Afternoon InquisitionScience

AI: Asteroid Mining?

The billionaire-backed Planetary Resources, Inc. announced Tuesday (April 24) that it hopes to mine near-Earth asteroids for water and precious metals, with the dual aims of making a tidy profit and helping open the final frontier to further exploration and exploitation. The plan involves sending "a swarm" of 20-pound satellites, at a cost of as much as $5 million apiece, 500 miles from Earth in search of potential platinum-rich asteroids.

Asteroid mining looks to be a multidecade effort, requiring billions of investment dollars. But Planetary Resources has that covered, at least in part, as Google Inc. Chief Executive Larry Page and Chairman Eric Schmidt are two of the high-profile backers, along with filmmaker James Cameron, each of whom is worth several billion dollars.

Some experts think the metals could drive down the prices of many consumer goods here on Earth, while the water has the potential to revolutionize space transportation.

What do you think? Is this a viable venture? A good investment opportunity? Simply a diversion for billionaires? Who will benefit? Will anyone benefit? Are they secretly looking for unobtainium? What if they find one of those big lizard aliens from the movie Alien?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3pm ET.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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  1. Asteriod mining seems the logical next step into space. As much as I would like to  colonize Mars and some of the outer moons, asteriods seem to be easier and more econimical targets. There's a vast amount of resources out there, an given patience, relatively cheap to direct/transport. I expect during my lifetime (I'm in my mid-20s) to have asteriod mining/colonization to be a common occurance.
    From there to the stars!

  2. I have a really hard time imagining that this will end up profitable. But it will probably renew interest in space exploration and astronomy in general and there are certainly much worse ways for billionaires to spend their money, so on the whole, I suppose I'm for it.

    1. Well I used to be part of SEDS (Students for Exploration & Development of Space) and I've met the guys behind this many times (back in 2005-2006).
      One thing I have to say about them is that they are absolute megalomaniacs and have lots of ideas that don't often pan out haha.  They've started up many such ventures which have fallen on their face, but their successes have included Zero G Corp (the private vomit comet) and the famous X-Prize which has spawned hundreds of other X-Prize competition.
      So what I expect out of this having met these guys is frankly failure, but also some tertiary success in like robotic automation in low earth orbit or something.  We'll see what Mr. Peter the dreamer (Peter Diamandis) can pull off here.

  3. In looking at the steps they want to take, it strikes me that it may well be entirely doable — and at a profit.  One of the steps they are looking to do is create caches of volitiles – like water.  That sort of thing could be sold to other private enterprises or to government endevors like NASA.  Never mind bringing the materials back to Earth.
    So, yeah.  They can do it.  It's possible.

  4. If Gerard K. O'Neill were still alive, he'd be wondering why it has taken so long for people to realize that this is totally doable. The plan to cache volatiles (water, gasses, hydrocarbon ices, etc.) that can used for life support and as propellant  is brilliant. (Much of the periodic table is Rare and valuable on Earth; but in deep space Oxygen and Hydrogen in your tanks is priceless… for humans.)
    I want to know how to buy into this company. I don't have loads to invest, but I'd rather take a chance on this foreward looking company than any other capitalist enterprise that comes to mind. When Starbuck's tries to open a shop on Ceres or Vesta, they may be trying to sell to the miners of Planetary Resources.

  5. As an exploration geologist, I'm incredibly excited by this! I realise it's probably too late for me to ever get to space (unless I win the lottery) but I'm delighted by renewed interest in space exploration. I really hope they succeed.

  6. I think this is a good investment, by far.
    Learning to use off-planet resources can be a real game changer in spaceflight.
    I think we as a species can benifit from this, if successful.
    I just hope that we don't forget about moon mining. The moon has lots of water at the poles. We should tap that resource. And given that asteroids struck the moon in the first place, we ought to be able to find metals there too.
    I say fair winds and following seas to Planetary Resources!

  7. As long as they don’t mine Io and give illegal stimulants to the miners everything should be just fine.

    1. Well ya, that might create violence, but meh, if the violence gets out of hand, we can always create some sort of tournament to stem the violence.

  8. I love the concept.  This could very well be one of the biggest steps forward for human spaceflight since the 70s.  If they can mine water and allow us to launch vehicles from earth without needing to lug every bit of water and H2/O2 fuel up from the planet's surface, it totally revolutionizes how we can design spacecraft.  Not to mention it should be the first (tiny) step towards the eventual construction of spacecraft in orbit.

  9. Off topic, but when this post was in my Google Reader feed, there was an ad asking me to "Sign the petition to overturn Roe v. Wade" at the bottom of it. Yikes!

  10. I'd consider it a good investment for humanity. If we're going to do any expansion into space we need to get the resources there rather than out of Earth's deep gravity well.
    For living on Earth I can imagine it lowering the costs of satellite operations, but even when you cut the costs of lifting raw materials from Earth, bringing manufactured goods or raw materials from space to Earth might cost more than even forbiddingly expensive technologies like extracting gold from sea water.

  11. Well, I hope it works. I'll lay it out here:
    The good: there are lots of asteroids and such that come relatively close to Earth, and some are much less energetically expensive to get to than the Moon. A back of the envelope tells me that a metallic asteroid 500 meters across would yield all the iron we dig up in the US in a year, and if only 1 percent were copper that would equal about what Canada produces. There's also lots of asteroids full of volatiles, and even with the procesing you have to do, it's likely cheaper and easier to send a volatile-rich asteroid to Earth orbit than truck up water from the surface.
    The bad: we still don't have anything like mining technology that works in zero-G. Processing metals is not something we really know how to do in a vacuum yet. (Most mines need a lot of water and stuff to separate metal and crush rock, or depend on gravity to separate materials). That leaves sending big rocks to Earth. You could do that — it isn't like you have to bombard the planet with large enough chunks to make mile-wide craters — but that dies complicate the situation because then you need to cut them up into small pieces and find a way to slow them down, even if only by enough that they aren't screaming in at thousands of miles per hour.
    the ugly: return on investment for something like this is key. The baby steps the relevant billionaires propose are good, but investors will want their money. Many technologically interesting but financially untenable proposals for resource extraction have come and gone. (Remember mining manganese from the ocean floor?) This may be no different.
    THere isn't, I should stress, any real straight up technological reason any of this can't happen, but it will be very, very expensive. One key parameter is return relative to up-front cost and the time it takes. Even gigantic infrastructure projects like rail systems had a return, and it was usually during the construction process because you could make money at it. Selling telscope data to NASA isn't a bad idea but it isn't clear to me that will be enough.

  12. Something else that ocurred to me. Resource issues are one reason that asteroid mining could be a big benefit to humanity — lord knows mining on Earth is a big environmental problem. So if it works, there are lots of ancillary benefits.

  13. This is a lot harder then people think. The problem is getting anything into space is hideously expensive, and getting back is cheap but dangerous.
    They need to design machines that are light enough to get into orbit, can process raw asteroids into usable form, and can return that form to the Earth proper without burning up all the metal and/or creating a crater the size of Chicago. All of this is doable, but it's the kind of thing that requires a several billion dollar budget, and generally only works if a) the budgeter has a blanck checkbook (ie: they're the government) or b) several groups have already spent a couple billion of their own proving that a bunch of strategies that seemed feasible are incredibly stupid.
    So I'll wait to buy in until there's a couple groups with significant capital (as I said: $Billions), and then I'll buy small stakes in all of them.

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