Start Dreaming Again: The Coming Era of Asteroid Mining

Behind many major advances in science and technology there is a dream that someone dared to chase and make a reality. Too often, we forget our aspirations and lose a source of inspiration, for individuals and societies. Planetary Resources, Inc., however, hopes to join the ranks of those who have succeeded by pursuing its own dream, that of ushering in a new era of space exploration and resource discovery by mining asteroids. A look at the history of asteroid study and a paradigm in the making.

Behind many major advances in science and technology there is a dream that someone dared to chase and make a reality. Too often, we forget our aspirations and lose a source of inspiration, for individuals and societies. Planetary Resources, Inc., however, hopes to join the ranks of those who have succeeded, by pursuing its own dream, that of ushering in a new era of space exploration and resource discovery by mining asteroids. A look at the history of asteroid study and a paradigm in the making.

This article is the first of three in a series on the developing industry of commercial space exploration. 2- A Practical Guide to Asteroid Mining 3- Abundance & the Business of Space 2.0

 

On April 24, 2012, history was in the making as we witnessed something that may have a deep impact on Humanity and the future of our civilisation, by allowing us to take another step toward our destiny. If you missed it, that's ok: Here is what happened, why this is BIG, and why it matters for you and me.

First, ask yourself a question: When was the last time you dreamed about Space? Do you remember? This dream you had as a kid to become an astronaut, to land one day on another world. To be among the first humans to go to Mars or to travel to distant stars. Why did you stop dreaming?

Why did we all stop dreaming, when our dreams are the very hope, energy and inspiration that push us, as individuals and as a society, to look beyond our fears, to fight our limitations, to refuse stagnation and to find solutions to our primitive conflicts? Dreams are what make life full of possibilities, make us want to explore and share them in our common adventure as a species. And when the distinction between science fiction and scientific fact is blurring, then you know that something is happening, that the dream is creating a new reality.

If the best way to start dreaming about the future again is to dig into our dreams, as individuals and as a collective, then that is what has just happened, taking us one step closer to our future as a multi-planetary civilisation.

Near-Earth asteroids will be explored for their resource-mining potential. (Image: ESA / P. Carril)
Mining Near-Earth Asteroids

Mining dreams, mining asteroids

On Tuesday, April 24th, 2012, a group of curious minds, including some maverick tech billionaires, visionaries, adventurous entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers and big thinkers, teamed up to announce the creation of the first private space exploration and asteroid mining company: Planetary Resources, Inc.

The goal of this venture is BIG: to send swarms of robots into space to look for near-earth asteroids (NEAs) with the goal of mining them for raw materials, ranging from water to precious metals. Through the development of cost-effective exploration technologies, the company is planning to initiate prospecting missions targeting resource-rich asteroids that are easily accessible, and to launch a new industry at the same time. This will open the way to commercial and large-scale space exploration – specifically, mining asteroids!

If that sounds too crazy to be true, consider the list of Planetary Resources’ founders and advisors. A quick look will show you the level of resources, skills and experience the venture is starting with. And that's just the beginning.

Larry Page (Google’s CEO) Peter H. Diamandis (X PRIZE, Singularity University) Eric Schmidt (Google's executive chairman) Charles Simonyi (Former Microsoft chief architect (two time Space Tourist)) James Cameron (Film director Titanic, Avatar, Ocean Explorer and space dreamer) Eric Anderson (Space Adventures, Planetary Power) Chris Lewicki (Mars Exploration Rover and Mars Science Laboratory projects.) Chris Voorhees (NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers and the Phoenix Mars Lander) Thomas D. Jones (NASA astronaut, scientist) Gen. Michael Moseley (former Chief of Staff, US Air Force and member of the Joint Chiefs) Sara Seager (Professor of Physics and Planetary Science at MIT) Ross Perot Jr. (Chairman of the Board of Perot Systems) David Vaskevitch (Former CTO, Microsoft) John K. Villa (Partner, Williams & Connolly LLP) Mark V. Sykes (CEO, Planetary Science Institute, NASA) Dr. John S. Lewis (legendary author of the book Mining the Sky)

 

 

Remains of the Primordial Solar System

Now, you may ask, why go mining asteroids? Aren't they just big, ordinary rocks, like any other on Earth? Asteroids are more than that, actually. First of all, they are primordial material left over from the formation of the Solar System. They are bodies that formed from, and within, the young Sun’s solar nebula that never grew large enough to become planets. Most of them have been collected by Jupiter's gravity into a region called the Main Belt, located between Jupiter and Mars. Their size varies from thousands of kilometres across down to tens of metres across. Generally, asteroids are identified by their characteristic spectra, which divide them into three groups: C-type, S-type, and M-type, with carbon-rich, stony, and metallic compositions.

Something important to realise about asteroids is how recent our knowledge is and how little we actually know about them. The first object of this kind, Ceres, was discovered by accident in 1801. Since then, thousands have been identified, tracked and followed, but little is known about them, even with data from the best, modern ground-based telescopes and the Earth-orbiting space telescopes. These can only resolve a small amount of detail on the surface of even the largest asteroids. So, it was only through space exploration and robotic missions that we could start to learn more. Recently, radar-imaging technology has yielded good information about asteroid shapes, and orbital and rotational parameters, especially for near-Earth asteroids.

The first asteroid to be photographed in close-up was 951 Gaspra in 1991, followed two years later by 243 Ida and its moon Dactyl (some asteroids are big enough to have a satellite orbiting them), all of which were imaged by the Galileo probe en route to Jupiter.

Asteroid Gaspra
Main belt asteroid Gaspra, imaged by the Galileo spacecraft while en route to Jupiter. The colors represent mineral distribution on the asteroid's surface. (Source: photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA00119)

In September 2005, the Japanese Hayabusa probe started studying asteroid 25143 Itokawa in detail, returning samples of its surface to earth in 2010. In September 2007, NASA launched the Dawn Mission, which started orbiting the protoplanet 4 Vesta – the largest asteroid visited to date – in July 2011, and is to orbit 1 Ceres in 2015. Other upcoming missions include OSIRIS-REx, announced by NASA in May 2011. This is a sample return mission to asteroid 1999 RQ36, expected to launch in 2016. We will certainly learn more from these future missions. So far, though, in many respects, we know and have done very little, making the exploration and understanding of asteroids a new frontier in space exploration.

Reservoirs of valuable resources

One thing we do know is that, as leftovers from the formation of the Solar System, asteroids are made of the same stuff as Earth. This includes a lot of the materials we use in our present technology and economy. Many are thought to contain enormous quantities of resources, like iron, water, nickel, cobalt, gold and other rare platinum group metals, often in higher concentrations than found in mines on Earth. And, unlike Earth, where heavy metals are close to the core of the planet, the metals in asteroids are distributed throughout their body, making them easier to extract. Asteroids also have relatively small gravity fields, making them easier to approach and depart from, by using less fuel. In terms of thrust and, therefore, propellant requirements, near-Earth objects (NEOs) are more easily accessible than the Moon.

Still not convinced? To get an idea of why mining an asteroid is interesting we can take the example of Amun 3554. This is an M-class (metal-bearing) asteroid, containing an estimated $8 trillion worth of platinum, a precious metal used in everything from jewellery, to fuel cells and computers. It is so important in our current technology and economy that it is currently trading at around the same rate as gold, $1500 an ounce. On Earth, only a few hundred tonnes are produced each year.

Another example of a resource-rich asteroid is 1986 DA. It is said to contain 100,000 tonnes of platinum and 10,000 tonnes of gold. Of the nearly 9,000 near-Earth objects currently known, the estimate is that 1% are as interesting, in terms of resources, as 1986 DA. And that's why, like with any other material, prospecting for more asteroids before mining is the first logical step in the process.

As Peter Diamandis, co-founder of Planetary Resources, points out, many of the scarce metals and minerals on Earth are in near-infinite quantities in space. As access to these materials increases, not only will the cost of everything from microelectronics to energy storage be reduced, but new applications for these abundant elements will result in important and novel innovations. (The third article in this series will address this topic in greater detail.)

A model for the future asteroid mining industry (http://www.planetaryresources.com/2012/04/the-space-economy-a-modern-day-gold-rush-2/)
asteroid mining industry

Planetary Resources, Inc. is approaching this endeavour with a step-by-step plan and business model that should ensure important applications for the technology developed, regardless of the future of asteroid mining. As the second article in this series will show, progress on this front will also bring advances in communications systems, increasing the autonomy of robotic vehicles, satellites for Earth observation, and low-cost interplanetary spacecraft.

This does not mean that these private space pioneers aren’t taking risks, however. On the contrary, it’s all about taking chances, daring to dream and making those dreams a reality. Stay tuned for a look at the history of risk-taking entrepreneurs, the innovations they made possible, and the next moves to expect from Planetary Resources, Inc., as they enter the new frontier of commercial space exploration.

***

Just this week, we witnessed another historic milestone along this path with the successful launch of Space X's Falcon 9 and its Dragon space capsule. This is the first commercial spacecraft heading to rendez-vous with the International Space Station (ISS).

As Elon Musk (dreamer and CEO of Space X) tweeted just after the launch: "Falcon flew perfectly!! Dragon in orbit, comm locked and solar arrays active!! Feels like a giant weight just came off my back :)... Dragon spaceship opens the navigation pod bay door without hesitation. So much nicer than HAL9000 :)" Starting from a childhood dream to go into space, he is making it a reality by building his own company, his own rocket and, with his success this morning, by bringing us one step closer to a colony on Mars and becoming a multi-planetary civilisation.

You can watch this amazing launch here and share the excitement of the SPACE X team as they watch the liftoff and congratulate Elon Musk for making it a reality.

What a day!!!

 

About the author:

 

A Curious Mind enjoying exploration, learning, sharing; meeting cool, different, visionary, fun or curious humans, to talk about Life, people, science, technology, education, travelling, photography or anything you may think of that would be fun, interesting to share, learn and play with.

Photoblog: http://www.flickr.com/photos/photonquantique/ Twitter: @clementepie

 

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Uncanny Titan, Prebiotic Mysteries http://blog.mysciencework.com/en/2012/02/16/uncanny-titan-prebiotic-mysteries.html

A portrait of the astronomer-engineer and humanist, Pierre Fedou http://blog.mysciencework.com/en/2011/06/30/a-portrait-of-the-astronaut-engineer-and-humanist-pierre-fedou.html

European Space Agency: What to watch for in 2012 http://blog.mysciencework.com/en/category/spacescience-en

To find out more:

“The sky is calling us” – A call of support for space exploration http://pages.uoregon.edu/nsugai/Nasa%20Micro%20Site/

"Tech Billionaires Plan Audacious Mission to Mine Asteroids", Wired Science http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/04/planetary-resources-asteroid-mining/

“Past, Present, and Future of NASA – U.S. Senate Testimony” by Neil deGrasse Tyson http://www.haydenplanetarium.org/tyson/read/2012/03/07/past-present-and-future-of-nasa-us-senate-testimony

“Did the New Space Age Begin This Week with Planetary Resources?” http://21stcenturywaves.com/2012/04/26/did-the-new-space-age-begin-this-week-with-planetary-resources/

Neil deGrasse Tyson: “The Most Astounding Fact About the Universe”, video & text http://www.cygy.com/tv/dr-neil-degrasse-tyson-phd-the-most-astounding-fact-about-the-universe/20/

"Amateur Rocketry & Mavericks Explorers STEM Education Program", a KQED/PBS documentary http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=39vOgic-8rI&t=10s

Planetary Resources Webcast of the April 24th announcement http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0c9oZh4vTo