A group of wealthy advertising and software kingpins have allied themselves with celebrity auteur James Cameron and prominent "new space" business figures to launch a business focused on mining asteroids for precious resources.
As is common with Silicon Valley new-tech business launches, hypegasm media management techniques are in force. Last week news outlets around the globe were informed of a press briefing set to be released online later today, and now phase two - tailored, carefully managed releases to selected channels and publications ahead of the scheduled brief - is underway. And yes, as had been widely expected, Cameron and his collaborators are planning to mine asteroids. There are now enough details available to take a look at what will actually happen.
Alongside Cameron at the new venture we find advertising billionaires Larry Page and Eric Schmidt of Google renown, former Microsoft bigshot Charles Simonyi - also known for having made two trips to the International Space Station as a paying tourist - and Eric Anderson, who arranged Simonyi's and other tickets for wealthy thrillseekers aboard Russian rockets as founder of the space-tourism firm Space Adventures. Also speaking for the new venture, Planetary Resources, is spacebiz visionary Peter Diamandis, well-known for his efforts in setting up the X-Prize Foundation and other space-boosting efforts such as the International Space University.
“We have a long track record of making large-scale space ventures real,”* Diamandis tells Wired magazine - predictably one of the chosen outlets to receive advance briefing ahead of today's announcement.
There are also some real space technology experts on board, however: former astronaut Tom Jones, former NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer Chris Lewicki, and planetary scientist Sara Seager are all advisers. Jones and Lewicki, in fact, helped to produce a recent NASA study on asteroid mining, which would seem likely to offer a window into Planetary Resources' aspirations.
In rough outline, the plan is not to head out in science-fiction style to the Asteroid Belt proper. The human race won't be sending miners out beyond Mars any time soon.
Rather, the scheme would be to identify a so-called Near Earth Object (NEO) space rock orbiting much closer to home, that wouldn't be as hard to reach or to bring stuff back from. The NASA study suggests that a robot ship of a size suitable for launch on a normal, workhorse Atlas V rocket could travel out to a practicably sized (7m long, perhaps 500-tonne-mass) rock and bring the entire thing into a handy orbit around the Moon. The robot capture craft would use solar-electrically powered, highly efficient Hall thrusters and would take perhaps two to six years to carry out its task at an estimated cost of $2.6bn.
Some asteroids are believed to be rich in valuable metals such as the platinum group. Platinum itself is trading at around $50,000 per kilo, so theoretically one would only need to produce 50 or 60 tonnes of metal to cover the costs of an asteroid capture.
Unfortunately the asteroid envisaged in the NASA study would need to be better than 10 per cent valuable metals to deliver such a yield, which seems highly unlikely: and we haven't even factored in the costs of refining and of transporting ore, metals, equipment etc between Earth and lunar orbit.
Planetary Resources' only firmish plans start with sending up specially designed lightweight space telescopes to survey NEOs for promising mineral deposits. Promising rocks might then be surveyed more closely using the trendy-at-the-moment concept of "swarm" spacecraft, groups of small machines linked by wireless communications which could perhaps do the work of much larger and more expensive integrated platforms. Beyond that, Planetary Resources offer some vague videos suggesting robot crawler mining of some kind.
It would probably be a lot more practical initially to simply drop entire massive space boulders down the gravity well into Earth's atmosphere, and do the refining etc here on the surface as usual: but getting permission to do that might be a bit of a problem. Certainly anywhere remote enough that nobody would mind a massive meteor impact would also seem to be somewhere pretty difficult to access - and thus the new platinum deposit from space might remain uneconomic despite its long and expensive journey. And the world's governments would no doubt look askance at a private venture deploying what would potentially be a weapon more powerful than a hydrogen bomb, if aimed at populated areas.
Another plan of the new firm is the oft-touted notion of mining not metals but water. There would be little point trying to sell water produced from icy asteroids on Earth, but water is potentially very valuable in space. Astronauts' drinking water costs so much to ship up from Earth that the crew of the International Space Station, famously, must drink their own recycled urine: but in fact that's the least of it. Water can also be cracked using electrical power to produce breathing oxygen: or the oxygen and hydrogen from cracking water can be used as oxidiser and rocket fuel. Several tonnes of rocket fuel have to be shipped up to the ISS every year at vast expense to maintain it in orbit, and when a present-day multimillion dollar satellite runs low on manoeuvring fuel its useful life is at an end.
So the potential is perhaps there to haul in water-bearing asteroids rather than metallic ones, and turn a profit relatively soon refuelling spacecraft in Earth orbit. The existence of such a refuelling/water/oxygen supply high up the gravity well would make the mounting of missions into deep space hugely cheaper and easier, as well as greatly improving the economics of operations within Earth-Moon space.
Overall, then, ice mining seems probably more practical and attractive than metals. But it calls for a lot of infrastructure which simply isn't there yet: there have been some experiments with in-space refuelling but nobody has found it an alluring enough prospect to put into use.
All in all, Planetary Resources don't really seem to be bringing anything very new to the table: their ideas have been around for a long time, nothing in the way of actual new technology is on offer, and only a modicum of genuine space-tech expertise. The main strengths of Diamandis, Anderson and the company's other celebrity backers lie really in promotion and hype rather than space hardware or resource mining. Certainly the way they're handling the launch announcement bears all the hallmarks of Silicon Valley puffery with little in the way of big money or real major new technology behind it.
Perhaps that's what's actually needed: the late great Robert Heinlein suggested as much back in 1950 in his book The Man Who Sold the Moon, in which a huckstering, hypestering businessman manages to get boots onto the lunar surface by hook and occasionally by crook - and a huge space-based industry then springs into existence within his lifetime.
But in fact the US government put men on the Moon for real in 1969: and then ... nothing happened. Even if the sheer force of the Planetary Resources' founding personalities somehow manages to marshal colossal funds in the many billions and achieve what nobody has so far, it's far from clear that this will really bootstrap the human race into serious space expansion at last.
Still, it's nice to see James Cameron taking a more positive view of resources exploitation in space**. And one can always hope. ®
*The X-Prize is generally held to have advanced the cause of private sector space endeavour as it led to the development of the SpaceShipOne rocketplane, which can technically reach space but is incapable of staying there for any sustained period - it cannot achieve orbit. Beardy Brit biz kingpin Richard Branson is hoping to offer suborbital zero-G thrillrides aboard SpaceShipTwo craft developed from the SpaceShipOne design. The first passengers were supposed to fly in 2007, but they're still waiting and probably will be for a long time. SpaceShipTwo has yet to make a test flight under power - the first craft doesn't even have its engine fitted yet. Powered tests could take place this year, maybe.
Space Adventures actually did put its customers into space for real, but arguably it was the Russian space agency rather than Anderson and his company who achieved that reality.
**If Planetary Resources grows and thrives, it might one day become a mining company of the kind depicted in Avatar, evilly plundering the moon Pandora for unobtanium while despoiling the tranquil habitat of the blue pigtail-brainplug dragonriding natives.