A new venture backed by a bunch of billionaires has said it wants to mine asteroids, an enterprise which it asserted would “add trillions of dollars to the global GNP” and give new meaning to the phrase natural resources.
How the venture, called Planetary Resources, would select asteroids worth mining and bring them near enough to the earth to manage the job was left unclear. How to make money was left even less clear. More details should be revealed in a press event scheduled for tomorrow.
Among the founders and investors is: Peter Diamandis, who helped put together the X Prizes; Google’s chairman Larry Page; moviemaker James Cameron; and such well-known, well-heeled people as Ross Perot Jr.
In a video clip that ran on forbes.com, Diamandis said that mining the heavens was “critical” to the future of the world and that asteroids were “the lowest hanging fruit.” He opined that it would be “a lot simpler” than today’s multibillion-dollar efforts to drill for oil in the depths of ocean.
Each statement jacked this journalist’s eyebrows up a notch. By the end of the video, I’m sure that I looked like the guy in Edvard Munch’s painting, “The Scream.” But then I told myself that these guys can’t be joking—it’s the third week in April, not the first day—and they aren’t idiots, not by a long shot.
So I called Gregory Matloff, author of “Deflecting Asteroids,” featured in the current issue of IEEE Spectrum. Matloff is also not joking when he says the world must seriously prepare to capture and deflect asteroids whose orbits may one day cross that of the Earth. And he’s no lightweight, either: he teaches physics at New York City College of Technology, has consulted for the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, is a Fellow of the British interplanetary Society, a Hayden Associate at the American Museum of Natural History and a Corresponding Member of the International Academy of Astronautics.
Matloff favors any program that might further research and development of technologies for corralling space rocks. But he notes that research and development is one thing, and mining for profit is quite another.
“I don’t know what the economics of it is,” Matloff says. “The people who’ve talked about constructing solar satellites talk about the material that’s in these near-earth objects and the final product. But I don’t know of who’s worked out the stages in between!”
Asked to speculate a little, Matloff notes that if you have to divert rocks that might one day collide with the earth, you might as well put them into high earth orbit and mine them. It wouldn’t make sense to extract nickel or iron, he says, because those metals aren’t valuable enough to defray the cost of extraction and delivery. But if we should luck out and find a rock that just happens to be rich in platinum, palladium or some of the rare earths, matters might be different.
Of course, trusting to luck is no business plan.
“If I were going to mine asteroids,” he says, “I’d consider two things: solar-power satellites and sun blockers.
Solar-power satellites could be made of large, hyperthin sheets of photovoltaic material, “kilometers in their dimensions but just microns thick.” But, he notes, it’s debatable whether it’d be practical to build them with space resources.
Sun blockers could mitigate global warming. “It’s not impossible to take an asteroid apart and make a thin sail—you’d basically flatten out the rock,” he explains. “Then, if you put one at a gravitationally stable point between the earth and the sun—a LaGrange Point—it would tend to sit there, and if it’s 1,000 miles across it would cause a small diminution in sunlight. It’d look like a pimple on the face of the sun.”
But who would foot the bill for such a quest? That’s the billion-dollar question.
In 2010, President Obama announced that by 2025 the United States would send a space mission to an asteroid and perform experiments. Maybe Planetary Resources wants to bid on some of the associated contracts. Also, any company that talked of grabbing asteroids might want to start out with smaller game and grab some space junk for disposal. There might be a bit of money in the budget for that sort of thing, too.
And the backers are billionaires, mostly. They don’t need ways to make money, they need ways to spend it. Maybe rockets are the new yachts.
Image credit: Science Photo Library
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.