Could we be seeing the start of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation?
A new space startup company, Planetary Resources, claims they “will overlay two critical sectors — space exploration and natural resources“. That sounds like space mining! And it’s not just a bunch of nuts I’ve never heard of backing this idea. The investors include Ross Perot Jr., Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page and Google chairman Eric Schmidt, James Cameron and Microsoft billionaire Charles Simonyi.
One of the classic memes in science fiction is the exploitation of resources beyond Earth, and in particular asteroid mining. We know there are valuable minerals to be mined just sitting around on rocks with orbits not too distant from Earth.
There is platinum, cobalt, gold, cobalt, iron, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, osmium, palladium, platinum, rhenium, rhodium, ruthenium, tungsten, and more, just waiting to be picked up and flung back towards Earth.
And let’s not forget hydrogen and oxygen which is cheap on Earth, but expensive to put up into space. It would be much easier to fling those elements down into Earth orbit than to haul them up from the surface because of the deep gravity well we sit at the bottom of. Those two elements are very valuable as propulsion and already having them up in orbit would reduce the cost of rocket travel beyond Earth orbit enormously.
And I do mean “fling”. Asteroids don’t have a huge mass like a planet the size of Earth does, so it’s easy to get some of that mass away from them. In other words, the gravity well they sit at the bottom of isn’t very deep. In fact, it’s barely more than a rim. We would have more trouble keeping things on the surface of an asteroid than getting them off.
Since we are just talking about minerals or elements, and nothing that is living, a gentle change in velocity, called delta-v, will start any container slowly on its way down towards Earth, which sits at the bottom of a much larger gravity well. With a very precise push, you can expect the containers to either park themselves in Earth orbit, or even into a trajectory that would drop them down onto Earth for recovery, all with that initial push.
This is some very exciting news for space buffs and old kids like me who read all about such operations in science fiction novels. As a kid I just assumed that, by now, I would be working and living in space, yet commercialization of space has been nothing more than a pipe dream until recently.
But dream no more. Space-X corporation is scheduled to launch the first commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station on April 30th on a rocket they are designing to be man-certified. Spaceport America is a facility in New Mexico that is specifically designed for commercial space operations including facilities for the tourists Virgin Galactic will be flying into space (although not into orbit yet). Bigelow Aerospace is working on the old NASA inflatable space habitat concept, and expects to use the services of Space-X not only to launch the stations, but to supply crew and supplies. They plan on renting them out to nations or companies that can’t afford to build and launch their own stations.
Asteroid mining, however, is one of the great dreams of space commercialization. The potential for profit is huge, and so are the risks, but it represents a major milestone in man reaching for the stars. The reach this time is not just for exploration and knowledge, but for profit.
In Robert Heinlein’s classic story The Man Who Sold the Moon, the main character recognized that space travel would never become common until people could make money from the venture. He hid some diamonds on a flight to the moon so he could convince people it would be worth going back. In the case of asteroids, we already know the valuable materials to be harvested. It’s just a matter of having the technology to go out there so they can be tossed back to Earth.
If any space miners go along to repair the equipment, I just hope they remember to never, under any circumstances, look into a slimy alien egg as it it opening up. Even with a helmet on, that just never goes well in the end.