You might as well learn the name of this firm now: Planetary Resources, Inc. Sounds like the name of a company from a science fiction movie, doesn’t it? It could have been, but this is actually reality. These guys plan to go to outer space and mine asteroids. Not a totally uncommon concept from science fiction, and a vital part of the many 4X computer games I’ve played in my life.
Being an avid science fiction fan, the very idea of going to outer space to mine excites me a lot. And now this could become reality in the not-so-distant future. You might think we’re talking about a bunch of redneck drillers – as seen in movies like Armageddon – trying their luck in outer space. But we’re not.
Among the people involved in Planetary Resources we find Peter Diamandis, creator of the highly-successful X-Prize Foundation, Eric Anderson X-Prize board member and Chairman of the Board of the Space Spaceflight Federation, Chris Lewicki, who worked on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers and the Phoenix Mars Lander, Chris Voorhees, who also worked on the Mars Exploration Rover project, Mark V. Sykes, CEO of the Planetary Science Institute and Sara Seager, Professor of Physics and Planetary Science at MIT. A lot of clever people who are backed with money from people like James Cameron (that director guy), Eric E. Schmidt (Google) and Larry Page (Google).
So you’ve got the brains and the money. How can this possible fail? Well, mining here on Earth isn’t exactly a walk in the park – in 2005 over 3000 miners died in China alone. So mining on an asteroid that flies through space is quite the challenge. This means that Planetary Resources won’t start mining tomorrow. The first step is deploy Arkyd 101, a tiny telescope in low-Earth orbit. It will look for and observe known Near-Earth asteroids. The company hopes to launch the Arkyd 101 and other telescopes like it by the end of 2013. Once a suitable asteroid is found, the idea is not to mine it right away for precious metals to return to Earth. Instead, it will be tapped for volatiles — materials with low boiling points such as water, oxygen, nitrogen, and so on, which also happen to be critical supplies for use in space.
A depot can be created, and future astronauts can use the stockpiled materials to enable longer journeys into space. The current price for getting water into space is roughly $20,000 per liter, extracting it from ice in space could potentially be much cheaper. The last step is to actually get the precious minerals from the asteroids and bring them to Earth, but exactly how this will be done is not clear yet.
Planetary Resources is about to embark on a fantastic journey. This is the first, big step in boosting our exploration of our own solar system and beyond, and I might be lucky enough to witness it in my lifetime. Awesome!