It’s official. Planetary Resources, Inc. – a company founded this year with the stated goal of expanding Earth’s natural resource base – today (April 24, 2012) announced its plan to head out into the solar system to mine near-Earth asteroids for water and precious metals. The group said it will focus first on developing and selling low-cost robotic spacecraft to prospect among near-Earth asteroids. It expects to launch a demonstration mission to Earth orbit within two years. Eventually, the group says it will select near-Earth asteroids suitable for mining and mine them, thus bringing “the natural resources of space within humanity’s economic sphere of influence.” Many are speculating that – in much the same way the California gold rush opened the U.S. western frontier – this ambitious effort could help open up the new frontier of outer space.
Planetary Resources is based in Bellevue, Washington, and it announced its intentions at an event at the Seattle Museum of Flight. A group of wealthy entrepreneurs founded Planetary Resources, Inc., including Eric Anderson, who also founded the space tourism company Space Adventures, and Peter Diamandis, who started the X Prize Foundation (whose goal is radical technological breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity). The company is also backed by several billionaires including Google’s CEO Larry Page and executive chairman Eric Schmidt, former Microsoft chief architect Charles Simonyi, and Ross Perot Jr.
How do we know which metals lie on or just below the surfaces of asteroids, accessible to earthly mining techniques? Astronomers have long used telescopes and the science of spectroscopy – the splitting of light into its component colors – to analyze sunlight being reflected from asteroids’ surfaces. Astronomers know that asteroids do contain metals such as iron, nickel and magnesium, plus water and oxygen. Some asteroids even have gold and platinum. By some estimates, some asteroids might contain as much platinum, for example, as is mined in an entire year on Earth. That would make a single asteroid worth billions of dollars.
And that’s a good reason to invest in this outer space mining venture, for this group. As Wired said in a post yesterday (April 23, 2012):
Planetary Resources, Inc … plans to send swarms of robots to space to scout asteroids for precious metals and set up mines to bring resources back to Earth, in the process adding trillions of dollars to the global GDP, helping ensure humanity’s prosperity and paving the way for the human settlement of space.
What will it take to mount a space mining mission to an asteroid, land on it, find the valuable minerals, extract them and process them? A lot. Those of us who dreamed of asteroid mining in the 1970s – when it was part of a vision by Gerard O’Neill to create a permanent human presence in space via vast human-made space colonies – never dreamed that nearly 40 years would pass before asteroid mining would be seriously discussed again, outside small working groups of scientists. The technological hurdles are formidable, but the first hurdles will likely be likely be legal ones. Who owns the asteroids? According to Wired:
While some have argued that governments need to set up specific property rights before investors will make use of space, the majority of space lawyers agree that this isn’t necessary to assure the opportunity for a return on investment, said space policy analyst Henry Hertzfeld at George Washington University in Washington D.C. Mining occurs in international seabeds — even without specific property rights — overseen by a special commission dedicated to the task, he said. A similar arrangement would likely work in space.
Planetary Resources, Inc. says it hopes to go after the platinum-group metals — which include platinum, palladium, osmium, and iridium — highly valuable commodities used in medical devices, renewable energy products, catalytic converters, and potentially in automotive fuel cells. So while space dreamers of the 1970s had the human habitation of space in mind, today’s asteroid mining companies have a profit motive. And maybe that’s just the motive needed to bring asteroid mining into reality.
We’ll see what happens. In the meantime, those of us with stars in their eyes will thrill to this cool video from Wired, which shows an artist’s concept of an asteroid mine, from above:
Bottom line: Planetary Resources, Inc. announced on April 24, 2012 at the Seattle Museum of Space a plan to head out into the solar system to mine near-Earth asteroids for water and precious metals. The plan involves the construction of relatively low-cost robotic prospectors. The company expects to launch the first of these craft into Earth orbit within two years, as a demonstration.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.