Space firm about to make a big announcement. I take a stab at what it is.

By Phil Plait | April 18, 2012 3:26 pm

I’m overwhelmed with work right now prepping for a half dozen different things, but I had to make some comment on a press release I just got in the mail.

Here’s the important bit [emphasis mine]:

Join visionary Peter H. Diamandis, M.D.; leading commercial space entrepreneur Eric Anderson; former NASA Mars mission manager Chris Lewicki; and planetary scientist & veteran NASA astronaut Tom Jones, Ph.D. on Tuesday, April 24 at 10:30 a.m. PDT in Seattle, or via webcast, as they unveil a new space venture with a mission to help ensure humanity’s prosperity.

Supported by an impressive investor and advisor group, including Google’s Larry Page & Eric Schmidt, Ph.D.; film maker & explorer James Cameron; Chairman of Intentional Software Corporation and Microsoft’s former Chief Software Architect Charles Simonyi, Ph.D.; Founder of Sherpalo and Google Board of Directors founding member K. Ram Shriram; and Chairman of Hillwood and The Perot Group Ross Perot, Jr., the company will overlay two critical sectors – space exploration and natural resources – to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP. This innovative start-up will create a new industry and a new definition of ‘natural resources’.

Well now, what could that mean? What natural resources are there in space? Solar energy might count, but I have a strong suspicion what they’re really talking about is asteroid mining.

Yes, you heard me. Let me be VERY clear: I’m speculating here. I have no more info on this than what I’ve quoted there, but it fits what the release says. Peter Diamandis is a big thinker, to put it mildly. His Wikipedia page should give you a taste of that. Asteroid mining is big enough for him to be interested in it! And heck, he said as much in his TED talk.

The engineering behind it would be fearsome. We’re a ways out from being able to do this, but if we had a big rocket — say SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy (though I don’t see any SpaceX folks listed in the release) — then getting an operation to a near-Earth asteroid is feasible. Even a rocky asteroid would have metals in it, and we can pick in advance one that has a higher abundance of metals. And like I said in my TED talk, we can move asteroids around if we’re patient.

If I were being optimistic, I might say something like this could get off the ground in 20 years or so, depending on several variables, and maybe sooner. Let me be frank: I don’t think this is a crazy idea.

This’ll take a lot of money… but he seems to have some fairly wealthy people — billionaires, and more than one — affiliated with this. So whatever idea he’s got, he’s being backed very seriously for it.

I have lots of other thoughts on this, but I think I’ll hold them back for now due to lack of info. The press release says the group is planning on making the announcement on Tuesday, April 24 at 10:30 a.m. PDT. It’ll be webcast, and I’ll post more info when I get it.

[UPDATE: Heh. MIT’s Technology Review came to the same conclusion.]

Image credit: ESA 2010 MPS for OSIRIS Team. MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

 

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Space, Top Post

Comments (101)

  1. Chris Rademacher

    Would the benefits outweigh the costs?

    What types of metals could they find on asteroids that aren’t readily feasible on the surface?

  2. Tara Li

    If this is an asteroid capture & mining venture – YAY!

    I *still* think starting with a lunar base would be better, for several reasons – but take a rock, park it in orbit, and hollow it out – and once done extracting most of the resources, it’s *STILL* a much nicer, larger base than we’ve ever had before in space!

  3. Wzrd1

    I’m dubious about it taking anywhere near 20 years to accomplish, if that is what is being backed.
    We’ve had the technology to reach and even land on asteroids. In an ideal situation, the mineral extraction from the ore could be done either on the asteroid or in Earth orbit.
    That would be the prime technology obstacle. Breaking rock and transporting ore aren’t the most complicated things to do.
    As you said, with patience and some skill, asteroids could be moved into Earth orbit, then sent on their merry way after being depleted of ore of interest.

  4. Grand Lunar

    If it is asteroid mining, I’d have to ask this; why not moon mining?

    Sure it’s a deeper gravity well, but I say accessibility outweights that factor and makes it worth the effort.

    Also, the moon would provide good practice for asteroid mining, IMO.

  5. Gregory Ruderman

    With that kind of backing and resources, it is clear that asteroid mining is only a cover for becoming supervillians, holding the nations of the Earth hostage for trillions of dollars, lest they get rocks dropped on their capital cities at meteoric speeds.

    My only questions: Where do I sign up, and what is their benefits package? ;-)

    But seriously, given the number of metal-rich near-earth asteroids and pseudomoons we seem to have, it’s a wonder no one has announced this before. Don’t even have to work out the difficulties of extracting the materials in space–just put a guidance package and/or aeroshell on big rocks, get clearance to drop the in the Outback or the Sahara, go pick it up, and extract the iron, nickel, gold, iridium, etc etc etc

  6. Titan

    Very interesting. Between this and SpaceX COTS 2/3 on April 30th I think we have plenty to look forward to.

  7. John Thomas

    There are two paths into the future. Ever increasing resource efficiency and re-use as resources within practical reach in the earth’s crust run out. Or what Phil thinks the press release is about and ultimately unlimited resources.

    If he’s right, it’s a very bold venture. But James Cameron has just become the third person to travel to the bottom of the ocean, having had his own craft developed in complete secrecy over 8 years. So it wouldn’t be surprising if he was involved in a new surprising venture…

  8. Derelicte

    Very exciting news. I’m glad that so many high profile people are interested in exploration and our future!

  9. Tom Murphy writes a blog called “Do the Math.” In a post titled “Stranded Rescources,” (http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/10/stranded-resources/) there is a section on “Grab that asteroid.” After analyzing the energy requirements of inserting an asteroid into Earth orbit. Murphy concludes, “It looks to me as if the resources of space are effectively stranded in place. I have stayed away from the commercial aspects of the problem. If the energetics don’t work, economics can do nothing to save it.”

  10. You know there are no authomated mines on Earth, do you? Guess why & extrapolate. ;)

  11. Jim

    #4 – lunar regolith has a pretty low abundance of anything useful. It’s mostly oxygen and silicon, both of which we have plenty of groundside. If you’re building a moon colony, fine; the stuff’s already there so you might as well make use of it. Otherwise, it’s probably not worth the effort. A single metallic asteroid, by contrast, has a lot of useful industrial metals in huge quantities.

  12. dcwarrior

    #1 – it’s not that minerals are not “feasible” to find on the surface, it’s that if you project continued economic growth worldwide, at some point we will deplete our resources to the point where things just get more and more expensive. But if we wait too long, we won’t have the resources to tap the essentially unlimited resources in space.

  13. Chris

    @1 Chris Rademacher

    Any metal you can find on as asteroid you can find on earth. There is no unobtanium as far as we know! One big benefit is that we wouldn’t have to strip mine the earth to get these metals. Also a lot of denser metals have sunk to the earth’s core making them fairly rare on the surface. For instance iridium is 0.4 ppb in the earth’s crust and 54,000 ppb in meteorites. Gold is 3.1 ppb on Earth and 1700 ppb in meteorites. So there is quite a bit to potentially find.

    A quick calculation on a 100 m radius asteroid could potentially get nearly a billion dollars in gold alone at today’s prices.

  14. Emma

    The upshot of space mining is that there’s no local wildlife that you might accidentally screw up, no EPA to complain about the chemicals or equipment you’re using, and no human populations that might be displaced in order for you to dig into the ground.

    And as far as the moon goes, I think that’s already been designated as officially neutral “land”, so I don’t even know if there could be moon property rights – although, even if there weren’t, if you were the first person to have the equipment to mine it for whatever, what’s preventing you from doing it? (And I bet sooner or later we’ll see a megacorporation doing something with the moon on the basis of “Well, who’s going to stop us, the Moon Police? If we *do* get in trouble, we’ll still be hailed as pioneers, and by then we’ll be so rich it doesn’t matter how much they fine us.”)

  15. Nosey nosey Plait. Lol <3

  16. 'neathCobaltSkies

    Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne is up for sale.
    http://www.dailynews.com/ci_20186019/pratt-whitney-rocketdyne-canoga-park-up-sale

    Maybe (speculating here) this is the buyer.

  17. Ken

    “emphasis mine”

    Ho, ho. Very droll, sir.

  18. Michael Simmons

    I’d be looking for Lithium.
    Lithium to make electric car batteries.

  19. Roberto Maurizzi

    Diverting one of the recently announced “temporary moons” to a sensible orbit and then mine it, maybe even transforming it into a space colony of decent size (that could very easily get at least some special political status, if not outright independence).
    As someone else said, where do I sign up? ;-)

  20. jon

    When someone tries to change an asteroid’s orbit for the first time and put it in an orbit of Earth, be prepared for a lot of strident panic demanding assurance the thing won’t hit us, instead.

    While I’d like to imagine someone building an infratructure of crewed vehicles prospecting and mining in space, I wonder how far robotics might take you? For example, suppose you found a tiny NEO with a a lot of a Really Valuable Mineral just beneath the surface, or on the surface. Could you turn a profit by sending a robot that could mine and return to Earth a relatively small amount of that mineral?

  21. Wzrd1

    Let’s review minerals known to be on asteroids.
    Gold, platinum, iridium, paladium, iron and nickel.
    OK, we have loads of iron and nickel. Not so much for the others though.
    It WOULD be cool if one were found that was chock full of rare earth elements. Those alone would make mining feasible.

    @7, Bill Bones, mining isn’t automated to a high degree on Earth due to gravity. In a microgravity environment, automation IS the way to go.
    Though, the thought of a human attempting to use terrestrial mining equipment and techniques in microgravity IS humorous!

  22. To Infinity and Beyond

    Stupid question : Do you think this project could include a space elevator ?

  23. MadScientist

    Mining asteroids? How do you market the world’s most expensive iron and nickel? Looking at the resource bottlenecks, those aren’t the metals we’re desperately in need of and as far as resources go, oil is a bigger concern than the metals.

    I think Grand Lunar’s got it right – the moon would be easier to mine. Just think – all those impacts on the far side and no recent planetary processes to bury the meteorites. I wonder if the chondrites are more bountiful than the metallic meteorites? However, mining the moon would still provide the world’s most expensive iron and nickel.

  24. A differentiated body has its siderophile metals segregated with iron in its core. Earth’s crustal valuable heavy metals are largely meteoric additions late in the game. Though a concentrating solar mirror for smelting at asteroid distance is not optimistic, obtaining heavy metal concentrates is reasonable. They would need be worth their weight of gold for transportation costs. Widmanstätten pattern etched wafers (interwoven bands of kamacite and taenite) to panel a room could go for that price. (Given rust, polish should contain oleoyl sarcosine or other surface-protective agent.)

    Very large lunar optical telescopes are interesting for clear viewing and local weight vs. area. Lunar smelting and component fabrication would degrade lunar hard vacuum. Sacrifice vacuum, get a really nice launch pad for everything (and time-share vacation condos). The large fraction of glass microballs in lunar dust will be a nightmare for hard and soft compression seals and any moving joints or sliding surfaces. Ziplock bags in glove boxes sound clever until used for a dry fine powder. One looks forward to Homeland Severity confiscating returning lunar regolith to keep terrestrial prices high.

  25. Brian Too

    Everything about mining & smelting is heavy and uses lots of energy. Getting heavy things into space is difficult and energy availability is a problem. Then too, the only current customers are on Earth, so you have to return your material to the surface. In bulk.

    Not that these cannot all be addressed. It’s just that I suppose the early efforts at space mining are going to cost a lot and sink some companies.

    If these people are willing to try, good luck and godspeed to them.

  26. artbot

    Honestly, the whole mining theory seems a little far-fetched. Not in terms of practicality, but in terms of return on investment. Unless we had already discovered an asteroid made of solid & priceless unobtanium, it’s just nowhere near cost effective to mine asteroids.

    It’s probably something simpler like capturing an asteroid. Mining it would be another whole level of difficulty that could be tackled later. But a working capture system could be used for both future mining and collision avoidance.

  27. Chris

    I think when people are saying this will be ridiculously costly, I think they may be thinking in terms of sending actual people up there to do the mining. But it seems more likely they’ll send some robot to land, extract the minerals and send them back to earth. I could see a mission like this costing maybe a few billion dollars, but once the R&D is finished it shouldn’t be too expensive.

  28. Steve Metzler

    I thought the ‘next big thing’ was an idea to mine the Moon for Helium 3, an abundant, relatively clean reactor fuel – though commercial viability of said reactors is admittedly a few decades away.

    Whatever happened to that idea, or is it still feasible/desirable?

  29. Wzrd1

    Some posting here forget, there are quite a few asteroids that have more gold and platinum than has ever been mined on Earth.
    Other than pure monetary value as bullion, these are used in industry quite a bit.

  30. K

    Bah, more talk yet no action. Wake me when there’s something on the launchpad.

  31. Chris

    @31 Steve

    I think mining the moon for He-3 is basically still the only way to go. On Earth commercial He-3 actually comes from our nuclear weapons. Tritium (heavy heavy hydrogen with two neutrons and one proton) has a half-life of 12.6 years and decays to He-3. Sadly this particular isotope is becoming rarer since no one is making hydrogen bombs anymore. One of the downsides to ending the cold war. But as you said since there is no fusion reactor which has reached the breakeven point and it seems like they’ll always be a decade away, I don’t foresee a new gold rush anytime soon.

  32. gameshowhost

    I’ll bet their pro forma is comical.

  33. Chris

    Sounds interesting. I hope they don’t screw up and send the astroid in an earthbound trajectory.

  34. Ken C

    The right rock(s), made of the right stuff, could absolutely be worth it – lunar or asteroid. It’s all about good prospecting. Still, trillions of dollars in the hands of the hyper-wealthy, not really about planetary resources unless there’s a program to – gasp! – distribute and manage the proceeds. Either way, it’s the kind of good hard workout our species needs.
    Let’s do it!
    (Whatever it is.)

  35. Andy Clayman

    Back in 1997, Jim Benson started up a company SpaceDev to get asteroid prospecting off the ground which I invested a few hundred dollars in. Ultimately, he was not able to get that project going; however, they did wind up making the hybrid rocket engine for Spaceship One, so I feel like my money did go to something useful to advance the cause of space exploration. I hope this new venture goes somewhere. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SpaceDev

  36. travis

    Carl Sagan spoke of this quite emphatically in Pale Blue Moon

  37. Dave

    1. Launch a swarm of cheap little rovers at the same meteor with antennae that behave as a collective.
    2. All the rovers have electro-magnets for wheels/feet (iron! yes!)
    3. Half of them drill, the other half “scoop”. Maybe a third set to carry solar panels and extra batteries and recharge the workers as they lose power.
    4. Fill up all the scoopers with ore, top off their batteries one last time, and send them back home.
    5. ???
    6. Hopefully break even.

  38. Glidingpig

    This is, I think, perhaps unlike Phil thinks, a long way away. The logistics of getting a asteroid into orbit and actually getting anything off it are, at least 50-100-never, years away. I hate to crap on the parade, but think of the liability, that rock you tried to get in orbit, just rained down on a city or 2.

    Also, just the engineering of getting anything off a rock out there, not including getting to it in the first place.

    But Phil, I still love ya, your posts are are a light I love to see.

  39. How much energy to do round trips of thousands of tons of minerals ? Sounds like the main problem. If you send a swarm of robots, you can reduce the initial launch cost. If the robots can build other robots from the materials they mine, you can reduce the initial launch cost a lot. Using something like this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interplanetary_Transport_Network can mitigate the cost, but then you can wait for fifty years for a delivery ^^

    Swarming robots with things like self-repairing and proper locomotion for very low gravity, well, it’s under development, but far from ready. Robots making other robots just out of raw materials and say, energy from Sun or a nuclear reactor, it’s doable but far-fetched science fiction, for now ^^

  40. Infinite123Lifer

    Does anyone have any information on attending this event?

    I did a little searching here and other places (googs) but couldn’t find anything. Phil, I noticed you said you would post more info when you got it, much appreciated as always. This might be the kind of thing worth taking my Son out of school for :)

    “Sadly this particular isotope is becoming rarer since no one is making hydrogen bombs anymore. One of the downsides to ending the cold war.”

    Sheesh Chris, hope you don’t think a lack of hydrogen bombs is cumulatively negative. :) I mean, I love me some rare isotope too but H-bombs are kind of a high cost to pay IMO.

  41. OtherRob

    If I were being optimistic, I might say something like this could get off the ground in 20 years or so, depending on several variables, and maybe sooner.

    I just hope that in 2032 we’re not sitting around saying, “I really wish someone had started mining asteroids twenty years ago…”

  42. Space cycle

    They could be gathering space “junk” that contains already mined metals and recycling them. I think that would be the most economical way to get raw materials. A giant magnetic vacuum might help. ;-)

  43. Wil

    Mining in space for any material what-so-ever, is financially like going out your way to pay $875,000 for a $2 loaf of bread.

    If we are going to seriously discuss something like this, then I also want to discuss my time machine that lets me go way back in time and play beach volleyball with a talking T Rex.

    Both topics are equally serious.

  44. ASFalcon13

    @#14 Chris

    “A quick calculation on a 100 m radius asteroid could potentially get nearly a billion dollars in gold alone at today’s prices.”

    At the moment, gold is worth 1,642.00 per pound, according to http://www.monex.com/liveprices. This means that one billion dollars in gold would be roughly 609,000 pounds of gold…considering the Apollo missions brought back 841.6 pounds of lunar rock, and that subsequent robotic sample return missions have brought back samples measuring no more than a few ounces at best, that’s roughly 760 times the amount of material than we’ve ever returned from space over all sample return missions combined. Considering this, the likelihood that such an endeavour could be achieved for anything under one billion dollars anytime soon means that it’s a losing proposition at best…negative profit doesn’t breed commerce.

    Any attempt at space mining has to give a better profit – in other words, total value of the amount mined minus the cost paid to obtain it – than just buying it on the open market.

  45. Simone

    I think, since James Cameron is attached to the project, and he recently has been developing a 3d camera for mars… that this may, in fact, be a mars mission. At least I hope. I think the technology gap is too great for asteroid mining right now… mars though? Yeah. definitely attainable from a private group.

  46. Other Paul

    Won’t somebody think of the Horta?

  47. catfrog

    mining asteroids can be very profitable, if you can find a way to mine oxygen and use it as a fuel it would be feasible to only have to pay for one trip out of ten, leaving reusable rockets up there that perpetuate themselves with the fuel they find.

    also, whoever started right now would have a monopoly on heavy metals in space, sure we could bring metals from earth to orbit, but thats very expensive itself.

    not to mention that rare earth metals are getting more expensive every day as more and more devices require them. those rare earth metals are in abundance in many asteroids, this could be a very profitable venture, and if its not profitable directly from mining, it could be profitable from all the research that will have to be done to make this a reality. asteroid mining will have to be a reality for us soon, and whoever goes first will have many of the most useful patents that make it possible. not to mention the applications of much of whats needed wont be strictly for spaceflight, velcro for instance was developed for spaceflight, but today is used in many consumer products.

  48. Darren Evans

    Wouldn’t getting the mined ore back down into the gravity well of Earth in suitably profitable sizes be just as energy-intensive and problematic as getting similar mass objects up out of the gravity well?

    You could of course get a big chunk and just let it drop to Earth’s surface but how big would it have to be to have a decent sized, cost-effective chunk left to pick up and sell once it’s landed? I suspect there’d need to be some form of parachute-based method to get the chunks down to Earth from orbit?

  49. Tim

    Looks worthwhile to me, especially given inflation since 1986

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%286178%29_1986_DA
    Asteroid 1986 DA achieved its most notable recognition when scientists revealed that it contained over “10,000 tons of gold and 100,000 tons of platinum”, or an approximate value at the time of its discovery of “$90 billion for the gold and a cool trillion dollars for the platinum, plus loose change for the asteroid’s 10 billion tons of iron and a billion tons of nickel.”

  50. Tim

    The idea seems to me to be very expensive and a process of diminishing returns. Should you mine, say, a LOT of Gold out of an asteroid you might make a profit the first time but as Gold is now far less scarce (having just brought a load of it to Earth) it’s not as valuable and thus you make less money for the same amount the next time.

    It seems to me that it would only be viable when getting the means to mine an asteroid in to orbit becomes much, much cheaper. Someone above mentioned a space lift/elevator. Such a thing would make cost to orbit much less but only once the space lift/elevator had been paid for.

    Either this is nothing to do with asteroid mining or they have some very crazy ideas about how to make this profitable. Either way, I hope the announcement lives up to the inevitable hype. I am genuinely excited about this :)

  51. Nigel Depledge

    Michael Simmons (19) said:

    I’d be looking for Lithium.
    Lithium to make electric car batteries.

    More worthwhile, I think, would be platinum and palladium to make the electrodes for hydrogen fuel cells.

  52. flip

    If someone’s already said this, my apologies…

    Google Earth
    Google Moon

    Google Asteroid!

    :)

    This sounds exciting, if Phil is right.

  53. puppygod

    The idea seems to me to be very expensive and a process of diminishing returns. Should you mine, say, a LOT of Gold out of an asteroid you might make a profit the first time but as Gold is now far less scarce (having just brought a load of it to Earth) it’s not as valuable and thus you make less money for the same amount the next time.

    That might not be so straight case as it seems. Cheap gold might be incentive to use it for purposes that are presently too cost-prohibitive (say, as replacement for copper wires in electronic applications), thus driving demand way up. And if you have monopoly for providing enough gold to fulfill that demand, and if your technology scales well for relatively cheap bulk extraction and transport… Sure, there are a lot of “ifs”, but it might be economically feasible in the long run.

  54. KAE

    “Sapphire Mr. Kemp, Sapphire. 6000 tons of the gemstone sapphire. That’s what’s so special about this asteroid.”
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0064691/

  55. Col

    If they are planning to mine asteroids, why does it necessarily have to be in order to return the raw products to Earth? Much more sensible to keep them up there and use them to bootstrap a proper space manufacturing industry. Build proper spacecraft, habitats, whatever. Maybe drop finished products (or parts thereof) to the surface.

  56. Tim

    #52. puppygod –

    Good point! I hadn’t considered that and I’m sure there are lots of things I haven’t considered too. I just hope this doesn’t turn out to be another Segway announcement (if anyone remembers that, “what is it”?).

    Fingers are crossed that we’re not disappointed in the end. Too cynical maybe?

  57. NFQ

    Heh. In Google reader, this post cut off with “What natural resources are there…” and then there was an ad for some kind of anti-aging treatment that showed an old woman apparently peeling off the skin on her face to show a younger face underneath. I thought it was an image in the post at first, and this was an expedition to harvest … face skin … or something … eurgh.

  58. Jason

    Asteroid mining? I don’t think so. A bunch of billionaires and a movie juggernaut can only mean one thing: Space porn. This will be followed by the first midget and a donkey in space. It’s a good time to be alive people…it’s a good time to be alive.

  59. Nigel Depledge

    MadScientist (26) said:

    However, mining the moon would still provide the world’s most expensive iron and nickel.

    Erm . . . you’d probably get more for less investment by purifying metals from seawater. The moon’s crust is very poor in metals such as iron and nickel.

  60. Steve D

    Gregory Ruderman: “get clearance to drop the in the Outback or the Sahara..”

    Not quite. The impact would blast the asteroid to dust, vastly complicating the recovery process. Then you’d have flying ejecta, atmospheric dust, and a host of environmental problems. In fact, even if we recover the metals in space, getting them economically and safely to the surface will be a real problem. Picture the Edmund Fitzgerald coming in at 18,000 mph.

    Also, thanks to water and plate tectonics, earth has lots of metals we will not expect to find in easily recoverable form in space. Lithium for starters. Almost all our surface ores depend on water in some fashion for their formation. Asteroids may be richer in the siderophile elements (Fe, Ni, Pt, Pd, etc) but it won’t be your grampaw’s pick and shovel mining.

  61. John

    Unless they are planning to just orbit/de-orbit asteroids, or parts of them – they would need incredibly large return capsules, which will still have deal with an incredible amount of inertia and potential energy re-entering the atmosphere.

    This is before you think of the incredible amount of energy required to make precision movements into a parking orbit…

    Until we have ships that have the ability to refine metal ore on them, build parts, and then go somewhere else… this seems like an unworkable idea.

  62. See you up there, Gentlemen.
    Let’s light this candle and good luck.

  63. Chris

    @56 John

    Why need a return capsule, just have your gold core, put the iron on the outside as heat shielding and have it crash into the pacific. Send a boat to haul it up from the sea floor. Although I’m sure I’m missing some energy and inertia calculations here which wold make that kind of unworkable.

  64. Mike Saunders

    The amount of joules you need to move something with so much mass would be reallllly expensive…

  65. john

    @57 Chris – for aerodynamic control, and the ability course correct / land softly

    Otherwise “space mining” more closely resembles “orbital bombardment with kinetic weapons” (which might be why any research of this sort is getting traction.)

  66. davem

    T-Rex: “Megalosaurus has some news for us”.
    Megalosaurus: “Yes, we’ve finally perfected the asteroid capture rocket, and will divert an asteroid to Earth tomorrow morning. Despite local protests from the Ichthyosaurs, who are whining about it hitting them, we’re aiming for an empty region in the Yucatan. I don’t see what can possibly go wrong….”

  67. SkyGazer

    SO we gonna mine asteroids. We gonna bring stuff down to earth. Making earth bigger, heavier.
    *doing some mental math*
    At the end earth will have gained weight, more mass, and we all be crushed by her gravity.

  68. Jack

    Well, I guess it’s time to dust off the ol’ Rorqual for some mining ops.

  69. If it wasn’t for the word “space” being used there my money would have been on something closer to home.. ie. the deep ocean floor where Cameron has just returned from. Besides Cameron there’s the Google founders and they of course have Google Ocean. Along with the planetary scientist (doesn’t have to be a different planet does it?) and astronauts who probably have similar skill sets as would be required for deep ocean stuff anyway..

    For beneath the surface lies the future! (seaquest ;) )

    Its about time we colonized down there – plenty of space and resources to be had once the tricky issue of being crushed to a pulp is solved.

    Looking forward to hearing the full announcement next week anyway – should be exciting!

  70. eddie

    hey, MIT agreed with you (i see you already have that linked)…

    “new definition of ‘natural resources’.”

    if we are taking resources from asteroids, wouldn’t that technically be “supernatural resources”? although that term sounds much cooler than what i’m meaning here…

  71. Tom O'Reilly

    “An exciting life awaits you in the off-world colonies!”

  72. ChrisD

    Their long term goal must be either asteroid mining, but near term could be characterization. Astronaut Tom Jones is involved and he is very active with asteroid deflection. Asteroid mining could be viable if a space resources are used to make propellant, tools, and structures for the mining and earth return trip. A small but dedicated community of people have been thinking about this for a long time. The ASCE conference Earth and Space just concluded where many of these ideas were discussed. The next conference on the topic is in June, the Planetary and Terrestrial Mining Space Symposium/ Space Resources Roundtable in Golden Colorado this year. There are many NASA and private individuals work on the topic but much of it does not get press.

  73. Mike

    It’s mining the moon for helium-3. I could be killed for telling you that, just so you know.

  74. W Sanders

    “Picture the Edmund Fitzgerald coming in at 18,000 mph.”

    Not a problem. The space shuttle only crashed once on reentry, but we don’t care if a reentry vehicle with 10,000 kg of some $1000 an ounce metal crashes into the ocean at 300 MPH or whatever its terminal velocity would be. I mean, you don’t want to be under it. But hardly an insurmountable problem given the difficulty of getting there and extracting the goodies.

    But which asteroids have more than 10,000 kg of something expensive? Earth doesn’t need more iron or nickel ore as far as I know.

  75. Ross

    Has anyone considered that the plan may not be to bring the materials back to Earth’s surface, but use them in space? A big problem with space exploration and habitation is the expense of boosting the materials out of Earth’s gravity well. So, “live off the land” as it were, and use materials already up there.

  76. Nicholas

    I thought projections were around $5B or so for a space fountain using today’s technology. Wouldn’t they see a better RoI popping one of these up first if they’re expecting such a mining operation to be profitable? Seems far more realistic than shooting rocket after rocket at $10,000 per pound of mining equipment…

  77. Cairnos

    For Zods sake! All you people talking about whether they would make a return with what they could brign to earth have utterly missed the point. Anything, anything at all they can mine will instantly be worth thousand of dollars a kilo BECAUSE IT”S IN SPACE!

    Why are satellites expensive? Because you have to lift them into space!

    Why is the ISS a tad cramped? Because it costs so much to lift the modules into space!

    Look up some of the costs per kilo of getting any cargo into space using current capabilities, factor in the restriced launch capacity….now think of a habitat designer being able to say “Well we slapped a couple of extra feet of iron onto the entire outer surface because, you know, we’ve got about a million tons of the stuff just floating around right now.

    It would have to be an insanely valuable material to be worth enough to even consider sending it back to earth rather than just using it in space. Extract some gold while your mining iron? Bathroom fittings in your space station.

  78. Jacob

    If it is asteroid mining it’d probably be in earths lagrange points

  79. beer case

    Very interesting news! Reid Malenfant comes to mind.

  80. Ryan

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but couldn’t you just pile a bunch of really large chunks of ore on a extra large heat shield and take her into a shallow sea for retrieval?

    A lot of people seem to be thinking we’d be bringing material into the atmosphere at the speeds currently found naturally with asteroid and meteor hits, which tend to vaporize them or cause a rather big bang when they hit the surface.

    But wouldn’t you just need to use the planets gravity well to decelerate the payload and have it enter the atmosphere under reentry like speeds?

    Or is that not feasible at the speeds they are traveling?

    People have talked of capturing one in orbit, so I’d imagine it would work.

  81. @73 Jack: Yay, all that veldspar ain’t going to mine itself… ;)

    On topic:Dunno why, this kind of reminds me of the hpye previous the launch of Segway.

  82. Sure it might be asteroids rather than the Moon, but this guy could be our D. D. Harriman.

  83. Craig

    I’m not sure how good I feel about trying to put a huge rock into orbit around Mother Earth. What’s the confidence in those who know more than me about this stuff that putting rocks into orbit is something we really want to mess around with?

  84. Sparky

    My guess? It has nothing to do with Asteroids. Something that these guys actually think will affect the GDP? Probably beaming electricity down from satellites as a green energy source.

  85. Timothy Willams

    Some of those objects out there have high amounts of very precious metals on them like gold and platinum.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/sci/tech/401227.stm

  86. George Dunbar

    I’m reminded of physicist, Gerard K. O’Neill, who organized a team at MIT (c.1977) to develop a “mass driver” which was intended to propel minerals from the Moon. Their motto was “Lunar Mine By ’89.”
    See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerard_K._O'Neill

  87. Jim

    @10 Swany :

    Fortunately for supporters of the asteroid mining idea, “Do the math” didn’t do quite enough math. First, he didn’t use ion engine exhaust velocities; these are 5x-10x higher than chemical rocket exhaust velocities. Turns out, that makes a BIG difference in the numbers.

    Second, he didn’t account for the fact that rocket power isn’t the only way to change the orbits of these bodies. Swing-by momentum transfers with bodies like the Moon and Earth can provide significant delta-V’s.

    Third, he didn’t account for the fact that simple swing-by calculations are not the only way you can take advantage of the three-body problem here. If you really, really like your math, have a look at http://www.cds.caltech.edu/~koon/book/KoLoMaRo_DMissionBk.pdf — these are the theoretical underpinnings of what has been called the “Interplanetary Transport Network”. 5 km/s delta-V’s become .5 km/s delta-V’s. Ideally… even down to 50 m/s delta-V’s.

    If you get down into the low 10’s of m/s delta-V’s, high-efficiency, high-power ion engines can “lift” 1000 times their mass from a Near-Earth orbit into a High Earth orbit. At that point, if what you need is mass-in-orbit (like for fuel, or for radiation shielding, or heck even for building more satellites) you’ve suddenly got a business model that will give you enormous returns… eventually.

    All of these tricks require some patience… so the trade-off really becomes mass-cost of fuel vs. time-cost of money. But I’ve run some numbers, and given enough customers, the numbers add up.

    Think about this for a minute: Intelsat expressed interest in ponying up $270 million dollars to buy *a mere* 1000 kg of fuel, provided that fuel was delivered to its satellites on-orbit. $270,000/kg. With enough customers like that (and enough nitrogen for hydrazine in these rocks), this becomes a viable enterprise. Rad shielding and/or water for LH2/LOX kick stages would provide the customer base as well.

    Some of the bright sparks here recognized that there was profit potential in the fact that these rocks are already in space… they’re right, in spades.

    @Ross, @Cairnos, gratz on your insight. :)

  88. Kairnos:
    One of my numerous never-finished hard SF stories included space hotels with lots of gold fittings, because the mining companies weren’t allowed to bring all that gold (practically a waste product) to Earth. Crash the market, you know. Even the hotel’s name, CONSTELLATION, was to be painted in mm thick gold lettering.

    Wouldn’t that be a hoot?

  89. andres

    Can anybody say “Hughes Glomar Explorer”? Sounds like a cover, either they are trying to deflect an asteroid with our name on it, or they want the ability to do so in case it ever happens, or there is some military thing happening.. I for one will reach for my tin foil hat…

  90. Matt B.

    Gregory at #6 has a point. We need to make sure more than one entity has the ability to move asteroids.

    What the miners should be looking for is the rare-earth (ha!) elements that currently tend to be controlled by one country. It might make sense to take rich chunks of ore and crash them onto one spot on the Moon and then do the real mining there for transport of refined minerals to Earth.

    @84. beer case: Sure, but then you have the squid problem.

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