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Planetary Resources’ Crazy Plan to Mine an Asteroid May Not Be So Crazy

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Vesta, asteroid, Dawn, space

The asteroid Vesta

In a widely anticipated announcement today, the new company Planetary Resources revealed their plans for near-Earth asteroid domination. The group has mapped out a multi-stage process to map, observe, capture, tow and eventually mine asteroids for valuables. “A single 500-meter platinum-rich asteroid contains the equivalent of all the platinum group metals mined in history,” reads the company’s press release. The first steps are already underway: the company plans to launch a small telescope dedicated to asteroid hunting by the end of 2013, according to Phil Plait, who wrote an excellent description of the project at his Bad Astronomy blog.

Platinum isn’t the only prize. As the company sees it, the goal is not to pillage space for materials we need on Earth so much as to develop the near-Earth infrastructure for space exploration. Water, for instance, is heavy and essential—you can’t very well freeze-dry it like ice cream—but many asteroids contain a lot of ice that can be extracted (though exactly how remains unclear). “Our mission is not only to expand the world’s resource base, but we want to increase people’s access to, and understanding of, our planet and solar system by developing capable and cost-efficient systems,” said Chris Lewicki, the president of Planetary Resources and its chief engineer, in the release.

The project’s motivation becomes more evident when you take a look at its roster of investors, which includes Larry Page and Eric Schmidt of Google; Charles Simonyi, former chief software architect for Microsoft; Ross Perot Jr., former chairman of technology company Perot Systems; and the filmmaker James Cameron. Page and Schmidt have demonstrated their interest in space exploration with their sponsorship of the Google X Prize contest to land a rover on the moon. Simonyi has twice bought himself a ride to the International Space Station, and James Cameron has an exploration bug which recently made him the first person in a half century to reach the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Like Paul Allen, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk before them, these technology entrepreneurs are spending their billions to conquer the last frontier. Whereas the Carnegies and Fords of a century ago may have used their riches to fix the planet’s problems, the tech giants of today are funding a ticket off. (Bill Gates is a notable exception.)

Despite initial skepticism, the Planetary Resources plan seems like it is at least not totally insane. The company is not claiming to be able to lasso platinum-laden space rocks back down to Earth. Rather they have outlined a cautious step-by-step approach that is not unlike the exploratory strategy that NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory mission architects Damon Lindau and Nathan Strange laid out in Scientific American’s December 2011 issue. Asteroid towing is also theoretically possible, as described by scientists and astronauts in a 2003 SciAm article about how to prevent a dangerous asteroid from ending civilization. If the company can establish an orbital base, a mining operation could in theory extract the energy and materials it needed to operate, eventually making it self-sustaining. If only the same thing could be said of its home planet.

Image of the asteroid Vesta as seen by the Dawn spacecraft courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

About the Author: Michael Moyer is the editor in charge of space and physics coverage at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @mmoyr.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. geojellyroll 7:56 pm 04/24/2012

    I’m a geoloigist and although most of my time has been spent in oil and gas exploration…I have done some mining related activity.

    Mining an asteroid is STUPID! The infrastructure on Earth is so extensive to barely make most enterprises viable…in space costs would be ridiculous.

    As per ‘all these metals’….gold today is 1600/ounce. Easy to drop it to $25…bring it back at in large quantities to Earth (at millions of dollars a pound).

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  2. 2. geojellyroll 8:02 pm 04/24/2012

    “About the Author: Michael Moyer is the editor in charge of technology coverage at Scientific American”

    Geesh…Michael, how about some actual ‘journalism’ instead of regurgitating pollyanish spoon-fed fluff? Did they wine and dine you with their dazzle?

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  3. 3. RCWhitmyer 10:36 pm 04/24/2012

    @geojellyroll Did you read “excellent description of the project”? It seems the mining for metals is just the long term end project. The short term plan (relatively) is mining water and other volatiles than selling it for use as fuel or consumption by astronauts. This would be much less expensive than orbiting the same supplies. The metals would come much later after the logisics are already inplace.

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  4. 4. jtdwyer 2:42 am 04/25/2012

    I got to “Step 2″ of the “excellent description of the project”. It states:
    “The idea behind this is to gather these materials up and create in situ space supply depots. Water is very heavy and incompressible, so it’s very difficult to launch from Earth into space (Lewicki quoted a current price of roughly $20,000 per liter to get water into space). But water should be abundant on some asteroids, locked up in minerals or even as ice, and in theory it shouldn’t be difficult to collect it and create a depot. Future astronauts can then use these supplies to enable longer stays in space — the depots could be put in Earthbound trajectories for astronauts, or could be placed in strategic orbits for future crewed missions to asteroids. Lewicki didn’t say specifically, but these supplies could be sold to NASA — Planetary Resources would make quite a bit money while saving NASA quite a bit. Win-win.”

    There might be a few losers. While some have been worrying about near Earth asteroids crashing down to Earth, these enterprising explorers only plan to remove a few heavy components from them, likely including somehow extracting water from minerals. IMO, this cannot likely be accomplished without altering the asteroid’s mass and disrupting its orbit. In other words, the waste products will be left to potentially crash down onto the rest of us. Even if some effort is made to power the residual asteroid off into some ‘safe’ dumping ground, I’m concerned about unexpected results… What a great plan!

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  5. 5. Johnay 4:29 am 04/25/2012

    @jtdwyer – IIRC simply altering an object’s mass will not change its orbit. I think Galileo laid the scientific groundwork for understanding that.

    As for asteroids hitting Earth, it’s bound to happen sooner or later, mining or not. Our only defense is to develop the technology to alter an asteroid’s orbit. (Altering Earth’s orbit would be more difficult and would likely have undesirable effects.) If we’re going to develop that technology it would be best if it were well-tested & refined before it’s needed to avert a collision, so we might as well get some economic benefit from it along the way and have the system pay for itself.

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  6. 6. jtdwyer 6:58 am 04/25/2012

    Johnay – You’ve likely got me there, since for Earth orbiting asteroids its primarily the Earth’s mass that determines their orbit, along with perturbances from other objects. However, if the resource extraction process in some way added momentum to the asteroid (from venting waste gases, for example) it could produce unplanned orbital changes.

    While asteroid collisions occur relatively frequently, it would be most unfortunate if industrial intervention or unsuccessful attempts to manipulate it’s orbit inadvertently produced a collision with a large asteroid that would not have otherwise occurred.

    One thing you can be certain of: a commercial enterprise will prioritize net income in its decision making and may undervalue potential risks.

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  7. 7. singing flea 7:54 am 04/25/2012

    The commercialization of space is a long shot at best and a pipe dream at its worst. If these billionaires really have money to throw away on such a wasteful enterprise with no proven reserves we are all getting shafted. They get their money by charging us more for goods and services that competition is no longer able to control. When a corporation diverts billions into an enterprise that can easily be written off as overhead we all loose. This is really what it is all about.

    They will spend billions to drop a rock on our heads worth much less, then claim it was a business venture and write off the multi-million dollar salaries their families and relatives will earn as investors who then only pay 15% income tax on that income.

    If they really wanted to explore for resources they should be looking for minerals right here on the Earth, 75% of which is under water and less explored then the moon. It is one heck of a lot cheaper to raise a ton off the ocean floor then it is to drop a ton safely back to earth from orbit.

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  8. 8. geojellyroll 9:01 am 04/25/2012

    The chance of causing an asteroid to unexpectantly hit Earth is zilch. One would have to make it the goal of the mission.

    People have this misperception of asteroids from really bad sci-fi movies. you can’t just pick any asteroid..it could take years to identify a suitable candidate…decades to build suitable infrastructure for that particular asteroid…a year to get there …no noticeable gravity on that asteroid (you can’t walk around. use moveable machines, etc). Incredible energy to alter it’s momentum…incredible energy to mine, incredible energy to produce payloads. Get the minerals back to Earth somehow and the glut wouold cause the bottom to fall out of the particular metal’s market. We don’t need ‘more’ metals than we produce on Earth. We’ve barely scratched the surfacde of Earth’s metals.

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  9. 9. jtdwyer 12:41 pm 04/25/2012

    geojellyroll – You may (or may not) be right about large asteroids, but at least one article in Nature News, http://www.nature.com/news/space-miners-seek-riches-in-nearby-asteroids-1.10513 includes an illustration attributed to Planetary Resources whose caption states:
    “Planetary Resources plans to capture small, water-rich asteroids.”

    While this SA article states “The company is not claiming to be able to lasso platinum-laden space rocks back down to Earth.”, the Nature article includes the contradictory statement:
    “And some materials are valuable enough to bring all the way home. These include such metals as platinum, iridium, osmium, collectively known as platinum-group metals – which can fetch as much as $1500 per troy ounce, or about $50 per gram.” It quotes attributes to team member John Lewis: “The average meteorite that falls to Earth has a higher concentration of platinum-group metals than the richest known ore bodies.” The Planetary Resources press release states that they calculate “that a single 500-meter asteroid can contain more platinum group metals than have been mined throughout all of human history.” The Nature article concludes with the statement attributed to Lewis, “Lewis says it’s possible that the company could get into the sample-return business.”

    Rather contradictory statements, but Planetary Resources may (or may not) be planning on capturing small asteroids, then releasing them. In any case, they also seem to intend to land spacecraft on larger asteroids and launch vehicles from them or from their vicinity. I think there will be ample opportunity for Planetary Resources to affect the orbits of near Earth asteroids…

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  10. 10. dubina 8:26 pm 04/25/2012

    @ RCWhitmyer,

    You said,

    “@geojellyroll Did you read “excellent description of the project”? It seems the mining for metals is just the long term end project. The short term plan (relatively) is mining water and other volatiles than selling it for use as fuel or consumption by astronauts. This would be much less expensive than orbiting the same supplies. The metals would come much later after the logisics are already inplace.”

    You have bought the kool-aid hook, line and sinker.

    The carrot is “space exploration”, laudible as such because nobody knows what it’s worth or what it costs.

    Mining an asteroid for water and then platinum group metals is an excellent example of that. Skyhook economics. Pie in the sky. Why we went to the Moon. Why we built the ISS. Singing flea got it right.

    “They will spend billions to drop a rock on our heads worth much less, then claim it was a business venture and write off the multi-million dollar salaries their families and relatives will earn as investors who then only pay 15% income tax on that income.”

    I don’t mean to say getting stuff in space is inherently dumb, because I like GPS, satellite TV, earth imaging, etc. All good stuff, obviously worthwhile.

    But I don’t care much about life on Mars or water on Europa or the Century Starship Project. Or mining He3 from a permanent base on the Moon.

    Let’s get real about what works and what is likely to fail.

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  11. 11. Quinn the Eskimo 12:11 am 04/30/2012

    I think it’s probable that these guys are *not* the brightest boys on the playground.

    .

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  12. 12. upload70 5:43 am 10/8/2012

    nearly every sci fi movie and video game has predicted space mining i have no doubt it will happen eventually. http://buysteroidsuk.co/

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