Space Mining

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May 28, 2012 by Dan Swinhoe

“Since my early teenage years, I’ve wanted to be an asteroid miner. I always viewed it as a glamorous vision of where we could go.” Though it sounds like the dream of many sci-fi writers around the world, Peter Diamandis is far closer to achieving his vision than anyone else on Earth.
At a news conference held this month at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, a new company, Planetary Resources Inc. revealed itself to the world. The company said it has two main goals; twofold: the mining of natural resources and space exploration, with the aim of selling the raw materials extracted from the asteroids and adding trillions of dollars to the global GDP.

Normally such a claim would be ignored. The money involved would be astronomical; the technology ahead of everything we have available today, and the planning would take years. But when you struggle to count the number of billionaire investors on one hand and your founders have a history of private enterprise in space, people start to take notice.

The Bellevue, Washington-based company was founded by space entrepreneurs (which has to be up there as one of the best job descriptions ever) Eric Anderson, founder of the commercial space tourism company Space Adventures, and Peter Diamandis, creator of the X Prize foundation, which offers prizes for advanced technology development.

“The resources of Earth pale in comparison to the wealth of the solar system,” said Eric Anderson. “We’re now going to bring the solar system to within our economic sphere of influence.” The plan is to fly a small fleet of robots out to the thousands of asteroids that soar across the solar system, and mine them for precious metals such as platinum. Because asteroids have relatively little gravity, going after them costs less fuel & money than the moon or mars.

“If you look back historically at what has caused humanity to make its largest investments in exploration and in transportation, it has been going after resources, whether it’s the Europeans going after the spice routes or the American settlers looking toward the west for gold, oil, timber or land,” Diamandis said.

“Those precious resources caused people to make huge investments in ships and railroads and pipelines. Looking to space, everything we hold of value on Earth ­ metals, minerals, energy, real estate, water ­ is in near­infinite quantities in space. The opportunity exists to create a company whose mission is to be able to go and basically identify and access some of those resources and ultimately figure out how to make them available where they are needed,” he said.

Though the owners haven’t talked specific finances for the whole project, it’s estimated to be in the hundreds of millions. For Planetary Resources though this isn’t the biggest problem. Their investors include Google founder Larry Page, Microsoft billionaire and two­time space tourist Charles Simonyi, and Ross Perot Jr., chairman of the Perot Group, which already manages terrestrial real estate and natural resource investments. Also involved are Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt and Director James Cameron, both already involved with exploration under the deep blue sea. The Google investors alone are worth over $20 billion between them.

Plans are already in motion. In the next 18-24 months, the company hopes to launch the first in a series of private telescopes that would search for the right type of asteroids. The LEO (Low ­Earth Orbit) telescopes, part of the Arkyd Series 100, will only be a few feet long, and be light enough to hold in one hand. These satellites, estimate to cost around $10 million, will scout the sky for estimated 10% of the estimated 1,500 free flying asteroids that pass near to Earth and will be worth mining. Once targets have been identified, it is hoped a small ‘swarm’ of similar machines will be launched to examine the asteroid close up, and within the next decade. “We’re taking new approaches at design,” Diamandis said. “Part of the philosophy we’re taking is building very low cost, very small spacecraft. You put up six or 10 or dozens and you get reliability.”

The company hopes to harvest the platinum­ group metals — which include palladium, osmium, and iridium. These are rare and valuable commodities used in medical devices, renewable energy products, catalytic converters, and other advanced technologies. Platinum is worth almost as much as Gold, and the company estimates that a 30m asteroid could holds much as $25 billion to $50 billion worth of platinum at today’s prices. Some experts have doubted the profitability of such a venture, arguing the costs of getting all the equipment to an asteroid and back would mean the profit margins would be incredibly low. A mission planned by NASA to return just 2 ounces (60 grams) of an asteroid to Earth will cost about $1 billion.

But it could be the extraction of water that will where the profit is made. Water can be broken down into oxygen and hydrogen, the core components of rocket fuel. Planetary Resources hope to create orbital refueling stations, which would allow commercial satellites or spaceships to replenish their supplies quickly and cheaply. It costs around $20,000 a litre ($76,000/Gallon) to launch water into orbit, with even a modest-sized rocket holding billions of dollars worth of the stuff. The company hopes to offer water at a tenth of the current price, and offer their services to both Space Agencies and private companies alike.

The retirement of the NASA’s space shuttles and the scrapping of their moon plan has seen the rise of private enterprise in space, and rather than try to fight it, NASA are embracing it. After the ambitious plans were revealed, NASA released this statement:

“This project aligns well with our national space policies and goals. President Obama has set the United States on an ambitious path for deep space exploration, seeking to send humans to an asteroid for the first time and ultimately to Mars. As NASA leads this effort, we will certainly look to take advantage of private sector resources and data. This commercial affirms our path forward-a path that relies on private-sector partnerships and innovation to reduce the overall costs to the taxpayer, create jobs and advance our space exploration program.”

So what’s the legality of all this? The ins-and-outs of private space mining were never really addressed when the 1967 Outer Space Treatwas written, but it does highlight some points. The treaty does require nations to ensure their citizens comply with its rules, including sovereign claims of property. The treaty states both the exploration and use of outer space shall be free of restraint and discrimination, and that there will be free access to all parts of space. Equipment and facilities for peaceful purposes are also ok, and everything launched into space remains the property of the original owner.

For mining, it’s a bit more vague, but in theory it’s first come, first serve for each asteroid, but if the asteroid was big enough, another team could set up camp elsewhere, as long as they don’t interfere with the first team, and whatever is mined is property of that team and their owner. Once Planetary Resources are up and running, it’s likely that the issue will be addressed a bit more closely and changes will be made.

The success of such a mission could bring in a new era of mankind in space, but there could also be economic ramifications. Aside from possibly making space travel cheaper then it has ever been, a sudden influx of precious metals could make them less, er, precious. Hundred of tons of Platinum would almost inevitably drive the price down, and if the change isn’t monitored could end up causing mass inflation, as was the case when the Spanish economy saw an influx of Gold and Silver from the new world.

Aside from the huge costs, the actual specifics of getting the ore off an asteroid and back to Earth are staggering. The technology doesn’t exist yet and Planetary Resources have remained tight-lipped as to what, if any, plans or designs they have to mine, refine or deliver it back to Earth. To give a scale of what they are planning, the only asteroid material ever returned to Earth came from the Japanese Space Agency’s Hayabusa spacecraft, which returned with a few hundred dust particles from Asteroid 25143 Itokawa in 2010.

But the team seems undaunted by their task. Peter has likened the task to deep-sea oil drilling. “They’ve literally created robotic cities on the bottom of the ocean, 5, 10 thousand feet below the ocean’s surface — fully robotic cities that then mine 5 to 10 thousand feet down below the ocean floor to gain access to oil. For me, that kind of work makes going to the asteroids to extract resources look easy.”

Oil platforms sit in waters thousands of feet deep and often drill another mile or two to reach oil, and Shell have started using robotic submarines to connect them to existing pipelines. “These are commitments of 5 to 50 billion dollars in each of these platforms,” Diamandis explains. “It’s extraordinary what humanity can now do.”

“There will be times when we fail,” Eric says. “There will be times when we have to pick up the pieces and try again. We do understand that the pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, if it’s successful, will be big.”

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