Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Asteroid Mining Enterprise: Billion Dollar Boondoggle or Breakthrough to the Future?

Asteroid Mining Enterprise: Billion Dollar Boondoggle or Breakthrough to the Future?
by Nomad
Remember this date. Today- April 24 2012- could be the day that the commercial exploitation of outer space began in earnest. No, seriously.

Speculation along those lines has had the Net buzzing for the last week or so. Planetary Resources Inc., founded earlier this year,  will be making a formal announcement of its plans at an event Tuesday in Seattle. Things are somewhat vague with an earlier press release stating only that the proposed operation   would "overlay two critical sectors—space exploration and natural resources—to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP" and "help ensure humanity's prosperity."

From those hints, it would seem that the corporation intends to begin mining any one of the near-Earth asteroids, or NEAs. And according to NASA, astronomers now estimate there are roughly 19,500 mid-size near-Earth asteroids. The largest near-Earth asteroids, which are 3,300 feet (1 kilometer) and larger number close to 1000. 

A mining operation like this would be a gamble but to put it into perspective, fifteen percent of the NEAs are easier to reach than the moon. (in fact, a mined asteroid could also be used as a re-fueling station between Earth and other destinations.)
Before you snicker and titter, it is important to note this doesn't seem to be some kind of hyped-up Donald Trump scheme. As the Wall Street Journal notes, Tuesday's event is being hosted by Peter H. Diamandis and co-founder Eric Anderson, known for their efforts to develop commercial space exploration, and two former NASA officials. Other high profile names are included as well:
People listed by Planetary Resources as members of its "investor and advisor group" include Larry Page, Google's chief executive, and Eric Schmidt, the company's executive chairman; Mr. Cameron, whose film "Avatar" depicted a corporate venture to extract natural resources from another planet; former Microsoft Corp. MSFT -0.93% executive Charles Simonyi, who has made two trips to space and funded other related activity; Ram Shriram, a Google director and venture capitalist; and Ross Perot Jr., son of the Texas technology entrepreneur and former presidential candidate Ross Perot.

Former NASA Mars mission manager Chris Lewicki is listed in the press release as president and chief engineer of Planetary Resources, with Messrs. Diamandis and Anderson as co-chairmen.

According to Space.Com, Planetary Resources co-founder and co-chairman Anderson explained:
”If you look at space resources, the logical next step is to go to the near-Earth asteroids. They’re just so valuable, and so easy to reach energetically. Near-Earth asteroids really are the low-hanging fruit of the solar system.”
The industrialization of space is as tantalizing as it is risky. The potential for wealth generation is quite literally limitless. Even a minor success would raise an incredible amount of revenue for any daring corporation. 
According to the Journal of Geophysical Research
Statistically, there should be approximately six metallic NEAs larger than 1 km in diameter that contain over 100 ppm of precious metals. Successful recovery of 400,000 tons or more of precious metals contained in the smallest and least rich of these metallic NEAs could yield products worth $5.1 trillion (US) at recent market prices. If marketed over 20 years, this would represent a 10-fold increase over the recent global production rate of all precious metals combined.
If those numbers are correct, a mining operation of a single small asteroid could pay for itself. This does not, however, include the capital needed as investment nor potential for a costly disaster. Not everyone is optimistic about the chances for success. According the the Wall Street Journal article:
The possibility of extracting raw materials such as iron and nickel from asteroids has been discussed for decades, but the cost, scientific expertise and technical prowess of fulfilling such as feat have remained an obstacle. NASA experts have projected it could cost tens of billions of dollars and take well over a decade to land astronauts on an asteroid.
It will be certainly be the most technologically challenging achievement in the history of humankind. Still when one considers what was accomplished in the late 1960s, given the relatively primitive technology, mining in space shouldn't be dismissed out of hand.

There are all still some numerous problems that need to be addressed. 

First and foremost is the problem of potential hazards. As most of us already know, space is not exactly hospitable to humans. Robots can supplant most of the more dangerous activities. We can also assume that new technologies will be created to further lesson the risks to humans. (Another job/wealth creating effect?) 
Some scientists have pointed out that materials mined from asteroids will go a long way in creating space structures, such as bases on the moon and in orbit. At present, one of the major obstacle to the development of space is the cost of transporting Earth materials into orbit. 

There's also another potential danger that many scientists tend to overlook. That is, the Andromeda effect. If you think of the Earth's atmosphere as a protective skin, then every passage between space and the atmosphere carries with it a possible risk of carrying pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria or something completely alien. (This is the reason why astronauts were once obliged to enter into a quarantine after the moon mission. Unfortunately they did troop through the rescuing navy carrier to get to the holding tank.) With the proper safeguards and protocols, this shouldn't be a major obstacle. 

Another less dramatic problem is: 

  • How can the mined minerals be brought back to Earth cost-effectively? 
  • What if any, would be the negative effect to the world's economy of a sudden increase in mineral wealth?

If the potential impact has any historical precedence, it would be the discovery of the vast gold reserves from the New World. In that case, what followed was a revolution of the structures of power and the birth of the modern age.  Nations that did not participate- like the Ottoman Empire- were suffered from permanent stagnation. 

Even those nations that did participate were turned upside down. Therefore, with those lessons in mind and with so many power-holders at risk, you can expect a great deal of cynicism at this early stage. All that is likely to change with the first success. 

Personally, I want to be optimistic.
I was nine years old when the the first man walked on the moon. There were not enough televisions for each classroom so we were brought into the hallway with other classes. We sat in the corridor as the module touched down on the lunar surface. For those who lived during that time, it was a profoundly moving experience. As a child, I came to believe that nothing humankind set its mind on was impossible. As Kennedy had once said, "Man can be as big as he wants to be." 

It was supposed to have opened up the doors to a new age, instead I have waited for the next installment in the dream of the utilization of the New Frontier for most of my life.
You will forgive me for being a little impatient.

From more information about this developing industry click here.
Here's a video with more information about Planetary Resources' proposal:

What do you think about this post? Just a lot of foolishness or is this the future?