Space Resources: Re-igniting a can-do spirit of ambition

It appears that a small cabal of  billionaires — those who got rich through innovation and who feel loyal to the future — are about to to fund a new effort worth some excitement and attention. It aims at transforming not just our Earth — but the whole solar system. And, along the way, this endeavor may help bootstrap us back into our natural condition… a species, nation and civilization that believes (again) in can-do ambition.

Can that be achieved – while making us all rich – through asteroid mining? 

In its Tuesday announcement, Space exploration company Planetary Resources will claim a goal to “create a new industry and a new definition of ‘natural resources.’… adding trillions of dollars to the global GDP.”

Resources from space? It’s not a wholly new concept.  Way back in the 1980s, in his prophetic book – Mining The Sky: Untold Riches From The Asteroids, Comets, And Planets, my friend and colleague John S. Lewis explored in detail the range of minerals, volatiles and other useful materials to be found in all the different types of small bodies we know to be drifting about the solar system, from carbonaceous chondrites to stony or iron meteoroids, to dormant comets which (according to my doctoral thesis) may make up to a third of the asteroids we find out there.*

Back then, as a young fellow at the California Space Institute, I recall many long conversations with John and the few others working in the field, striving to come up with ways to get some movement in this area. Before it became clear that the Space Shuttle would suck up every gram of funding or attention.

 What makes this new effort unique is its high-profile support group. The venture is backed by Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, film director James Cameron, and politician Ross Perot’s son, among others.  Moreover, I am pleased to note that John Lewis is, indeed, one of the major advisors for this new company, along with his former students, noted planetary scientists Chris Lewicki and Tom Jones.

The founders apparently did their homework. (A Cameron trademark.)  They apparently mean business.

== A Long and Hard Road ==

But what kind of business? Is such a grand project feasible? As I see it, there are a several distinct general problem domains.

1) Prioritizing asteroidal science.  Naturally, as an astronomer who specialized in small solar system bodies, I approve of this phase one. (My wife, Cheryl, also did her doctoral work in this area – we’re neighbors in the solar system.) 

It also correlates well with President Obama’s wise decision to abandon a fruitless return to the sterile Moon, in favor of studying objects that might make us all rich.

In fact, this seems an excellent time for private funding to make a big difference. New thresholds have been reached. The technologies needed for inexpensive asteroid rendezvous missions are coming to fruition rapidly, as we saw at the recent NASA NIAC meeting.  Some, in fact, are downright amazing, opening the potential for missions that cost mere tens of millions, rather than billions of dollars, confirming and characterizing these fascinating – and possibly lucrative – bodies.

2) Shepherding and changing the trajectories of small meteoroids and asteroids.  There are several techniques on the table.  Some of them surprisingly simple, using solar sails.  We might as well get started! And if these guys can give the technologies a boost, more power to them.

3) Legal, safety and environmental impact considerations. Is it even permissible to grab and “own” space resources? The pertinent treaties were left deliberately vague and it may be time to update them, so that investors in wealth-generating processes can be sure of decent return.

Of much more public concern – and sure to dominate the headlines – will be the image of deliberately moving asteroidal bodies toward the Earth. That’s sure to prompt a lot of fretting and talk of lurid disaster scenarios. Oh, we’ll start small and aim them toward the Moon or Lagrangian Points (e.g. L5), giving plenty of time to discuss issues of law and care in space. But these fellows need to come up with just the right tone of prudence, avoiding the kinds of lines spoken by Michael Crichton’s science-hubris villains.  Like: “all contingencies are accounted for – there’s no cause for concern!”

Worth pondering on the up-side: these same technologies might someday prove very useful, if we spot something dangerous, on a long-warning collision course toward Earth.  If done right, this is a potential world-saver, not world-killer.

4) Mining, disassembly, smelting and refining in space.  Here we’re still in a very tentative, sketching phase. Most concepts involve using large mirrors to concentrate sunlight and process the raw materials. Or else solar energy to drive heat and electro-mechanical processes indirectly. If this can be done robotically and efficiently, all the way off in L1 or Lunar Orbit, then much smaller masses of refined substance could be transported down to GEO… where electrodynamic tugs might bring it to LEO… where cheap, asteroid-made braking shells would deliver the goods safely to collection points on Earth.

5)  Or, better yet, much of the iron and nickel and such could be used up there in orbit to make more cool things and reduce the burden of launching bulk material out of our planet’s deep gravity well.  Certainly, storing the volatile like water and carbon and nitrogen compounds in orbit-made tanks will be a major side-benefit, providing the materials needed most for both life support and rocket fuel. To derive those benefits would entail learning to do many other things in space. Larger habitats and radiation shielding. Possibly solar energy collectors of massive scale, beaming power 24/7 to Earth. Or grand vessels to explore the planets.

6) Economics. It’s a lot more complicated than the first calculations might make you imagine. In Mining The Sky, John Lewis calculates that even just one asteroid a kilometer across – of a certain type – might (if smelted down) produce the world’s entire steel production for 10 years!  

It gets better. Try the entire world’s gold and silver production for 100 years!  That plus a thousand year’s production of platinum-group elements.

The good news?  We would be unleashed to do a myriad things with cheap raw materials, while cutting way back on wasteful, inefficient and polluting processes to mine and process the stuff here on Earth.  Much less digging, grinding and greenhouse gas emissions. All that wealth, generated with solar mirrors melting rocks way out in space.  Talk about improving the balance of payments….

One reality check?  Downstream, after this ball gets fully rolling and initial R&D costs are paid off, you can expect the prices of gold and platinum to plummet.  That’s a good thing, overall! We have much better uses for gold than leering gleefully over stupid coins and bars. Still, bear this in mind when you start rubbing your hands over how rich you’ll get from asteroid mining.

You won’t be rich enough to own the world.  Sorry.  Just very very very rich, from doing a whole heap-loads lot of good for us all.

7) Which brings us to the final benefit of all this. We’ll all benefit.  But the top fellows who are taking the risks, who will reap a lot of the rewards, happen also to be the good billionaires. Archetypes of how capitalism ought to work.  Self-made moguls who got wealthy by helping engender new-better products and services, not by means that Adam Smith himself derided as parasitism.  These guys have proved, time and again, their loyalty to the positive-sum process that raises all boats.  This is the kind of endeavor that will keep them up there as role models, instead of the new feudalists.

It’s certainly how I plan to get rich.  By delivering magnificent, daring products that help take us to the stars.

== NOTES ==

A little colorful aside:

In our 1984 novel Heart of the Comet (soon to be re-released) Gregory Benford and I portrayed a dramatized effort to harvest space resources, by sending a human crewed mission to Halley’s Comet in 2065, intending to use the controlled evaporation of the comet’s own material (an effect long-known) to divert it into orbit near the Earth.

A bit extravagant in its action-adventure aspects (though based on my doctoral work), the book still conveys the best science known about these mysterious and wonderful bodies, including the main process by which some of them evolve into dormant asteroids.


== And Now…Some Science Potpourri ==

Our Interstellar cousins?  Researchers have found two promising stars, called HIP 87382 and HIP 47399, that had the same metal content and were at the same evolutionary stage as the sun, with similar galactic radial velocities, suggesting that they just might have been formed in the same nursery cloud, over four billion years ago.  If so, the idea is that perhaps planets in that cloud cross-fed each other life (due to meteoroid impacts). Possible places to find cousins and compare genealogies in a Galactic 23&Me?  I’m a bit dubious. That is sixteen galactic rotations ago!  A lot of time for smearing.  Still… kind of a cool notion to mull over.

George Dvorsky writes – perhaps a bit too optimistically – about how the project to disassemble Mercury into a Dyson Shell of orbiting solar collectors might be do-able within the lifespan of some kid alive today.

A mushroom that can eat plastic! Even at the airless bottom of landfills! cool stuff.

The Nikon Small World competition offers startling, beautiful and fascinating glimpses of the sub-microscopic world.

Printable robots?  Or… robots making robots?  As in Stargate?

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