asteroid mining outfit, it's probably only a matter of time before some group of billionaires decides to launch a gold rush in space. Except that we're not talking just about gold. We're talking platinum, cobalt, nickel, tungsten, and a horde of even more obscure substances called rare earth elements which are vital to our modern high-tech culture.

University of Arizona Professor of Planetary Sciences John S. Lewis, whose 1997 book Mining the Sky is still a roadmap for would-be asteroid miners, calculated that the value of the mineral wealth on a single large asteroid might be as much as $20 trillion, or about $27 trillion in today's dollars. To put that in perspective, the cumulative value of the entire world economy in 2011 was just under $80 trillion, according to the CIA Factbook. To look at it another way, Lewis estimated that the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter potentially contained enough wealth to give each person on the planet a $100 billion share.

Of course, the value of the asteroids, like that of dotcom shares in the late 1990s, is a bit illusory. If global markets were suddenly flooded with a vast supply of all these minerals, commodity prices would plummet. But even if they dropped a thousand-fold, we’re still talking about enormous amounts of wealth that might be created by asteroid mining.

But is it feasible to mine asteroids? Scientists and engineers have been drawing up plans for how to do it. In the 1990s and early 2000s, a private outfit actually worked with NASA on a $50-million demonstration project called the Near Earth Asteroid Prospector. The project was eventually shelved when the two organizations had difficulty getting along. But, more recently, President Obama has proposed that NASA aim to land a manned space probe on an asteroid by 2025.

A 2001 Caltech study lays out some of the technical challenges that would have to be overcome to mine an asteroid. Most likely, to make the logistics easier, they'd start with a small near-Earth asteroid rather than a big one from the asteroid belt. First, astronaut miners (or robots) would have to land on the asteroid and alter its path through space, perhaps by attaching rocket engines or ion thrusters, or by towing it with a space tug. (Here's a National Space Society paper that explains how all that would work.) This might seem like a Herculean task, but last year, Chinese scientists proposed that it would take only a slight nudge to put an asteroid about twice the distance of the Moon into an Earth orbit,

Once the asteroid is stabilized, space miners would then actually dig up the valuable minerals. This would be far trickier than on Earth, since the heavy excavation equipment would have to be attached — either by tying it down, or drilling holes in the asteroid and screwing it down — to avoid having it float off into space. For some minerals, they might have to set up an extraction mill right on the surface of the asteroid, in order to sift through pulverized rock or soil for the valuable stuff. Then, finally, they'd have to transport the extract back to Earth. The most efficient, lowest-cost way to do this might be to use a space elevator, an idea that I wrote about in this 2008 blog post.

I could imagine a few other details that space miners would have to work out. For example, they might want to add humanoid robots equipped with artificial intelligence capabilities and musical instruments to entertain the crew with updated renditions of mining songs, such as "16 Tons (of platinum)" or "Asteroid Miner's Daughter."

So what do you think? Offer your opinion below.

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