Breaking: Private company does indeed plan to mine asteroids… and I think they can do it

By Phil Plait | April 24, 2012 12:01 am

Planetary Resources, Inc. is not your average startup: its mission is to investigate and eventually mine asteroids in space!

Last week, the company issued a somewhat cryptic announcement saying they “will overlay two critical sectors – space exploration and natural resources – to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP”. I predicted this meant they wanted to mine asteroids, and yes, I will toot my own horn: I was right. They’re holding a press conference Tuesday morning to officially announce they’re going asteroid hunting.

The company had a pretty fierce amount of credibility right off the bat, with several ex-NASA engineers, an astronaut, and planetary scientists involved, as well as the backing of not one but several billionaires, including a few from Google… not to mention James Cameron. The co-founders of Planetary Resources are Peter Diamandis — he created the highly-successful X-Prize Foundation, to give cash awards to incremental accomplishments that will help achieve technological breakthroughs, including those for space travel — and Eric Anderson, X-Prize board member and Chairman of the Board of the Space Spaceflight Federation.

These are very, very heavy hitters. Clearly, they’re not screwing around.

So what’s the deal?

 


Step 1

I spoke with Planetary Resources President and Chief Engineer Chris Lewicki on the phone Monday. He has an excellent pedigree: Lewicki was Flight Director for the NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity Mars rover missions, and also Mission Manager for the Mars Phoenix lander surface operations. So when he says he’s confident the company can and will succeed, I’m willing to listen.

“This is an attempt to make a permanent foothold in space,” he said. “We’re going to enable this piece of human exploration and the settlement of space, and develop the resources that are out there.”

The plan structure is reminiscent of that of Apollo: have a big goal in mind, but make sure the steps along the way are practical.

The key point is that their plan is not to simply mine precious metals and make millions or billions of dollars– though that’s a long-range goal. If that were the only goal, it would cost too much, be too difficult, and probably not be attainable.

Instead, they’ll make a series of calculated smaller missions that will grow in size and scope. The first is to make a series of small space telescopes to observe and characterize asteroids. Lewicki said the first of these is the Arkyd 101, a 22 cm (9″) telescope in low-Earth orbit that will be aboard a tiny spacecraft just 40 x 40 cm (16″) in size. It can hitch a ride with other satellites being placed in orbit, sharing launch costs and saving money (an idea that will come up again and again in their plans). This telescope will be used both to look for and observe known Near-Earth asteroids, and can also be pointed down to Earth for remote sensing operations.

I’ll note Lewicki said they expect to launch the first of these telescopes by the end of next year, 2013. They’re already building them (what’s referred to as “cutting metal”). They could launch on already-existing rockets — an Atlas or Delta, for example, Europe’s Ariane, India’s GSLV, or Space X’s Falcon 9.

After that, once they’re flight-tested, more of these small spacecraft can be launched equipped with rocket motors. If they hitch a ride with a satellite destined for a 40,000 km (24,000 mile) geosynchronous orbit, the motor can be used to take the telescope — now a space probe — out of Earth orbit and set on course for a pre-determined asteroid destination. Technical bit: orbital velocity at geosync is about 3 km/sec, so only about an additional 1 km/sec is needed to send a probe away from Earth, easily within the capability of a small motor attached to a light-weight probe.

Many asteroids pass close to the Earth with a low enough velocity that one of these probes could reach them. Heck, some are easier to reach in that sense than the Moon! Any asteroid-directed probe can be equipped with sensors to make detailed observations, including composition. It could even be designed to land on the asteroid and return samples back to Earth, or leave when the observations are complete and head off to observe more asteroids up close and personal.

 


Step 2

Once a suitable asteroid is found, the idea is not to mine it right away for precious metals to return to Earth, Lewicki told me, but instead to tap it for volatiles — materials with low boiling points such as water, oxygen, nitrogen, and so on, which also happen to be critical supplies for use in space.

The idea behind this is to gather these materials up and create in situ space supply depots. Water is very heavy and incompressible, so it’s very difficult to launch from Earth into space (Lewicki quoted a current price of roughly $20,000 per liter to get water into space). But water should be abundant on some asteroids, locked up in minerals or even as ice, and in theory it shouldn’t be difficult to collect it and create a depot. Future astronauts can then use these supplies to enable longer stays in space — the depots could be put in Earthbound trajectories for astronauts, or could be placed in strategic orbits for future crewed missions to asteroids. Lewicki didn’t say specifically, but these supplies could be sold to NASA — Planetary Resources would make quite a bit money while saving NASA quite a bit. Win-win.

The details of exactly how they’ll collect these resources and store them may be revealed in the press conference Tuesday. If I can, I’ll ask.

 


Step 3


The last step is to actually get the precious minerals from the asteroids and bring them to Earth. The exact setup for this isn’t clear at this time — again, the press conference should reveal that — but for the moment it may not really need to be. There are several options. One way would be to launch equipment to a distant asteroid already explored previously by a souped-up Arkyd. Another might be to use the small spacecraft to bring a smallish asteroid near the Earth — a study of this was just released, in fact [Note: two of the authors on that study were from Planetary Resources, including Lewicki]. A rock could be brought into an orbit around the Moon (that’s easiest to do in terms of fuel) where it could then be mined. Or it could be both: a small operation could start work while the asteroid is being towed to Earth, getting a few years head start.

 


Step 4: Profit???

I asked Lewicki specifically about how this will make money. Some asteroids may be rich in precious metals — some may hold tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars in platinum-group metals — but it will cost billions and take many years, most likely, to mine them before any samples can be returned. Why not just do it here on Earth? In other words, what’s the incentive for profit for the investors? This is probably the idea over which most people are skeptical, including several people I know active in the asteroid science community.

I have to admit, Lewicki’s answer surprised me. “The investors aren’t making decisions based on a business plan or a return on investment,” he told me. “They’re basing their decisions on our vision.”

On further reflection, I realized this made sense. Not every wealthy investor pumps money into a project in order to make more… at least right away. Elon Musk, for example, has spent hundreds of millions of his own fortune on his company Space X. Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos is doing likewise for his own space company, Blue Origin. Examples abound. And it’ll be years before either turns a respectable profit, but that’s not what motivates Musk and Bezos to do this. They want to explore space.

The vision of Planetary Resources is in their name: they want to make sure there are available resources in place to ensure a permanent future in space. And it’s not just physical resources with which they’re concerned. Their missions will support not just mining asteroids for volatiles and metals, but also to extend our understanding of asteroids and hopefully increase our ability to deflect one should it be headed our way.

This again was a topic I discussed with Lewicki specifically. He agreed with my proposition that all three topics — science, deflection, and resource use — are tied together. After all, we need to understand asteroids scientifically if we want to use them or prevent them from hitting us. We can use them for depots to establish better exploration of them, and sometime in the future we may need to deflect one to prevent all this from being a moot point anyway.

 


My opinion on all this

The beauty of being me (among other things) is that I don’t always have to be objective. So I’ll say this: I love this idea. Love it.

Mind you, that’s different than saying I think they can do it. But, in theory at least, I think they can. Their step-wise plan makes sense to me, and they don’t need huge rockets and huge money to get things started. By the time operations ramp up to something truly ambitious they should already have in place the pieces necessary for it, including the track record. In other words, by the time they’re ready to mine an asteroid, they’ll have in place all the infrastructure needed to actually do it. I still want to see some engineering plans and a timeline, but in general what I’ve heard sounds good.

My biggest initial skepticism would be the investors — with no hope of profit for years, would they really stick with it?

But look at the investors: Film maker James Cameron. Google executives Larry Page & Eric Schmidt, and Google investor K. Ram Shriram. Software pioneer Charles Simonyi. Ross Perot, Jr. These are all billionaires, some of them adventurers, and all of them have proven to have patience in developing new ventures. I don’t think they’ll turn tail and run at the first setback.

Lewicki said much the same thing. “I was a harsh skeptic at first, but [when the company founders Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson] approached me we talked about a plan on how to create a company and pursue this.” Soon after, he came to the conclusion this was a logical plan and the group was capable of doing it. In the press release, he said, “Not only is our mission to expand the world’s resource base, but we want to expand people’s access to, and understanding of, our planet and solar system by developing capable and cost-efficient systems.”

That sounds like a great idea to me. And I am strongly of the opinion that private industry is the way to make that happen. The Saturn V was incredible, but not terribly cost effective; that wasn’t its point. And when NASA tried to make a cost-effective machine, they came up with the Space Shuttle, which was terribly expensive, inefficient, and — let’s face it — dangerous. The government is good for a lot of things, but political machinations can really impede innovation when it comes to making things easier and less costly. As many people involved with NASA used to joke: “Faster, better, cheaper: pick two.”

I still strongly support NASA, of course; don’t get me wrong. It should still do what it does best: the things private industry can’t, like breaking new ground. That’s what NASA has been doing in space for 50 years, and now that paved way is being taken up by private companies. I think it’s just that combination of government support and private innovation that will get us to the stars. And for now, just for now, you know what?

Getting to the asteroids will do just fine.

All images (except for the last) credit: Planetary Resources, Inc.

 


Related Posts:

- Space firm about to make a big announcement. I take a stab at what it is.
- OK, a couple of more things about a Moon base
- Debating Space (tons of links to my thoughts on space exploration, both pubic and private)
- Interview on The Alyona Show about our future in space

 

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, NASA, Space, Top Post

Comments (217)

Links to this Post

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  1. mfumbesi

    Wow interesting developments. I thought they might be looking for rare-earth elements or something. I like water mining and selling it to NASA idea…

  2. Bulwersator

    “The investors aren’t making decisions based on a business plan or a return on investment,”

    They also may want to be remembered and this may be worth a lot for many people.

  3. This isn’t going to happen.

    There was a company launched in the 90′s called Teledesic. It was launched by heavy hitters Craig McCaw, Bill Gates and Paul Allen. They were going to create a low earth orbit network of satellites that would offer a low latency internet in the sky.

    It never happened.

    There are only a handful of strategic minerals which would even possibly be cost effective to mine in space. We are a long way away from having mineral prices at a point where space mining might be feasible.

    All the Avatar and Titanic money in the world isn’t going to make this happen.

    Not until the cost of getting to low Earth orbit is reduced by a factor of 10 is anything on this scale going to be able to happen.

    I wish them well, but it isn’t going to happen.

  4. puppygod

    @Gary Arndt

    You seem to miss the point of this whole endeavor – they are going to reduce cost of getting stuff to low orbit – by tapping into resources that are already there. If you can produce water and other volatiles already on top of the gravity well, then your cost of getting to LEO is automatically halved – by not needing to haul all that bulk stuff up there in the first place and saving cargo capacity for more precious things like mission equipment or, for example, people.

  5. Melf_Himself

    But Gary, do you think this is going to happen? :S

  6. With all that new found water up there this can only go one way.. Space Jacuzzis! What every astronaut craves to unwind after a hard day mining the roids. (not sure that came out right)

    Anyway it’s always great to see billionaires putting their vast wealth to good use financing grand plans that benefit us all one way or another. This will be a project to watch.

  7. MitchM

    The number of smart people on board gives me pause, but I’m still extremely skeptical. The last time I read from someone who had run the actual numbers, moving payloads around the solar system simply wasn’t practical. At least from the main asteroid belt. It’s not just a matter of economics but of reaction mass and delta-v. Sample returns are one thing, but it simply takes way too much rocket fuel to move bulk payloads around the solar system.

    As for near-Earth asteroids, wouldn’t the sun have vaporized away most of the volatiles from them?

    Don’t get me wrong though, this is the kind of raw robotic space engineering that I will love to see happening, but without some crazy breakthrough in fundamental rocketry (I’m thinking nuclear engines here, good luck getting that approved) I think the whole endeavour will be a uphill battle that never actually gets any easier.

  8. Perc

    Very exciting! Makes me want to chuck up my job, my life and go join them in this grand mission :)

  9. Keith McFarland

    This is actually truly wondrous and maybe one of the only great things to come out of a period of fortunes being made in inflated markets by individuals–some of those individuals have visions beyond themselves and are willing to put their money into the effort. I’m not sure, especially watching the US cut NASA in half, that ordinary nation states are up to it anymore. I do hope that this becomes a standard way of dealing both with space junk and NEAs–harvest ‘em and mine/recycle ‘em! It would make the Moon a rewarding opportunity and create an infrastructure for everything from skyfarms to hotels in space where mining staff can have family visit as a perk/benefit of working for the orbitals, which would alone bring the cost of space tourism down to reasonable enough in cost to be approachable by the middle class, if that even exists in the future, that is. I’d love to see this enterprise create the framework for space industry, exploration and development.

  10. Ben

    Awesome, just plain old fashioned awesome!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I’m gonna live to see people born in space bethinks. Wonder if that kid will be related to me? Hope so :)

  11. Thanny

    There’s an elephant in the room. Moving an asteroid of any appreciable size into Earth orbit is an inherently dangerous endeavor. Errors may mean an impact with the potential for catastrophic damage.

    It’s going to take the signing of international treaties, and the creation of one hell of a regulatory agency, before any private company is permitted to budge the orbit of a single asteroid by so much as an inch. And that’s as it should be.

    I’m sure it’s no coincidence that their near-term plans don’t touch on that sticky topic.

  12. Bjorn

    If they were to bring an asteroid to low earth orbit they could dismantle it piece by piece and and send small chunks of it crashing down somewhere in the Australian desert or something like that. Then they wouldnt need to do all the work in space.

  13. Radwaste

    “It’s going to take the signing of international treaties, and the creation of one hell of a regulatory agency, before any private company is permitted to budge the orbit of a single asteroid by so much as an inch. And that’s as it should be.”

    How ridiculous can you be? *Regulations*? WTF? Just how do you apply that to a rocket motor several AU away, that burns for ten minutes to change an orbit so that six years from now a rock will be in a different place? What’s the penalty?

    This is just classic. I bet when your car is stuck in the mud, you add more passengers to get it out.

  14. Mike

    If this is successful, might an offshoot of the project be improved methods and technology to alter potentially earth-threatening asteroids’ orbits before they collide with earth?

  15. Monkey

    @Radwaste

    Im not sure I follow your thoughts, or I am misinterpreting them. I think the quote you are arguing against is simply stating that before anybody, company, government decides to move, mine, change a celestial body, especially for economic gain, that there would have to be some sort of regulatory hoop to go through to make sure that the Earthly cultures agree, and/or that there is no inherent risk to humanity from their actions.

    Care to comment?

  16. Radwaste, Earth-based regulators may not be able to do anything about the equipment that’s in space, but arresting the people running the company or seizing their bank accounts is much easier. For as long as the company workers don’t actually move to an entirely self-sufficient space colony, they can be regulated just like anyone else.

  17. PeteC

    I don’t know if it will work – it sounds really cool, but it’s really ambitious – but I hope they get somewhere, just to kick-start the whole process of trying.

    As for the regulation issue, if this works, there will come a point where any one of a dozen private companies or any major nation on Earth can cause a phenomenal catastrophy just by chucking a big enough rock in exactly the right direction. But that’s going to come sooner or later, with technology, anyway.

    In other news… ABC news are quoting Phil as their primary expert comment. :)

  18. David

    Is there a Kickstarter I can donate to to get in on this? I’m not a billionaire but I want to be part of it. Even if it does fail.

  19. DougS

    To be honest, my question is whether they’ll accept small time investors (real small in my case) to be a part of this. If so, I’m ready to put some change into the pot regardless of any return on investment.

  20. I predicted this meant they wanted to mine asteroids, and yes, I will toot my own horn: I was right.

    Does this qualify you for the MDC? :P

  21. Jeff J

    What Gary Arndt said. I hope they succeed too, but…

    There just isn’t any historical precedent for these great big *expensive* technological leaps being made with private money. It has always been at the national or multi-national level and, depressingly, usually in an effort to devise more efficient ways to kill people. Think nuclear, the space programme, the internet… anything with massive up-front costs and very long term potential benefit. Private industry does a great job of pecking away at better microprocessors, software, etc. I’m not sure space exploration is something you can peck away at. The risk/reward is just too lopsided for investors.

    It would be nice if we could collectively bankroll and collectively reap the rewards from something like this. Fetishizing billionaires and waiting around for them to achieve things for humanity isn’t going to get us anywhere.

  22. Stan9fromouterspace

    D.D. Harriman approves. (see Heinlein)

  23. “There just isn’t any historical precedent for these great big *expensive* technological leaps”

    And because it was not been done before, it can´t be done, that´s it?

    “Don´t waste your time, Groog, that wheel thing will never work, it wasn´t done before”

  24. Jeff J

    cardoso @16: Rockets cost more than wheels.

  25. Keith K

    Yes! Yes! Yes!

    I am personally endlessly excited by this prospect but saddened by the number of people who simply cannot imagine the possibility.

  26. Rick J

    @Thanny…. The article clearly states they would bring the object in to orbit around the moon. Did you read it?

  27. Tom

    @Keith K, I think we can all imagine the possibilities. However, any private enterprise with no Business Plan or plan for a Return on Investment will eventually run out of saps to finance it. And, by “eventually”, I mean the moment when they have to ask James Cameron to cut a personal check.

  28. Nat

    Monkey @ 10: While I understand your premise, and I fundamentally agree that *someone* should be checking in on this endeavor, I wonder, “Who’s going to stop them?” We don’t have a legal structure in place that can prevent an extra-national entity that has the resources from doing this sort of thing.

    As far as I know, no nations have a law against it, and how could they, given that they can’t claim jurisdiction over the asteroids. And the UN, putting aside its utter dysfucntion and limited resources, doesn’t have jurisdiction over private individuals.

    I’m reminded of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars books, and the role of TransNats.

    Having said all of that, I actually agree with Gary @3; I think this is just vastly too expensive for private individuals to finance, regardless of their starting capital.

  29. Pete

    I tell you what, I’m glad I’m currently studying geology. It certainly gives hope of what future prospects may be.

  30. Gary Ansorge

    What was it Clark said?

    1) It can’t possibly work

    2) Ok, maybe it can work, but it’ll never be profitable

    3) I always knew it would work…

    …and I’ve been saying this (number 3) since Buck Rogers was the only SciFi most people had ever heard of (which was usually associated with the word “crap”).

    …and on a lighter note…will the REAL Sonic Screwdriver please stand up?

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/innovations/post/does-doctor-whos-sonic-screwdriver-really-exist/2012/04/20/gIQAnhR9VT_blog.html?wpisrc=nl_tech

    Gary 7

  31. TM

    This is really cool to think about, that there could be a space industry up and running fairly soon.

    I imagine they’ll rack up a rather impressive bevy of patents in the process; I wonder how much that’ll be worth. I don’t think they could expect to make a whole lot off of them right away, but Google did recently buy Motorola for $12.5 billion largely to acquire their patents. And maybe in the future, space travel patents will be as valuable as telecom is now.

  32. Martin Elvis

    I’m a big fan of asteroid mining, but I suspect they have underestimated some of the problems. I talk about these in my article “After Apollo” just published in the Harvard International Review:
    http://hir.harvard.edu/a-new-empire/after-apollo
    There are astronomy problems – finding the asteroids in the best orbits is hard; prospecting problems – there are only 13 meteorites known of the really Pt rich kind, out of about 1200 characterized; and astronautical problems – dealing with a massive “uncooperative body” and anchoring to it ain’t easy; extraction problems – mining is hard on Earth and harder without gravity or atmosphere; and financing problems – transit times may be long and you have to pay interest yet still make a profit. These guys may be rich, but they won’t create a space economy unless they make money off of it.
    All said, more power to them!

  33. stakkalee

    The most important thing is that their name and logo are appropriately vague and yet slightly threatening – I can definitely see them try to sneak an unknown biological entity back onto the planet. Personally, I think we need more creative super-villainy, if for no other reason than to break up the monotony of all the everyday villainy we have to put up with down here – it’ll be a refreshing change of pace to have to worry about death-by-acid-blood rather than be concerned with some plutocrat trying to loot my pension.

  34. Digitalcompound

    Not only is it doable, but honestly it’s 30 years over due. Look around you, we are fighting secret wars for resources as we speak, securing contracts to be in places solely based on the natural resources that landmass holds. Try to tell me why we shouldn’t be mining these Asteroids.

    The biggest issue is how they plan on going from earth to space and back, we need that nanocarbon tube elevator, an a new means of energy needs to be established.

  35. A century from now this will either be completely forgotten OR seen as the moment everything changed.

    Either way I’m glad to see it.

  36. Unspeakably Violent Jack

    @ Bjorn

    I don’t much care for that idea! There was already a spacecraft that crashed in the wrong place when some sensor was expecting a figure in PSI instead of pascals (or something like that…?)
    With a Mars lander it was just embarrassing; there’d be hell to pay if they bombed Melbourne with a space rock!

  37. Grand Lunar

    “They’re holding a press conference Tuesday morning to officially announce they’re going asteroid hunting”

    Be wery, wery quiet! We’re hunting asteroids!

    I imagine this idea might prompt NASA to solidify it’s plans for NEA missions.

    Exciting as this is, I still would hope for a start with moon mining, at least initially.
    We know there’s ice there, so it can give us a start for later ideas like this one.

    I can imagine using a gravity tractor (like the one you described in your book Phil for deflecting asteroids) to get one into orbit.
    A good place would be either EML L4 or L5 for stability.

    If they use existing rockets like the Atlas or Delta (I’m waiting until Falcon 9 is in regular service to include it) that can save money so that all they really need is to make the spacecraft.

    Best of luck to them!

  38. Keith K

    @20. Tom

    I’m not referring to anyone here, who would read the BA blog. I’m referring to other commentators on more traditional news sites, to whom this is the stuff of pure science fiction.

    As Phil stated here, I’m not 100% sure this will work. I’m still fairly confident that all the pieces are there. It just needs to be put together.

    I believe in the possibility but it needs to start somewhere. Any initiative is better than none. I’m sick of seeing our species stagnate.

  39. g leap

    Giant leap on swindle, rip-off of investors.

  40. Greg

    Tom @ 20: James Cameron recently “cut a personal check” to take a submarine to the bottom of the Marianas Trench for zero present or future economic gain, just because it was there and hadn’t really been done before (solo, with cameras, etc). If anybody is the right person to be involved with this project, it’s someone like that.

  41. aztec1

    Definitely makes me think of Asteroid Wars by Ben Bova.

    That being said, I’d like to hear more about how this is going to “increase the global GDP by trillions of dollars”. Are they talking about after the project is successful or the project itself creating jobs and industries all over the planet?

    While the long term vision of this endeavor seems noble, it’s my opinion that if they truly wanted to help, they would concentrate on home first and figure out the logistics of that before even thinking about water depots and what’s going to happen once the asteroid is captured.

  42. Chris

    How long before Hollywood makes a movie about a rogue agent infiltrating the company and threatens(or actually does it without telling anyone) to send an asteroid hurtling towards the planet?

    In all seriousness – I like the idea of taking on the challenge for challenge sake. I dont doubt there will be speedbumps, errors, mistakes along the way – but the thought of going ahead with a BIG IDEA is exciting to me, imo.

  43. puppygod

    “Rockets cost more than wheels.”

    Yes. We know that. We even know how much they cost – about 5-15.000 $ per kg to LEO and about 20-200.000.000 $ per launch. Which is quite a money, but well within capability of private industry. After all, somehow all that thousands of satellites got onto orbit. Completing step one – launching several prospecting satellites is well within current technical and economical capability of large private company.

    Next steps – we will see. If they find near-earth asteroids with high concentration of, say, platinum (for PR) or water (remember, 1 l of water on LEO is worth 5-15.000$) and if they manage to launch orbital processing / refueling unit, then I have no doubts that they gonna have a queue of guys lined outside of their headquarter with bags of money to throw at them.

  44. John

    This is friggin’ amazing. I know this is one of the most cliched phrases in the world, but I’m going to say it anyway: it’s an amazing time to be alive.

    I think if the government really wants to incentivize things like this, a really good start would be to establish a legal framework that allows for the acquisition and enforcement of property rights in space. This would require a lot of international treaties to be changed, and a credible system of legal property rights in space would probably require significant international cooperation, or at the very least, a consensus among the major spacefaring nations.

  45. Lab Rat Jason

    The long term money might be in the minerals, but I also see a major short term money maker: Think of all the technology that NASA invented durign the space race… because it was government funded, they had to give it away (auction rights, whatever)… but a private company gets to keep (read financially exploit) every invention they come up with.

    Create a better ION drive: license it to the Russians. Create better solar panel, manufacture them and sell them to every satalite maker on this planet.

    I think the reason they are short on short term money makers, is that they intend on inventing the money makers as they go… they may never need to actually mine an asteroid to make fistfulls of cash. And that’s what all their investors know.

    -J

  46. John H

    I’m with Gary. We’ve already had the deepest pockets around, with the least need to get ROI, involved in this adventure – the US government – and they’ve found it too darn expensive to continue. I think that these sugar daddies are about to find out what wealthy people keep discovering. It’s always easier to spend it than to make it, and there are a lot of ways to turn big piles of money into small piles in a hurry. But money makes you smart is our guiding theory, so perhaps I just don’t have enough zeroes in my account balance to allow me to understand how it will work.

  47. Jesse

    We have a couple of issues here that people have brought up. Let me chime in:

    It is true that big, expensive technological leaps have been done by governments, at least in the last 100 years or so. This shouldn’t surprise anyone; it’s the same reason that the polymaths of a century ago could make groundbreaking discoveries but that isn’t really possible now.

    But to explain: 100 years ago not as much was known about physics, so the low hanging fruit was there for the taking. Now, to learn anything fundamental, you need a particle accelerator. (This doesn’t mean you need one to do theory, as Stephen Hawking demonstrates, but you do need one to test the theory).

    In technology there’s a similar phenomenon — advances in chips aren’t made in people’s garages because the capital inputs have grown so large. While there are examples of technology companies being started by small groups of people, they haven’t made any major, fundamental breakthroughs like, say, the laser was back in 1960. The capital cost, again, is just too darn high. (There is a difference between designing an app, tweaking existing technology, and inventing something fundamentally new, which is why I brought up the laser).

    The last private entity to make fundamental technological leaps was Bell Labs, and it’s worth noting AT&T was granted a monopoly with rules. (Side note: that monopoly is one reason why we have a corporate bond market in the US as big as it is — absent AT&T and GE it would be much, much smaller and look rather different).

    What does this mean? Planetary Resources could certainly work, but it would take a long-term view of the return on investment. Not impossible, but hard to do these days. Some reasons are cultural – a public company is not considered successful without rates of return on the year that would have been considered outrageous 40 years ago. That discourages long term capital investment, which has an ROI that is automatically going to be slower than say, something like Amazon or a service industry. Why? Building physical stuff takes time. So while I have hopes for this venture, I am skeptical that it will make it unless Cameron et al. are willing to pour in money for a very long time. Maybe they are.

    Next point: regulation. It isn’t impossible, as the Outer Space Treaty shows you can agree to some broad parameters. The legal question of the asteroids is an interesting one. No nation can claim sovereignty over any celestial body. But it isn’t clear at all what that would mean for bringing an asteroid to Earth orbit. Is it salvage? Property? Is it treated like mining?

    Assuming the asteroid was considered the property of the mining company, Planetary Resources in this case, the situation if there is some horrible error would likely be no different than if the company launched a satellite and it crashed into a town. That’s a pretty massive liability right there if someone proves negligence. I know it’s easy to bash lawyers, but they exist for a reason and it isn’t just to spoil the party. Anyhow, at a minimum you’d need some way — preferably beforehand — to agree on what the limits of liability are and how to monitor activity to prevent major cock-ups from happening. I for one would like to see that because even a small asteroid (~ 1 km) would be a major, major disaster, and that’s true even if it landed in the ocean. And we don’t want to be having a conversation about possibly violating the OST to save the lives of thousands, maybe millions.

    On the up side, I honestly would have thought it easier to go to a metal-rich asteroid and nudge it into an orbit that approaches earth, but doesn’t stay in orbit directly around it. There is a lot of money in that; a small (~500m even) asteroid made of nickel-iron has enough metals in it to radically alter the market, even if you take in the costs of launch. But the depot idea is a good one.

  48. I’d like to hear more about how this is going to “increase the global GDP by trillions of dollars”.

    Once (with all the caveats and provisios) we are mining asteroids, we have the potential to solve many of our resource limitations. As the blog post said, particularly in the paltinum series of metals. I seem to recall that there was an article in SciAm or some other magazine that showed how limited we really are in many materials that are used in all sorts of common items. Even an element as “common” as copper may run out economically. This endeavour is a new source that lies outside traditional computations for GDP since it’s out of this world (sorry, I had to).

  49. jeff

    I actually think this about on par with some of the Mars engineering projects I’ve seen on paper, but I don’t really think it is beyond the drawing board. They’ve had an analogous situation in deep undersea mining ops which haven’t gone very far in decades.

  50. Gustav

    @33 John H
    Oh come off it. You’re not going to be able to persuade taxpayers anywhere, in your United States or my European Union, what with all of the problems we have “down here”. Who are you to say what crazy billionaires can and can’t do with their money? They clearly have some smart people on the payroll already, and the company hasn’t yet made its presentation in full!

    You and all the other nay-sayers need to unfurrow your collective brows.

  51. Paul

    Very interesting.

    Mining asteroids for PGEs is within the realm of plausibility, but mining them for iron or nickel for use on Earth really isn’t. There’s just too large a gap in cost between the space and terrestrial resource costs. Remember, an average piece of crustal rock is 5% iron.

    Since most resources used on Earth are fairly cheap (in $/kg), space mining won’t be displacing significant terrestrial resource consumption (as measured by mass). But exploitation of space resources could be worthwhile even if it just addressed niche markets.

    #34: there’s a seabed mine going into operation in 2013 north of Papua New Guinea, in 1600 meters of water.

  52. HP

    My inner cynic compels me to point that this sounds more like an audacious plan to mine investors for capital than a plan to mine asteroids for minerals.

    However, echoing stangfromouterspace, I’d like to see one of those new space startups name their company Harriman Industries, just for old times’ sake.

  53. HP

    “Don’t you see, darling Bloom, glorious Bloom? It’s so simple. STEP ONE: We find the worst [business plan] ever written, a surefire flop. STEP TWO: I raise a [tr]illion bucks. Lots of [eccentric] old [venture capitalists] out there. STEP THREE: You go back to work on the books, two of them – one for the government, one for us. You can do it, Bloom; you’re a wizard! STEP FOUR: We open on [Kennedy Space Center]. And before you can say STEP FIVE, we close on [Kennedy Space Center]! STEP SIX: We take our [tr]illion bucks and fly to Rio!”

  54. Space Cowgirl

    Is it the future now?

    I think this is incredible. I’m cynical and skeptical about enough things in this world; I’m choosing to be excited about asteroid mining.

  55. Utakata

    I’ve got my shovel and pickaxe ready…where do I sign up? I also hope they have a way to strap me down when I go to use the port-a-loo. O.o

  56. Chris

    Forget about selling water to NASA. Just think how much you could sell bottled space water for here on Earth!

  57. Rapha

    This link explains why the idea of moving an asteroid with with very little energy is possible (though it may take a few years to reach its destination):
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interplanetary_Transport_Network

    I’m a bit skeptical about the water harvesting though: it seems to me asteroids are pretty dry.
    I wonder how much data we have gathered so far on the relative abundance of volatiles and valuable minerals on asteroids. Can anyone point us to a link?
    Also, no word, so far, on a key step: how do you miniaturize mineral mining? I suspect Earth mining engineers probably are skeptical, but because it’s never been tried doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

  58. drow

    two words. ice. pirates.

  59. Jim

    A question: why is his first step to send out lots of telescopes? Doesn’t that add a few years’ development time before he sees any kind of return on investment? Sure, if they’re cheap scopes, cubesat-cheap, that’s not much (compared with the hundreds of millions an actual retrieval or mining mission would cost) but still… manufacturing time and transit time for retrieval and mining is going to keep your investors waiting for YEARS before they see any ROI. Is anyone going to be happy about that?

    JPL has tasked some people to sift through and follow up on Catalina Sky Survey data to find more candidates in the 5-10m (retrievable) range. They’re expecting to find something like 3 new ones a day. Why start spending money on scopes when you can get the data for free?

  60. tphtwpe

    This sounds alot like the cover story for the Glomar Explorer. “Hey, let’s go mine minerals on the ocean floor, and oh, by the way, while we’re down there, pick up any old soviet subs we see lying around….” Not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but are there any disabled soviet or chinese spy satelites in orbit that we could “salvage” while we are looking for profitable asteroids…… just sayin’……

  61. Autumn

    @drow,
    two more words. space herpes.

  62. OtherRob

    I told Wilbur and now I’m telling you, Orville. That thing will never fly…

  63. Jesse

    @Paul — just to be clear I wasn’t thinking of iron or nickel per se, jut that those are where the other metals tend to be. A 500m wide asteroid, (if spherical) has a volume of ~65 million cubic meters, and if made of iron would mass 7,800 kg/m^3 * 65m ~ 50 700 000 000 kg of iron. If we make just 1% of that mass into say, copper, we get 507 000 000 kg.

    Copper is about $3-4 per pound right now, so that works out to $6-8 per kilo. So that would be ~ $3,042,000,000 worth of copper right off the bat. To put that in perspective the entire world produces <20 million metric tonnes in a year, so that single asteroid would be the equivalent of Poland or Canada's entire production.

    The iron is about $140-$150 per metric ton, or $7,027,020,000 worth at a minimum. That's a lot. The whole world digs up ~2,400,000 metric tons every year. This would be equivalent to all the iron we dig up in the US.

    I'm making up estimates of course, but if you adjust this with other metals you see that there is an ROI, if you can manage the up front cost.

  64. Dylan

    Lets say they find a nice water-rich asteroid. A small probe is designed which basically extracts water – all it has to do is heat up the material to above 0C, so I’m imagining something like a “space hoover” which keeps the temp inside the tube/pipe at above 0C, not super hard to do. The unit can purify the water as it extracts it if need be. And then this “space hoover”, instead of having a dust bag it has a nice big “balloon” – think weather balloon size. The water that is extracted goes into this balloon until approx 10 meters by 10 meters by 10 meters of water is collected. At current estimated costs, it is at least $5,000 per kg to get stuff up into LEO. Those 1,000,000 litres of water at $5,000 per litre is $5,000,000,000 worth of water up in space already. Heck the space hoover could even extract extra water, use power from its power source and split that into oxygen and hydrogen and use that as fuel to propel the mass of water back to where its needed. So long as getting to the “space hoover” stage costs less than five billion dollars, there’s return on investment right there…

  65. Wzrd1

    I seem to remember a company going public and the CEO stating outright that the company will NOT turn a profit, but all proceeds be reinvested to grow the company and its resources. This went on for many years and the company never lacked for investors.
    Said company is called Amazon.
    Today, the company, which “conventional wisdom” claimed would fail, leases excess server capacity for hosted sites and sells all manner of product online.
    Of course, there was ANOTHER private investor, some queen or something, who was considered wasting money on some insane exploration. The end result of that “wasted money” was the discovery of two new continents, the Americas.
    Then, there was that zany private investor who discovered 10000 ways of NOT making a proper filament before finally finding ONE correct way, paving the way for the electric light bulb.
    Said zany investor then was thought senile when he had the temerity to believe he could record sound on a wax cylinder. Today, it’s the nearly obsolete phonograph.
    Were there, quite literally, failed efforts? Yes there were. But, you can only fail when you make an attempt. If one fails to make any attempt at innovation, one simply stagnates.

    As for me, if they need some minor financial contributions as an investment that I do not expect a return on for decades at best and more likely never, I’ll happily shoot whatever I can along.

  66. Keith Hearn

    When you walk though the main lobby at Google, you come to a big stairway. Hanging over that stairway is a life sized copy of SpaceShip One. It’s up there because Google’s founders are very interested in space. You say it will cost billions? Larry Page and Eric Schmidt both have billions of dollars. As of 2011, Eric had about 6 billion and Larry had about 16 billion. They could each toss a billion into the pot and never notice it. These guys really want something like this to happen and really do have the money to finance it. They don’t even really need to get anything back.

    You look out on your front lawn and think “We could really use a tree out there”, so you go out and plant a sapling and let it grow. They look out into space and think “Humanity really needs to go there” so they make a plan to go there and make it happen. Everything Phil mentioned is technically feasible right now, just expensive. For guys like Larry and Eric, expensive is not a problem.

  67. David S.

    Read John Ringo’s books, Citadel and Live Free or Die and The Hot Gate.

    He laid out this EXACT plan.

    d

  68. MrV

    If you are going to prospect for asteroids containing water, why not pinch a piece of Saturns ice-rings. We already know where these chunks are so it might be easier than looking in the black depths of space. Maybe stealing them from Saturns gravity would be too difficult?

    Of course if you found a chunk of ice closer than Saturn then fair enough get that first.

  69. Protocol

    Great Idea minus one thing, Even the slightest most minute change in trajectory. Could spell certain death for another civilization. Or worse yet cause impact changing a whole planets trajectory. We don’t have tractor beams to hold these things in place nor a space elevator to get these products down. Now don’t get me wrong I’m all for the development of these technologies, and nothing drives invention like necessity. And I’m happy to see those mining efforts leave this Earth. I just think it needs a careful plan to avoid disaster.

  70. BruceWillis

    I went to an asteroid once…blew it up…died…

  71. pete

    “Faster, better, cheaper: Pick two” isn’t a joke about the inefficiency of government bureaucracies like NASA. Engineers in the private sector say the same thing. It’s not so much a joke as a reality of project management in general (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_triangle).

  72. Paul

    A question: why is his first step to send out lots of telescopes?

    The first step in any mining plan is location and characterization of the resource. You don’t just start digging in some random location.

  73. Jim Van Zandt

    A small telescope in Earth orbit is a baby step. It’s been done before, and likely will not accomplish much. Except, of course, that’s how the baby learns to take bigger steps.

    I suggest another regulatory hurdle: I think we really need nuclear propulsion to make expansion beyond Earth orbit practical. How about allowing it in geostationary orbit or beyond?

  74. Andrew

    Even though I love this idea I struggle to understand why.
    There are more than enough resources in this world, the problem is over crowding and greed. We would not need to mine asteroids if we didn’t populate at such a rate and the western world did not need to grow their economy for growths (profits) sake. We waste resources to build the economy??? Billionaires, why not spend your money on ways to reduce the population and educate idiots that the next phone/Ipad etc is not necessary, it is just waste. Lets use up all the Earths resources for economic gain then look to the stars to make more IT gadgets. Brilliant….

    India have the right solution, give young men a new motor in return for sterilization….. Google, please follow suit, my car is crap…..

  75. Nat

    Keith @ 45, I think you are underestimating the costs by a couple of orders of magnitude. According to a sutdy cited by Wikipedia, Apollo cost NASA $109 BILLION in 2010 dollars, which I believe doesn’t count any cost assoicated with Mercury and Gemini, which clearly laid important groundwork.

    If this is only going to cost $2 billion, it’s probably in the bag, as you point out. But costs are likely going to be a helluva lot more than that. If it’s $20 billion, maybe they can find the resources, although I’m skeptical. $200 billion? Seems impossible.

  76. CB

    @ Wzrd1

    While I agree with your general sentiment, I’d like to point out that Columbus’ expedition was insane, and the fact that it ended up extremely profitable for Spain a complete fluke of luck. His goal to find a faster trade route to the Far East was a complete failure because — just like every sane person had said — Columbus’ estimate of the size of the earth was way, way off and India was way, way too far to reach with the resources he had on hand. As a consequence he didn’t even realize he had discovered a new land at first, thinking he’d accomplished his goal, and we’ve been stuck with the “American vs Indian Indians” confusion ever since.

    I don’t think trying to re-create the accidental success of Columbus in space is very likely. I hope their plan is instead based on accurate assessments and reasonable plans. If they start saying it’s a third the distance to Jupiter than everyone else thinks it is, then we’ll know they’re in trouble. :)

  77. Chris From Canada

    Greg #27. Cameron did it all for exploration? Noooooooo, He didn’t turn a profit on the expedition at all!!! Except the whole filming of the expedition and selling the rights of the film and documentary to National Geographic channel, Discovery World, and Discovery channel. C’mon folks, profitability is why these investors are doing this. Maybe not immediate direct profit but definately indirect profits and future riches. They know that by telling the world they are doing this for basically the good of humanity, they just reeled in all kinds of wonderful publicity for this journey and for their individual businesses.

    Inherently man is greedy. If the venture was purely for scientific and exploratory reasons, they wouldn’t be looking at finding ways of MINING asteroids. C’mon folks. Reality check here. Their work may seem noble, but the end result is to make money.

  78. Alhazred

    Who are you going to sell this water to? My guess is the entire market for space water amounts to a couple tons a year, tops. Sure, you might be able to sell this water you mine for a high price/kg, but so what? On a (lets say) $100 billion investment you need a CASH FLOW on the order of $10′s of billions/yr. $10 billion at $10k a liter is 100k liters of water. There would have to be dozens of space hotels before even that was feasible, and with that sort of cost structure it is unlikely something like that will happen. You’d have to be providing volatiles at far lower costs than that to make major human occupied structures in space viable, which pushes you down the commodity slope and doesn’t bode well for recovering costs that way.

    Similar questions can be asked about say platinum group metals. Yes, they are valuable, but only because they ARE so rare and hard to get. The actual quantities used are reasonably small, so likewise your market is small and can’t support the massive cash flow required to get a decent ROI.

    Bulk structural materials for space construction might be the most viable market in the long run, but requires a lot more infrastructure than just a simple “scoop it up and melt it” kind of system. You could for instance make structural components for SPS (the actual cells would still probably be made on Earth, but it would be cheaper to send those up and attach them to a structure built in space). However, this is going to require a HUGE amount of very new tech. Nobody has manufactured ANYTHING in space, let alone refined, extruded, welded, etc large structures. This kind of thing is likely to be a work of a generation or two to figure out how to do reliably, at horrible cost.

    And the whole ‘regulation’ question really IS a huge question. Moving big rocks around in space is going to require VERY high degree of scrutiny and that is going to mean a large and complex bureaucratic process, lots of negotiation, and a lot of cost. Nobody is going to be allowed to do it without that, and some quaint notion that governments don’t have ‘jurisdiction’ or ‘there are no laws against it’ are laughable. Governments COULD stop you and would have good reasons to make laws on the subject, so they will. It is a 100,000x easier to make a law than to mine an asteroid. Not that this will stop it, but it will add a lot of risk and slow the whole thing down at some stage.

    I think the concept is cool in a “wow that’s cool” sense. My guess is that the initial group trying to do this will eventually fail. They may in the process sink enough into it and get close enough that someone else will come in, not caring about sunk cost or carrying the debt after a failure, and carry through (look at Iridium for how this works). I’m pretty skeptical we’ll be there in the next 40 years, and whether we ever really get there depends more on demand for resources IN orbit than anything else in the long run IMHO.

  79. Jesse

    @Wzrd1 – you’re wrong about Amazon, flat out.

    Back in 1999 Amazon took out a gigantic convertible bond. It was touch and go as to whether the investors would take the stock or ask for the money (a loan) back. Had Amazon dropped below $40 a share they would have owed $5 billion + interest. They would have been sunk.

    Amazon didn’t just say “we won’t turn a profit.” Bezos was very, very specific in his investor calls. (Just go read the transcripts and quarterly reports, the SEC has the latter). What made Amazon so good (from an investor perspective) was that he beat his targets consistently. Amazon knew they had a “tipping point” where they would be profitable and they hit it. A lot of other Internet businesses did not. AMazon didn’t go for the “we don’t need to make money, everything is different now” thing. Remember Pets.com? I thought not. :-)

  80. Hemo_jr

    Investing in this certainly makes a lot more sense than spending a billion dollars for Instagram.

  81. Jim

    @Paul-

    The problem is, we’re not likely to be able to tell much difference between one asteroid and another with telescopes, especially telescopes that are that small.

    @Nat-

    For flight hardware, this will cost $400-$500M, mostly depending on how well payload integration and testing goes. There are very few mysteries as to how a satellite bus like this should work, apart from the fact that the 40kW solar array is unusually large. On the other hand, the next generation of commercial comsats is moving in this direction, so there’s a great deal of interest in the private sector to look this way already.

    A lot of the $2.6 billion that NASA quotes feels like padding, including “$250M for NASA oversight”, and “$600 million reserve”.

    @Thanny-

    It probably won’t be a regulatory agency that enforces care with asteroid retrieval. It will probably be the US military, in cooperation with other militaries around the world.

    Or perhaps the FAA, under the aegis of “air traffic” control.

    But, considering the fact that 5m-10m carbonaceous chondrite asteroids tend to fragment and vaporize in the atmosphere, they won’t do appreciable damage if it hits the ground. (They hit earth, on average, once a day. One hit a guy’s car, recently. Put a 1-foot diameter hole through the trunk. State Farm could cover that sort of liability, for less than a thousand bucks a year.)

    @Alhazred:

    The market for on-orbit rocket fuel, for GEO stationkeeping only, is 10,000-15,000 kg per year. (That’s with a saturated market.) Add to that 12-15 launches per year, which could each consume a few tons of propellant.

    As I may or may not have mentioned on this thread, less than a year ago, Intelsat signed documents indicating it is willing to pay MDA $270 million dollars for a total of 1000kg of fuel, delivered to a few of their satellites in GEO.

    The market is there. What I’ve outlined only covers GEO birds — it doesn’t count MEOs like GPS, or LEOs of various types.

  82. Jay Fox

    In the long run, developing resources in space, for use in space, is the logical first step for expanding humanity’s presence in space. The idea of capturing water and other useful gasses, and storing them for future use, is really the only way we can reasonably expect to outfit a mission to far off places like Mars and beyond.

    I like the idea. With the cost of getting to orbit so high, it seems logical that we launch as little as possible, and build stuff out there with resources acquired “locally.” Expensive as that may seem, it would probably pencil out cheaper than launching heavy equipment.

    The people backing this endeavor have more money than they can ever use here on earth. They can spend it however they wish. If their wish is to place stepping stones on the path to humanity’s emergence into a spacefaring species, so be it. If we are to expand off-world, someone must start the process. Since no government on the planet can muster the will to do it, it will fall to private enterprise.

    Make no mistake. Enough people wanted to get into space that we convinced our government to go there. Fiscal reality has somewhat changed the government focus, but plenty of folks still want space exploration, and will pay with their own money to see it.

  83. GP

    I think that most people are missing the fact that none of these high profile investors would be doing this “bussines” for profits only. If you have couple of hundred or even billions of dollars there are certainly a lot of investments where you can make money with almost no risk (there is always a risk).
    The point is that they are doing it because they grew up with that idea , they are part of generation that has been inspired by moon landing, rise of computer science and man’s future in space. Look at Elon Musk when he talks about it. He is a combination of geek, bussinessman and a dreamer.
    We came to the point where there is a perfrect strom of “geeks” that are smart enough, financialy sound and able to pull this out. They do need a way to present this as financially sound idea while in reality while it can be profitable in distant future, it is so risky there is no financial sense to try it (unless you are enthusiastic about the whole thing, and that is the point) Unfortunately it will take only a small misstep (accidents happen) for “skeptics” to go ballistic on them.
    Regarding “government only should do it idea” all I can say is that we have enough proof that will never happen at this scale. NASA has been a tool for budget manipulation for a long time (“we need to solve problmes on earth first” crap etc…). As Phil already mentioned before NASA should focus on scientific work and support/use these guys for heavy lifiting (literraly) efforts. I just hope these guys are enthusiastic enough and have enough luck, or otherwise we’ll never make any serous effort in colonizing space. (unless there is “perfect storm” and everyone needs to work together to avoid some kind of exitinction event- in which case we would probably fail anyways – too little too late).

  84. Lobius

    You’re a sellout, Mr. Bad Astronomy.

    For all the good intentions of the backers, they’re going to hire the same clowns who brought us Deep Water Horizon.

    In case you forgot, that was the genius idea of drilling a mile into the mantle after passing through the pressure of 1/2 mile of saltwater.

    The consequences are far more disastrous than that stupid clip of a 19 inch wide hole spewing out oil.

    The Gulf of Mexico is dead.

    I hope people in charge to be a lot more skeptical. That’s why people read your work but you clearly abandon that mission for this.

    With rampant corruption in this country, how are we supposed to care about the credentials and pedigree of people on the payroll of billionaires?

    Did you get a cut?

  85. Jeff

    #79

    You are a wise sage, and I wish more people thought like you. I do.

  86. Jim

    Question: if Planetary Resources is going for asteroids small enough to be wrangled for a vehicle you could launch for $10M, doesn’t that imply that they’re 1m across at most? And aren’t those very, very dim? Could you actually spot something that dim with a space telescope on the order of 30cm on a side?

  87. Lobius (89): let’s say you’re exactly right (which I don’t agree with). So what? The Gulf is not dead, first off, but I do understand the vast damage done to it by BP and was quite vocal about it. But we’re talking asteroids here, barren rocks with no life.

    And the reason you care about the pedigree of these people is because they have a history of getting things done. I am still skeptical on how they will do this, and I say so in this post. But if it can be done, these very well may be the people who will do it.

    So the situation with your comment is precisely wrong. I’m not a sellout; you’re too cynical. Skepticism is fine, but shutting down any ability to look at evidence is not.

  88. Paul

    The problem is, we’re not likely to be able to tell much difference between one asteroid and another with telescopes, especially telescopes that are that small.

    It’s my understanding that they plan to send these microspacecraft out of earth orbit, after they’ve proven them in LEO. If it has a spectrophotometer, one of these could do more detailed characterization of an asteroid if it’s sent out to be near to it.

    BTW, the most plausible market for raw mass in earth orbit may be shielding mass for military satellites.

  89. John

    The people who think this will work are confused on 2 fronts:

    1. They think that space is a lot smaller than it is.
    2. They think physics gives a hoot about how much money you throw at a problem.

    Stuff like this simply won’t work until we get SSME sized fusion reactors working that can power the plasma/ion/vasimr engines you’d need to push all this mass around the solar system. (and then only if it can capture ions from the solar wind for reaction mass.)

    Say for instance you want to drop some mined material into the atmosphere, and you want it to be intact when it hits the ground – either in a capsule of some sort, or just bare with retro rockets strapped on… you would need a system capable of delivering a high fraction of the orbital energy of the asteroid back into itself (in the opposite direction) to slow it down and control it at all.

    The space shuttle and capsules need hundreds of miles of atmosphere to slow down. So say you need a big, tremendously huge capsule to bring back enough ore for it to be profitable. That means you have to launch that huge capsule, and then figure out how to stop it (absurd ∆v * applied to a huge mass!) when it gets to the asteroid, do your mining, bring it back to earth…

    While you can use conventional ion engines to slowly ferry things across the solar system over large timescales, and even use the interplanetary transport network to minimize energy costs… once you are coming back down to earth you need lots of thrust, or lots of atmosphere and ablative mass (which you dragged with you in the first place.)

    This is stuff you can’t just press-conference away.

  90. John

    [edit - deleted, didn't realize i could edit the above]

  91. CB

    @ 82 Chris in Canada:

    Of course they’re planning on profiting in the long term; they explicitly state as much. But obviously there’s more going on than just the profit motive, otherwise they’d choose any of the safer and more profitable ways to make $Mega. Which in fact a lot of people on the roll call are doing. The reason they chose this highly speculative and risky method of possibly making money in the future is because of what it is, and what in represents.

    That being a given, I take issue with their goal of mining being proof it’s purely for-profit. Imagine instead that the goal really and truly was nothing more than the exploration of space and the extension with no regard to profit. Well, mining asteroids for propellant would still be one of the first things you’d want to do, because of the exponential curve for lifting propellant out of our gravity well. In-orbit refueling is already something NASA is planning for future missions beyond earth orbit. And hey, rather than just lifting ships into orbit and then fueling them, why not construct them in space too, using materials that also didn’t have to be lifted from earth’s gravity well. Any realistic plan for human exploration of space contains these elements.

    The fact that these people want to make it a reality — which means dealing with the reality of funding — is amazing.

  92. Matthew C. Tedder

    I keep vainly working on this design of a deep space cruiser that might be ideal for mining within the asteroid belt and shipping supply back to Earth. It’s three large cylinders, each with its own little Garden of Eden inside. Inner cylinders rotate (magnetically levitated) for inertia in place of gravity. The center of each cylinder has a long tube upon which an natural spectrum LED sun rolls back and forth.. Plus to provide rain. It would also rotate with arms bracing downward for structural integrity of the cylinder. A ladder would go up and exit at the center end of each cylinder, into the outer chamber that does not rotate. It would lead to other facilities.

    The cylinders would be constructed by bringing up and bolting together wire meshes. The Outer cylinder would then have multiple protective layers of fibers and fabrics, with resin vacuum peculated through it and hardened via ultraviolet light (a technique sometimes used in ship building that uses very little resin and provides more strength–space already has a vacuum). The inner cylinder would have planting soil (dried and compression for transport) layed out over its interior. This needs to be about 3 feet deep (once watered). This should be enough to block virtually all harmful space radiation on its own. A block of ice out in space should be mined to water the interior.

    The center between the three cylinders should be zero-G workshop and storage areas. On the rear end of the craft, I’d place a thorium reactor (very cheap, easy to activate and cool down again with a laser and produces only low levels of harmful radiation). Past that, I’d put an ion plasma thruster. These are the fastest and most fuel efficient kinds of space engines known today (proven tech). And, beyond that, a was thinking three big clamp-like arms with conveyors on them for grabbing an asteroid and harvesting materials from it.

    I would use electromagnetic fly-wheels for raw, roll, and pitch.

    I wasn’t thinking of this for mining operations per se. I was dreaming of interstellar missions or just permanent habitats. Living in Gardens like that for one’s whole life might be better than living on Earth. But I wouldn’t want to fool myself to think it’s a perfectly self-sustaining sealed environment.

  93. Matthew C. Tedder

    Also–According to NASA, it takes 17.5 trees on average, to supply enough oxygen for one adult human. It takes between 500 to 600 grams of algae to do the same… It should have creeks and ponds with lots of agae.. They also purity water from sewerage, etc..

  94. CB

    @ John

    Is it everyone else who is confused?

    There are plenty of targets that don’t require large amounts of energy to reach. Most of them are far easier to reach from earth orbit than it is to attain earth orbit in the first place. You’re slightly less than halfway to the surface of Mars once you’re in LEO, and there are many, many NEOs with far less delta-v required. It isn’t “absurd” at all. Time is only an issue at start-up, which is not a problem if you accept it will be years before you see material returns and after that it’s just how big a pipeline you can have. There is no fundamental “space is too big” or “physics says you can’t” issue.

    An even bigger misconception would be that the efficiency of the whole deal depends on how much mass you drop back down to earth in a single capsule. If they actually get to the point of having a large amount of precious metals in earth orbit, then they’ll certainly be able to take their time delivering it in multiple small capsules that present no insurmountable problems.

  95. SW

    This will probably fail … and that will be OK, because the effort of having really smart people trying this will result in several advances that end up succeeding.

    It’s always worth it to get smart people to try to solve big problems.

    In 5 years I’m sure they’ll look back at the plan they have now and laugh. But they’ll still have a plan.

  96. Ryan

    Crashing markets is also not an issue.

    When it becomes economically feasible to have fuel cells, ion batteries and very cheap solar / other high technologies because of abundance of rare earth elements and platinum metals…. well you make you money in bulk sales.

    Aluminum used to be very rare, and very expensive. Now it’s not, it’s used in everything and everybody and their mother uses everyday items made of the stuff (aluminum foil anyone?). Speculators and people who tried to retain their wealth in physical aluminum got hit, but the people making it and selling it still make money. It created whole new markets and technologies and wealth.

    Flooding the market with much needed rare metals will only put earth mining operations out of business, since bringing in 100′s of tons at a time via robotics makes more sense and is a better supply line. Not going to shed a tear when we can increase our wealth at the same time of fixing the environment.

    Speculators can suck it, as they don’t increase wealth, only drive up prices.

  97. Colin Bembridge

    This, or something like it, is the only way that we’ll ever have a chance of establishing a permanent presence in our Planetary vicinity. It’s not about getting the material back to Earth, it’s about making it available on Orbit. And I get the point that you made about NASA being good at certain things with the logical next step of Private Industry picking up where they left off. As a long-range plan this has all the hallmarks of being do-able. Imagine. Larry Niven’s Belters for real.. Technical College degrees in Orbital Mechanics and Micro Gravity Mining Techniques. Very cool.
    Now all they need to do is pool the cash and buy the ISS, boost it into high orbit and Orbital Base One is born.
    Too bad I’ll be dead long before this all becomes reality, but at least it gives me hope for my Kids.

  98. PeteC

    I spent last weekend in Cardiff and Caerphilly. One of the places we visited was Castle Coch. It’s an old site that was ruined, but most of a century back a rich [equivalent to in modern terms] billionaire rebuilt it – not accurately, but as he envisaged it should have been. It was a bit of a folly, really.

    But it’s now a gorgeous building, a beautiful piece of art that’s a fun and interesting place to see. Was it the correct move economically for this [would now be a] billionaire to waste his money this way? Absolutely not. Is it kind of nice that he did? Oh yes. Hell of a lot better than his descendents having slightly more in their mutual funds than otherwise.

    In the same way, Bill Gates has chosen to use his billions to tackle some existing, real-world problems, these gentlement have chosen to shoot for the sky. It’s their money; good for them. And don’t forget, every penny they spend comes out of an investment account and goes into an engineering or space sciences company, and in salary to their employees.

  99. Old Muley

    I hope they call the first successful mining ship the Nostromo.

  100. Stargazer

    This is one the most important steps to make sure we can become a truly spacefaring and interplanetary civilisation. If we can get the resources that are already in space, we could use it to build spacestations and spaceships without having to launch too much from a deep gravity well.

  101. Paul

    Also–According to NASA, it takes 17.5 trees on average, to supply enough oxygen for one adult human.

    Actually, the plants that were grown to produce your food also produce enough oxygen to metabolize that food. Oxygen atoms aren’t created or destroyed in the cycle.

    (There’s net consumption of O2 by the synthesis of ammonia from natural gas and its subsequent conversion back to N2 by denitifying bacteria, but that’s a side issue that goes away if the ammonia is made renewably.)

  102. David M

    A lot of you guys seem hung up over the cost of moving asteroids. Who says the asteroids have to be moved to be mined? Many asteroids have a regular, predictable orbit that takes them past a point reasonably close to Earth’s orbit.

    So all you need is some sort of modular mining vehicle that can be launched in to Earth’s orbit. When a target asteroid comes close to Earth, the vehicle can be set on an intercept course, it can land on to the asteroid. For the next few orbits (~years/decades) it can sit and mine patiently while waiting for the asteroid to return to a near Earth location. At this point it can launch itself back off the asteroid and place itself in to lunar orbit. Its load could be collected, and the vehicle could be refurbished for its next mission.

    Taking advantage of existing momentum has been a key strategy for space exploration for decades. It takes a lot of energy to move mass, but you can take advantage of other planets for sling-shotting etc. So if you could have a low mass mining platform that can take advantage of existing orbits you can get there and back cheaply. If you target asteroids that have liquid fuel components available for mining then you can make it even cheaper. And if you use a modular technology that you can launch in mass, target many different asteroids, and have the mining vehicles return to a central location (lunar orbit), you can take advantage of cost savings involved in scale.

    A nice feature is that the mining platform would be low mass when it needs energy to accelerate and reach the asteroid to match its velocity for landing. And once it has finished its mission it would presumably have a much larger mass, however you don’t need much energy at the end of mission as you could easily escape the asteroid’s gravity well in to a lunar orbit path and then use a non-rocket method of slowing (solar sails etc) to get you in to lunar orbit capture velocity.

    So in short, criticizing this company for trying to launch a giant rocket to an asteroid and then bring the asteroid back to Earth to be mined is idiotic because that is a terrible, unrealistic strategy that wont be performed. They need to think outside the box and the fact that they’d be targeting volatile, easily compressible gases shows that they are doing this.

  103. DennyMo

    “can also be pointed down to Earth for remote sensing operations”

    Anybody else read this and wonder what kind of remote sensing they had in mind? The tinfoil-hats in the crowd will be certain it’s Big Brother surveillance, I’m not so quick to jump to the “evil motives” conclusion. But I am curious…

  104. David M

    @ DennyMo 109

    Well presumably they would be instruments designed for geological survey to appraise targets for mining potential. So presumably they could be reoriented to do geological surveys to appraise targets for mining potential on Earth.

    They’re probably not interested in spying on you.

  105. carbonUnit

    I think an interesting thing would be the opportunity to mitigate the effects of the rocket equation for all spaceflight beyond LEO. If a volatiles-rich asteroid could be brought into orbit and have a fuel production facility on it, things get interesting.

    Craft bound for destinations beyond LEO could fly to LEO with their upper stages empty. They could rendezvous with a tanker from the asteroid, fuel up and head out to their ultimate destination. Not having to lift the fuel for the entire flight from the ground should produce a huge savings by reducing the size of the lower stages. There are lots of variations on this:

    - payload/upper stage rendezvous in LEO with booster tug from asteroid. Tug pushes payload/upper stage to asteroid where both are fueled up. The upper stage pushes the payload to it’s destination and the tug goes on to its next task.

    - payload for higher (geosync?) orbit meets tug in LEO. Tug pushes payload to desired orbit. Once the payload is deemed OK, tug returns to asteroid for next mission. If payload is not OK, tug takes it to facility where humans or robots can try to fix it. If all else fails, puts it in an orbit that will quickly decay, reducing space junk.

    Fuel in Earth orbit could make persistent craft like space tugs/tankers practical, because they would not need to be fueled from the ground. They could not only provide further boost for craft lofted to LEO, but could perform resupply, recovery/repair and de-orbit missions. But the game changer would be that missions to anywhere would suddenly only need enough rocket & fuel to get to LEO.

    Dunno if this venture will really work, but it sure is intriguing.

  106. VinceRN

    My first thoughts were “Woohoo!” and “About damned time” Finally beginning to look like the 21st century.

    They may fail, but even if they do they will learn much, they will advance science and space exploration. The spinnoffs from this will improve the world. It is being done with private money, not tax money. It will create jobs, it will inspire students and educators. There is no down side to this except the investors losing money, and the investors all appear to be willing to risk that. None of them will be hurt at all if this fails and they are out a few hundred million each, or even a billion each.

    These guys combined add up to Delos D Harriman, and win or lose, they will change the world.

  107. -jeffB

    You don’t need nuclear engines; all you need is cleverness, solar energy, and patience.

    Send out a robot with a great deal of knowledge and skill, and a few small tubs of dopants.

    Find a nice carbonaceous asteroid. Be smart enough to spin solar panels out of carbon, or produce silicon from the asteroid’s mineral components and spin them out of that.

    Use all that solar power to vaporize, ionize, and accelerate whatever you’ve got on hand. Heck, build a big robotic golf club, and move around by whacking rocks in the opposite direction.

    Sure, regulatory agencies might try to step in. It would be a shame if a rock fell on them.

  108. carbonUnit

    Theme = SpaceBalls

    @57. Space Cowgirl Says: “Is it the future now? ”

    Soon!

    @68. Dylan Says: “…so I’m imagining something like a ‘space hoover’…”

    Mega Maid!
    Suck! Suck! Suck!

  109. Thomas

    @95 John

    At least in regards to returning the material to Earth you are over thinking the problem. There is no need to launch capsules to return the material to Earth.

    Since they will be refining the material in orbit in order to extract the volatiles and the platinum group metals, they are going to be left with huge quantities of slag containing useful things like nickle, iron and basically every element on the periodic table.

    In a micro-gravity environment it would take relatively little effort to cast a heavy container with the right aerodynamic properties and a heavy ablative heat shield to handle re-entry. The only thing you need to launch are bolt on rocket control systems and avionics to point it in the right direction (possibly this can be a reusable tractor system).

    Since its just a plug of metal with soft metals inside there is not even a need for terminal braking. Just let it slam into the planet without using parachutes. The level of technical complexity involved is more akin to a large unguided bomb than it is to an Apollo capsule.

    It’s only difficult to engineer a return capsule if you have to actually launch it in the first place. If weight is not a consideration, its childs play to return the stuff to Earth. Iron meteorites reach the surface of the planet every day despite dealing with higher re-entry speeds than needed here, and with no aerodynamic shaping, which submits them to huge stresses from heating and tumbling that would not be experienced by a properly formed capsule.

    If you have a requirement to cut down the size of the impact area, again it is not hard to bolt on a simple control system and make it more akin to a GPS guided bomb. These are all really simple, solvable problems that can be addressed with light, easy to launch, mass produced (and thus cheap) equipment.

    The hard work is moving the asteroid and the mining/refining process, especially since some of the most valuable parts are the volatiles. Pass that hurdle and getting stuff back to Earth is simple.

  110. David H.

    I think it would be a shame to take all these great hard-won materials from asteroids and flush them down the gravity well toilet we call Earth. If they’re useful to us here, wouldn’t they be just as useful up in space, if not more so? For example, if these elements were useful for PV cells, why stick them under our stupid atmosphere? Why not forge them in an orbital factory and then leave them in orbit, where they can produce far more power? I wouldn’t even want to beam all that lovely energy to Earth, as some have suggested. Let’s use it in space to manufacture more stuff, like a proper permanent space station that cycles between Earth and Mars! Computers are going to continue to eat up an ever larger portion of our energy. Why not have those up in space, where they have easy access to lots of nearly free energy? How much would it cost Intel to build a chip fab up in space? Not really that much, because asteroids have all the materials they would ever need, and zero G would provide many advantages in growing perfect semiconductor crystals. So many of our manufacturing tasks are automated to such a high degree that replicating them in space would not be such a stretch. The bigger problem is in securing the materials, and the solution to that problem is asteroid mining.

  111. Karen

    @John (95): That presumes the goal is to bring this material back to earth AT ALL. If the goal is actually to jumpstart the logistics chain necessary to support a permanently inhabited installation somewhere beyond LEO (indeed, beyond Earth), then the diseconomies of dropping material back down Earth’s gravity well are no longer a consideration. And it’s cheap, energy-wise, to move stuff about elsewhere.

    Once we have the infrastructure available to do so, anyway.

  112. IdeaInvestor

    They may say they are an asteroid mining company, and maybe will be eventually, but first and foremost they are a spacecraft building company (with an impressive & hugely successful pedigree), who want to achieve profit in volume what other companies achieve in special-purpose one-off designs.

  113. @Phil, you don’t happen to know if they need a starving (3D) artist with a few k of investment money? XD

    I kid, I kid ^^

  114. If the point is to travel to infinity and beyond and you can find what’s necessary in an asteroid, why bother packaging it (water for example) for delivery? Just settle down on the asteroid and ride it wherever it is going…

  115. MadScientist

    I remember colleagues working on the “water from asteroids” question about 16 years ago. Back then, the water trapped in asteroids was going to supply the water and oxygen needed by spacefarers. The metallic asteroids themselves would provide the funds for further exploration. My colleagues weren’t so pleased when I asked them why the asteroids would want to part with their money and what the conversion rate was. I remember that I heard there was “enough” water out there but I never did have a chance to look at the figures myself. So from my point of view, this is an old idea being resurrected. Will it go anywhere? I doubt it.

  116. Brian Too

    @$#! Internet Explorer *&^% lost comments ~*#$ mumbles resentfully…

  117. Pretty darn cool and exciting news! I was watching your tweets and NASA’s. All points led to this conclusion. Excellent post, Phil. And for those students, like our son, who are studying astrophysics this can only open an entire new set of opportunities for them. Yay! :)

  118. Will Robinson

    The physics of this is knowable. A previous generation could probably figure it out with a slide rule and give a go/no go assessment.

    The extractive metallurgy is more unknowable. A truly challenging X-prize would be to develop a factory that fits in a shipping container that can chew up a 1956 Studebaker truck with Au/Pd/Pt in the glove compartment, buried under a pile of gravel, encased in a snow drift in a Walmart parking lot and have materials is a useful form come out the back end. And run only on solar/nuclear power without chemical inputs. And no mechanics.

    But at the very least, this could be a great opening sequence for a James Bond film coming to theaters Xmas 2030.

  119. The PMG’s are more than just money in the bank.
    With 3D printing availible, we can start making bearings out of irridium/indium blends that will last almost forever. I think it is indium that can actually store solar energy as electricity – directly usable.

    We don’t need nuke energy anymore, they discovered you can create nuetrons, thereby generating heat from water. Rossi is probably a crock, but Brillouin has nailed it.

    http://pesn.com/2012/04/19/9602078_Brillouin–Understanding_How_LENR_Works_Will_Enable_Us_to_Be_First/

    http://nextbigfuture.com/2012/04/brillouin-had-los-alamos-and-sri.html#more

    They also have another trick up there sleeve for getting to LEO. They have been working with the Seasteading community, and are interested in the Quicklaunch platform for a cannon to LEO for non-crushable eqpt and supplies. This is old tech from the nuc ballistic shell days in the 50′s.

    We have settled on steam engines to get around the system too. Microwave instead of wood. Simple and no oxidizers needed.

    This is all pretty doable and straightforward, lots of tech info at our YahooGroup site at NEAmines.

    The hardest thing to do is actually get the stuff into containers, that is why capture is so attractive.

  120. Phil wrote:

    “A rock could be brought into an orbit around the Moon (that’s easiest to do in terms of fuel) where it could then be mined.”

    But the scary part is, the same rock could also be deliberately brought onto an Earth-intersecting collision course — with the even-more-ominous possibility of targeting the region of Earth where you want the rock to hit.

    The article in your link mentions moving a 500 tonne asteroid into lunar orbit. Such a rock hitting the Earth, at the *absolute minimum* interplanetary speed of 11,000 miles per hour, would have 6 trillion Joules of kinetic energy, equal to a 1.4 kiloton nuclear bomb (small by nuke standards — the Hiroshima bomb had a yield of around 12 kilotons — but still no fun when you’re standing at ground zero).

    I’m not saying the Planetary Resources people would do this deliberately. I’m certainly not saying they’d do it by *accident* (hitting an Earth-sized target requires pretty precise aim). I’m saying that if THEY can do it, someone ELSE with fewer scruples could also do it….

  121. Russ

    @121 Tracer So what? Those kind of hits are a regular event allready. ScienceDaily “California Sunday morning, April 22 2012. A bright ball of light traveling east to west was seen over the skies of central/northern California. Bill Cooke of the Meteoroid Environments Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., estimates the object was about the size of a minivan, weighed in at around 154,300 pounds (70 metric tons) and at the time of disintegration released energy equivalent to a 5-kiloton explosion.” Asteroids that size hit earth several times a year.

  122. Gary Ansorge

    130. tracer

    Good grief, enough with the paranoia already. Even Iran would know better than to spend all that money to bomb Israel when they can just drop a nuke for a lousy 20 or 30 million and of course, so does Israel. Bad guys we will always have with us but by the time the entrepreneurs have successfully developed the high frontier enough that such bad guys COULD do the dirty, there will also be some kind of co-operative control system in place to prevent just such a scenario.

    …but that scenario MIGHT make a cool movie…(maybe with Tom Cruise)

    Gary 7

  123. VinceRN

    @130 tracer – Why on Earth would someone do that? There are much easier and much faster ways to attack someone at a minuscule fraction of the cost. Do you think there is some badly written James Bond super-villain out there scheming to destroy the world or something? What would it cost to build a space infrastructure, move an asteroid, and figure out a way to target it at a specific point on the Earth? You notional villain or government could build a fleet of strategic bombers, boomer subs and ICBMs faster and for less.

  124. Doug Rusta

    I do not wish to rain on anyone’s parade, but it appears that many commentators have not experienced the development process for complex space hardware, and are perhaps unaware of the limited progress in propulsion systems over the past fifty years. I will not defend the traditional private and civil aerospace entities; they certainly suffer from symptoms of an aging industry. And the newest private firms appear to be nimble and competent. But I must observe that a program structured with multi-year phases is likely prone to loss of support in a manner comparable to NASA’s inability to define a primary mission goal and to stick with it. Stuff happens, and plans will have to be altered to reflect the technical and cost realities. The value of these efforts is likely to be found in improved imaging and robotic technologies. Such advances can be achieved at reasonable cost. Space mining must be traded against deep sea mining at some point, however, and the latter will be shown to be more cost effective. I would also suggest that a more important problem to consider is the accommodation of the effects of global climate change.

  125. They can keep the asteroids (except that big one- I want that). I’ll take the planet Mercury. All the metals you’ll ever want and not too deep down either. I imagine that plenty has been churned up to near the surface too. And the energy to mine and process is right next door, for free and in large quantities. Boosting back up to earth orbit might seem to be tricky without volatiles, so use heavier ions in an ion drive, or make a solar sail from local stuff. All sorts of means here. Might be hot and radiationy on the surface, but things deep down might be nice and cozy. Still need water and nitrogen, so facilities near the giant planets good too. Get a nice trading relationship going.

  126. dcortesi

    One mention of Heinlein, two of D.D. Harriman: here’s the story of The Man Who Sold the Moon. Diamandis, Anderson et. al. could actually use some of Harriman’s sales points…

  127. Stargazer

    In a world where $1,546,529,200,000 is acceptable as the global military spending per year, taking a longterm leap to create an interplanetary species seems cheap in comparison – especially when you consider which is more useful and create a better tomorrow.

  128. puppygod

    “Computers are going to continue to eat up an ever larger portion of our energy. Why not have those up in space, where they have easy access to lots of nearly free energy?”

    I really like that idea. We just have to learn how to make solar panels up there. We don’t even have to make CPUs in space, at least initially – they are small enough to be sent from Earth. And making shielding and huge radiators for waste heat with all that nickel and iron leftover from mining more precious stuff should be almost trivial. Comsat technology we have already mastered. If they start mining operations in space, it should be relatively easy to set up a fleet of orbital supercomputers and start side business of selling computation power. Beam up data, receive calculated outcome – all within seconds. Gives new meaning to the term “cloud computing”.

  129. prianikoff

    Bringing rare minerals from the asteroids back to earth is like cutting down an oak forest to get one acorn.
    If it made sense, squirrels would have invented the axe.
    Neither the energy budget, nor the economics work.

    Take Gold as an example:-
    There are estimated to be 145,000 metric tonnes of mined bullion on Earth.
    Assuming Gold were discovered in the asteroid belt.
    Doubling this amount would require *at least* 30,000 missions, there and back.
    But the total cost would be literally astronomical.
    Each Space Shuttle launch cost an average of $1.5 billion.
    This would be a considerably more complex task.

    As Gold is primarily a signifier of exchange value, its average price would drop.
    If these private venture capitalists think they can make a profit, they’re free to invest their money. But they shouldn’t be get any from the taxpayer.

    What might make more sense would be to use the asteroids as bases from which to build permanent space habitats.
    They have the H20, which can provide a breathable atmosphere, rocket fuel and drinking water. Some, like Vesta, are known to have metallic ores, others like Ceres may have geothermal resources. Their escape velocities are low enough to deliver this material into orbit using mass-drivers.

    So the asteroids might one day become the naval dockyard of the solar system, assembling O’Neil cylinders in space.
    Such artificial habitats could provide artificial gravity and shielding from radiation.
    These are essential to avoid the medical problems of spending long periods in space.
    Volunteers could then spend 2 or 3 years at a time living on them.
    Eventually, a fraction of the human population will be dotted around the solar system.
    Just as a fraction is always flying at 40,000 feet in the pressurised cabins of airliners.

    This wouldn’t have any immediate economic benefits.
    But it would certainly enhance humanity’s long-term prospects for survival.
    That’s a very important consideration.

    Meanwhile, there are more pressing problems to deal with on earth, such as global warming and producing sustainable energy.
    So I don’t see it happening on a big scale for another hundred years or more.
    Maybe as part of an international effort, like the Space Station.

  130. Troc

    What about the unwanted bits of the asteriods and the waste products of the mining ? Is there be a long term storage solution for this waste i.e. build a new space structure or will they be disposed of cleanly ?

  131. Stargazer

    The best thing would be to mine the asteroids automatically, and then use a magnet cannon to launch the metals to the Earth in the most energy efficient trajectories. Eventually there would be a steady stream of materials we could use to build the huge space ships necessary to go to Mars and beyond. It could also be used to build solar power stations in space.

    The awesome thing about mining asteroids is that you could eventually extract, refine and use all the raw materials while avoiding any deeper gravity wells.

    This will lift our entire civilisation to a whole new level. And yes, we should also use tax money to do this. The possible return is extraordinary.

  132. puppygod

    Sigh. Again – don’t use STS costs as approximation, because they are way off and misleading. Whatever launch vehicle will Planetary Resources use, it won’t be STS. There is some cost in launching equipment into LEO, but it’s not some unsurmountable obstacle, as many commenters seem to think. After all there are more than 3000 active satellites in orbits and many of them commercial. Cost of LEO delivery using comercially available systems (available as in you call them today and say “I want satellite in so-and-so orbit by the winter, how much?” and they give you number) is between 20 – 200 mil $ per launch, but with small satellite piggybackin on other mission is just cost some 5-15.000 $ per kg, which is well within financial capabilities of even much smaller companies.

    The real unknown number is the cost and timeline of development of the orbital vehicle – and they are going to need one eventually – but there is no way of estimating that without additional data.

  133. Joseph

    Well… awesome.

    I understand the possibility that in the long run nothing may come of this. I also think the people driving this forward are people of vision, resources and intelligence with the connections to actually make it happen.

    Along those lines, I have a thousand dollars that, given the opportunity, I would gladly invest in what ever entity actually begins launching. I know I may never see anything of that grand again, but I am willing to invest in the vision of the thing and for the slight chance of awesome payouts in a few decades.

    How many others would be willing to toss a $1,000.00 into the pot with me?

    -Joseph

  134. chaneski

    At least they are out there… doing things.

  135. Jeff

    #104 – I too think I will be long gone before we see if this pans out. However, my own opinion on it is, if they use robotic arms to do the hauling, all for it, because it will bring wealth to the surface. But if they use human miners, I believe they will be minimum wage grunts and I don’t want to see that happen in space. I had a grandpa who emigrated from Italy and died in the mines of Michigan, at least from the effects of his “short, brutish life” in the caves mining iron. At least they passed down the traditional “pasties” for lunch to us his descendents. Anyone love those? If you don’t know them, research them on google , Iron Mountain MI sells them.

  136. Stargazer

    Large scale mining of the asteroids could change our civilisation forever, sort of like the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago. If we take this step now, the return will be more hope and possibilities for us, not just within a few decades, but many millennia. Don’t say no to this just because it doesn’t give an immediate and short term return. That’s not really the goal with something like this anyway.

  137. NASA hasn’t been “breaking new ground for the last 50 years”; they’ve been in a 40-year rut since the last of Apollo. No new propulsion tech, no viable destinations found, still costs $10K or whatever to put a kilo in Earth orbit.

    We should kill the manned space program until we find something worth sending humans to. Something with a big benefit, worth the big cost. We haven’t found any such thing yet. Keep the unmanned program going. http://www.billdietrich.me/Reason/ReasonMannedSpaceProgram.html

  138. lohengrin

    I find it weird that James Cameron is involved. His movies have conclusively show that no good can come to, or of, space miners.

  139. Scenario_dave

    These plans make sense. One of the most important things to the bean counters is budget. If 4 billionaires gave 25 million dollars per year each to start, that’s 100 million dollars a year to work with. Pocket change for a billionaire.

    First a one time expense to build the infrastructure on the ground. Say 50 million to start.
    Then add the variable costs. $10,000 per kilo to launch. A 20 kilo basic telescope with a small telescope, an ion engine and communication equipment. $200,000 to launch. $300,000 to make the vehicle. 1/2 a million each. Launch 20 per year.
    Ten million dollars a year.

    Another twenty million for salaries. Add twenty million for other things I haven’t thought of yet.

    Total 80 million the first year.

    The second year the $30 million dollar ground start up costs is more like 10 million in improvement costs so it drops to 60 million a year for the second year.

    After two years, you’ve got 40 small telescopes put up to test the technology. You’ve got the same team building every telescope so they get better at building by learning from their mistakes. After 2 or 3 years, they’ve got most of the bugs worked out.

    Then step two. build the second generation telescopes designed to travel beyond LEO. They cost 4 times as much. So two million each. But you only launch 5 or 10 of them a year so because they a more advanced model that doesn’t require as much testing. Once they are proven, you may be able to lease some of them to colleges and other groups for extra revenue.

    It takes several years for the second gen ships to reach their destination so this step takes ten or 15 years to complete.

    All this time the billionaires just have to write their one check a year for an amount known in advance. They aren’t making any money off of it but that is not the purpose. As long as they are steadily making progress, the billionaires are getting their money’s worth.

    With luck, they can find asteroids that have both useful metals and volatiles on them.

    Step three is much more expensive since they will have to start building much more massive spaceships to mine. But if this is planned and financed properly, they would have a fund built up to start the construction of the mining robots. Because the mining robots will be much heavier, the costs will be much higher. Say, $40 million per launch instead of $2 million per launch. They launch one or two per year. Because the asteroids are near earth, they don’t cost much more to get there than to geosynchronous orbit if you launch them at the right time. It might take 10 or 20 years to get all the equipment there you need. Then you either mine and send the resources back to lunar orbit or strap an engine on it and get the whole asteroid back.

    Because the operation takes 20 or thirty years the costs are spread out. Also because the construction crews are constantly building new ships they work out the bugs after a while and get more efficient. They can rent or sell their expertise to help pay for the project. This assumes that there will be launch capabilities and an improvement in robot tech in the next 10 to 15 years.

    The goal is to use the materials to build space stations. In the long run, it’s going to cost a lot less than $10,000 a kilo to move an asteroid to lunar orbit. The project isn’t going to make any money until we start manufacturing in space but spreading the costs out makes it feasible.

  140. Ben

    I can see 3d printing technology playing a useful role in due course. Maybe not for the more advanced components but for the more basic parts and tools that while ‘basic’ would still require a lot of heavy machinery to manufacture otherwise.

    It really does appear these guys are serious and have really put the grey cells to good work making a realistically expandable plan.

    Need a betting pool on how long before the first child is born up there(Damn!! I had given up thinking I would live long enough to be able to say that and be serious!).

  141. I will be keeping an eye on this. I’m hopeful, but I’ve seen a lot of things fall through over the last forty years. These are big guys, and they can do what others cannot. But they can’t do everything. I’m hoping they can do enough.

  142. Ben

    @Sean: Seems they have at least put some thought into it. Not going for the big prize in one go like all too many others. Not just talking about it, again like all too many others. They are going at it step by step and are actually doing something(proper planning and started building the first sat’s). Also with private space launch (SpaceX) becoming a reality it really does seem to be a reasonably high probability of success. I’m actually optimistic on this one, still well aware a huge risk so prepped for ‘anything can go wrong’.

  143. Nigel Depledge

    John H (49) said:

    We’ve already had the deepest pockets around, with the least need to get ROI, involved in this adventure – the US government – and they’ve found it too darn expensive to continue.

    Not really. They don’t need a financial ROI, but they do answer to a fickle electorate.

  144. Nigel Depledge

    Jesse (50) said:

    I know it’s easy to bash lawyers, but they exist for a reason and it isn’t just to spoil the party.

    Oooh, it’s like being in an episode of The Twilight Zone.

  145. Nigel Depledge

    Wzrd1 (69) said:

    Then, there was that zany private investor who discovered 10000 ways of NOT making a proper filament before finally finding ONE correct way, paving the way for the electric light bulb.
    Said zany investor then was thought senile when he had the temerity to believe he could record sound on a wax cylinder. Today, it’s the nearly obsolete phonograph.

    I didn’t know that Joseph Swann invented the phonograph.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Swann

  146. Nigel Depledge

    CB (81) said:

    I don’t think trying to re-create the accidental success of Columbus in space is very likely.

    Although Columbus was kinda successful in discovering the Americas, he had no success in space, by accident or otherwise.
    ;-)

  147. MaDeR

    You need to have lower cost of launching things in space by orders of magnitude. Otherwise, forget it.

  148. puppygod

    “You need to have lower cost of launching things in space by orders of magnitude. Otherwise, forget it.”

    No! Why do people keep repeating it like it made sense?

    Look. Their plan is actually based around launch cost NOT being low, at least initially. If launch cost falls to one-tenth of what it is now, the whole “mine water, break into fuel, sell on orbit” scheme goes down the drain, because it’s not worth the hassle if you can just launch supplies cheaply from Earth. And secondly, when they already start their refuelling scheme, then launch costs are gonna inevitably sink – just as planned. Because by that moment it would be them who would be dictating how much launch cost for anything beyond LEO and for many stuff on LEO. By that moment they practically monopolise near Earth space travel and industry. This whole business isn’t designed around existing market – it’s a large scale operation aimed at creating new market and monopolizing it. All the pieces are in place – if they manage to pull it out, they gonna have practical control over resources (because who’s gonna put their flag on asteroids), technological superiority (because they have to develop it by then), there would be no substitute goods (because there is only this much certain metals on Earth and only this much volatiles on orbit), economy of scale start to kick in and they become Microsoft of orbital industry and OPEC of asteroid mining for decades to come.

    Sure, it’s a very long shot, but if they hit, the profits are going to be exorbitant. (sorry, I had to)

  149. Water, metals- fine. But what about all those interesting organics they might also find, some of which might have been precursors for life? All we ever see are the leftovers in little bits of meteorite. Whole asteroids might have intact ecosystems. Bring ‘em back alive.

    PINK SLIME, MEET GREEN SLIME!

  150. ron hansing

    On mining an astroid… article

    I am reminded of a seminar I went to on hollywood publicity, by a Hollywood rReporter.

    He went through the pages of the Hollywood reported.. and translated the articles.

    For example, producer so and so, is talking to a super star about staring in his movie… Translation: “I aint got no money, please invest in my project”.

    ron hansing 4.26.12

  151. chet

    Has any one given any thought to the gravitational effects of moving mass from asteroids to the earth. I’m sure it would have a minimal effect on the earth, but I wonder how removing the mass from the asteroids would affect the balance with other asteroids in orbit around the sun. Would there be a possibility to destabilize the current orbital patterns of asteroids and cause a reshuffling of their orbits? If this happens could it cause one or more asteroids to change to a collision course with the earth?

    There are a lot of asteroids, comets and other debris out there and a small change in mass distribution might invoke a big change in orbit patterns. Just wondering.

  152. Steve B

    The optimistic, star struck comments in here serve mainly to illustrate the really weak understanding of science and physics most people have.

    The first of a couple of many insurmountable problems in this quest are that Earth presents a hella-deep gravity well, and mining is an energy intensive, heavy equipment process. Sending mining equipment to asteroids is simply not going to happen. Advances in technology do not change the fact that sending heavy stuff out of Earth orbit takes tremendous amounts of power – and most of a rocket’s weight is the fuel used to send it up. The payloads are tiny compared to the launch mass of the rocket.

    Mining, and extracting ores require heavy equipment and huge amounts of power to operate it. Where does the power come from? Solar? You might be able to run a toaster, but not a mining operation.

    Some scientific neophyte above suggested using hydrogen split from water molecules mined from the asteroid. Geez, can you even spell D-U-M-B? It takes more energy to split a water molecule than you gain from burning the Hydrogen and Oxygen, Dilbert. Net power gain is negative. This kind of stupid is what makes people design perpetual motion machines.

    Next problem: Towing asteroids to Earth (actually feasible) and then dropping them into the atmosphere will result in the asteroid burning up in the atmosphere (yes, things that fall really fast do this – see Space Shuttle Columbia disaster or meteor shower for reference).

    Whatever doesn’t burn up and impacts the Earth, will be either; to small to be valuable enough to justify the Titanic cost of the operation (yes, I went there); or, big enough to destroy everything within many miles of what it lands on. Think nuclear sized explosions. These are bad even in Melbourne.

    Not to mention what a big meteor hit would do to our atmosphere. Most scientists agree that the dinosaurs were wiped out by a large meteor, and the resulting ash thrown into the atmosphere which caused an Ice-Age. Not interested.

    The physics of this “plan” is analogous to proposing that we mount the Washington Monument on a skateboard and use a team of ponies to tow it to Moscow. Use helium party balloons to float it over the Pacific. This is essentially what is being proposed.

    Just because a bunch of rich guys think this will work doesn’t mean it will. All it means is they don’t have a grasp of the relationship between hard physics, technology, and wishful thinking.

    The only way this scheme ever works is after some terrific advances in nuclear power technology for the propulsion and power systems. Current rocket power/hydrocarbon fuels won’t cut it. Solar power does not work now, and will never work, because you cannot amplify available energy beyond what falls on your little solar cells. The larger you make them, the more energy they require to move around. All this energy has to come from somewhere. Splitting atoms is the only way to realize the power required, but if we learn to do this, we will also be able to synthesize platinum, gold, plutonium, and whatever else we want, so the asteroid project won’t be necessary.

    But we aren’t even close to figuring how to do small, powerful, stable nuclear/atomic engines. And solving that is an entirely different problem.

  153. Seems like the moon would be bigger and a better bet for mining, but excuse me aren’t all these rocks radioactive? What do we know about water that has been bombarded with cosmic rays and radiation for a billion years?

  154. Gary Ansorge

    179. Steve B

    None of your objections are valid. Before engaging mouth, please read what others have writ before you.

    …and then go to The High Frontier, by Gerard K O’Neille,,, who just happened to be a PhD physicist…

    Gary 7
    PS, I majored in physics and aero/space engineering and I KNOW all this is possible AND will happen.

  155. Steve B- giant mirrors and lenses and solar becomes a true powerhouse. Make ‘em big enough you can crisp fry all detractors in their living rooms, and render any material vapor. Vapor can be ionized, then run through great big mass spec-like systems (scale is easy in a vacuum and away from a gravity well). That’s why you want to build processors near the sun itself. Part of the resulting waste mass can be fashioned into solar sails, other parts into reaction masses for getting things here. And if we ever figure out LENR, then all that nickel up there can give you your nuclear engines.

  156. Steve B

    Gary,

    I’m not the only person on this board who is skeptical.

    Rather than talking about how educated you are, and dismissing my objections out of hand, please address them logically, rather than with an ad hominem attack and appeals to authority.

    In your response, be sure to explain how millions of kilos of mining, drilling, blasting, and refining equipment, plus all the necessary support systems for both humans and machinery, including medical hospital, life support, and redundant equipment and repair facilities, will be sent to an asteroid using the technology of today and the near future – say twenty years – all for a few billion dollars.

    Explain what your power sources will be on the asteroid. Mining uses lots of power. Be sure to describe how all the grinding and separating systems work in zero-gravity. Most mining uses lots of water and air to help separate the metals from the ore. None of these processes work in zero-G.

    If the plan is to refine it here on Earth, please tell us how you will drop enormous, million ton chunks of asteroid – without blowing huge holes in the earth, and/or creating massive ash clouds that will screw up our atmosphere for a few years. And remember, we are talking about billions of dollars, so it’s no fair bringing back a few pounds of platinum. To finance this project, you need to extract and bring down enough rock to extract many tons of this stuff.

    If you plan to leave it out there in order to build spaceships or colonies and stuff, please detail the processes by which you propose to smelt, forge, machine, cast, and construct the metals into useful space projects. While in space.

    Oh, and I took a peek at “The High Frontier” you recommended. Comedy gold; thanks for the laugh. Love the illustrations. Listen, I loved Heinlein as a kid too. But when I became a man, I put away childish things.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_High_Frontier:_Human_Colonies_in_Space

    Best,

    Steve 1 (Yeah it’s a pun. Get it?)

  157. heh

    Steve:
    millions of kilos? Based on what estimate? You’re pulling stuff out of your rectal cavity. For one, much (if not all?) would be robotic. There’s next to no reason to send a human to do any of this. A significant amount of equipment will eventually be forged in space, you only need to send up the initial equipment to boot-strap the whole system (plus a few spares when the unforseen happens).

    Power is easy, RTG for the large pieces, solar for most of the other.

    Mining in space, easy, boil the surface with highly focused sunlight and push the molten mass into a centrifuge to separate elements based on mass.

    As for your concern re: refining on Earth… it’s like you just didn’t read anything in the article (or the announcement). Why on Earth (haha pun intended.) would you do that? You’re using most of the initial materials you gather to expand your capabilities in space. You would only send things back to Earth that you can’t use in space or once you have sufficient throughput that you don’t really need it anymore. Pay more attention and you won’t make a fool of yourself asking terrible questions.

    You do understand a big part of this venture is *figuring this stuff out* and *testing it*, right? Right?

    And stop thinking on tiny timescales. This is a long term investment in the capabilities of the human race. It says right on the page that the investors are investing based on the vision, not the ROI. They don’t expect to see real returns on this for decades, so stop pretending that they do.

    Additionally, you act like if random people on a message board can’t tell you in EXACT detail how EVERYTHING will work, that it’s somehow impossible. History has shown time and again that this is a pathetic, pessimistic view that puts significant drag forces on real progress. This is why you’re commenting here instead of one of the billionaires involved. Absolutely ridiculous.

    @MitchK It would be fairly simple for someone versed in nuclear chemistry and physics to determine the possible isotopes generated by such collisions and tell you the half-lives of most of them. The really dangerous stuff is very short lived by virtue of it’s own high-activity. That’s even assuming there’s sufficient energy to even irradiate things to a degree worth concerning oneself over (which I doubt there is).

    As to the folks concerned about someone dropping an asteroid on someone they don’t like… not exactly the cheapest or easiest way to kill someone. It would take billions of dollars to do it, everyone would know you did it, we’d see it coming a long time before it got here… just not realistic. And once the technology and methodology exists to deflect these things, it’ll be a lot easier to *avert* just this kind of thing. Lots of people will be watching, and there will be telescopes tracking basically everything up there. Not a lot will be able to go by unnoticed by anyone interested enough to follow them.

  158. prianikoff

    I’m sceptical of the “asteroid mining” plan too, but you shouldn’t knock Gerard O’Neill.
    He may have been a bit of a futurologist, but he was certainly a serious scientist too.
    For instance, he pioneered particle accelerator technology.

    Eventually, people will return to O’Neill’s ideas in the “High Frontier”.
    (Don’t forget how Arthur C Clarke accurately predicted the use of satellites for communication as early as 1945)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerard_K._O%27Neill

  159. Jesse

    @Steve B – while I am a bit skeptical of the venture, I have to say you are not quite right about the issues of bringing asteroids down to earth.

    We have plenty of ton-scale objects that we have brought down, using essentially ballistics. (Space capsules, for example). We used a combination of parachuting and aerobraking for those. The nice thing about cutting off a chunk of metal and dropping it into the atmosphere is that there are no astronauts to worry about, or even delicate electronics, so you need not be so concerned about how hard the landing is.

    That means that if you were to bring a small asteroid into orbit — which is not as energetically expensive as even launching a 100 tons into LEO (remember you are not dealing with the gravity well) — then you could chop off a 1-ton hunk and if you wanted to get fancy, strap on a small rocket or what amounts to an ablation shield that would burn off and be shaped to provide maximum air resistance. Remember, once something is in orbit around the Earth it isn’t moving nearly as fast (relative to the surface of the Earth) as an object that comes screaming out of space a la the dinosaur-killer.

    A quick calculation and I come up with a reasonable sized rocket engine — you wouldn’t need much — to slow an asteroid and get it to LEO, and then place it in a decay orbit. Strap on either an ablation shield or even parachutes and that will cut it down by a lot; still fast, and still dangerous if it hits you, but it won’t make an Arizona meteor crater.

    There is a middle ground between small rocks the size of baseballs and million-ton dinosaur killers.

    To give an example: what would 1 ton of something like platinum yield? At current prices a ton — 32,000 ounces — would be worth $48 million. You wouldn’t get that, of course. You’d have lots of other metals, but let’s say you drop something that weighs 2 tons and it is 90 percent iron, 9 percent nickel, and 1 percent some rare earth metal. The nickel (360 pounds) is worth $2,800 or so, the iron is ~$150, and the once percent can be anything from the $1,500 per ounce of platinum and gold to a few bucks.

    Not much you say. And you’re right. But remember, you cut this chunk off of an asteroid that weighs a million tons. Now that’s $2.8 billion worth of nickel. And the metal would be easier to refine than earth-based ores. Have you seen the meteorites in say, the Museum of Natural History? The metal positively gleams off it. Remember: you need not bring an asteroid down all at once. Basically, a million-ton asteroid, which would be small, would cover a big chunk of costs even if it were made entirely of cheap metal.

    The big trick is cutting the asteroid into small enough chunks to do this with. Robots could do it, to a point, I think. And it would take a lot of work to figure out how to do this stuff in LEO. To some extent we have the infrastructure already — the ISS shows we can put big structures up there. You’re right that mining can’t be done right now there, but cutting pieces off of something might be easier to do.

  160. Drewready

    Epic fail if you ask me. Their money would be much better spent steering asteroids away from destroying life on the planet but that would require these egomaniacs think of something other than themselves for once. I know, I know, its not likely. Check out minute 24. http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/stephen_petranek_counts_down_to_armageddon.html

  161. Terry

    @142 Stargazer: “And yes, we should also use tax money to do this. The possible return is extraordinary.”

    Regarding ROI…utter nonsense this side of the next 100 years or more (probably many more). As to forcing people to pay for this or go to jail, hell no. No one should be forced at gunpoint to pay for your pet project or else be kidnapped and thrown in a cage or have everything they worked for stolen from them to “pay interest” on unpaid taxes. You like it, you invest in it and leave those of us not so foolish out of it. I’ll gladly buy your resources when you bring them back at affordable prices.

  162. jjohnjj

    In his 1978 novella, “Exiles to Glory”, Jerry Pournelle described a plausible manned mission to mine asteroids for rare earth elements. These were deemed to be essential to superconductor and fusion energy development. Rare Earths are abundant deep in planetary cores, and the story went with the theory that the asteroids are fragments of once-larger bodies.

    The miners used Ceres as a base, extracting minerals from adjacent rocks and refining them with huge solar mirrors. They packed the ore into a smaller ‘roid and then used H-bombs to nudge it out of orbit and toward earth. I think the destination was lunar orbit or an L-5 point. Oh yes, the rock in transit had giant Saturn-5 rocket engines for “attitude jets”… and a crew.

    It was a ripping yarn, with heroic engineers vs. saboteurs hired by the earth-bound cartels to stop the competition from cheap space minerals.

  163. vince

    instead of the step 3 in the article, you could use solar mirrors to smelt the non precious metals in asteroids and use it to build space stations. Although the shortcut of drilling through the center of an asteroid then heating it until its molten then spinning it so it produces a large hollow in the center also works

  164. Paul

    Anybody else read this and wonder what kind of remote sensing they had in mind? The tinfoil-hats in the crowd will be certain it’s Big Brother surveillance, I’m not so quick to jump to the “evil motives” conclusion. But I am curious…

    I’ve thought the Weather Channel could use their own imaging weather satellite. But 22cm is a bit too small an aperture if they’re going to use one in geosynchronous orbit (and in LEO, it will be over their market area too infrequently).

  165. Neer

    Now even extraterrestrial resources shall come under the sway of sociopathic Big Business?

    No thanks. This won’t help NASA nor science, only the billionaires at the top.

  166. Renee Marie Jones

    “The government is good for a lot of things, but political machinations can really impede innovation when it comes to making things easier and less costly.”

    It is a serious mistake to think that hiding the political machinations in the boardroom and executive suites somehow makes it non-existent. Is there really any example of a large corporation that is more efficient than the government? Does anyone here even remember networking before the NSF, the incompatible mess that IBM and DEC and HP and others created?

    I have worked for large companies most of my life. In my experience they are all far more inefficient and wasteful than the federal government. Is there a counter-example? Be specific.

  167. Rosita Bonita

    vince Says:

    “instead of the step 3 in the article, you could use solar mirrors to smelt the non precious metals in asteroids and use it to build space stations”

    Robotic space station building from nothing but floating iron slag in micro-g? Cool story, dude.

  168. Rosita Bonita

    eta: “pig iron” I mean, sorry.

    Meanwhile Steve B nails it:

    “The physics of this “plan” is analogous to proposing that we mount the Washington Monument on a skateboard and use a team of ponies to tow it to Moscow. Use helium party balloons to float it over the Pacific. This is essentially what is being proposed.

    Just because a bunch of rich guys think this will work doesn’t mean it will. All it means is they don’t have a grasp of the relationship between hard physics, technology, and wishful thinking.”

    Thoughts of ‘solar reflectors’ melting asteroids to extract metals raise so many engineering impasses it makes you dizzy. Is that baby rotating? Of course, so how do you station a mirror (what mirror?) over a point for long enough to melt it?

    Go to the axis of rotation and focus there? Whoopee, we have 4 sq.m. of shallow slush for our efforts, and the moment we work outwards (oopsie … requires thrust) there’s than damn spin again. Anyone mention precession? Anyone mention collection mechanisms when any Noble-metal-rich iron is entrained in rock?

    Then let’s go smelting, shall we?
    Then let’s pack it up for transport home.

    “Error #127 in electromagnetic collector unit.” Whoops …. there goes $500B

  169. DavidC

    Anybody ever read Mining the Sky by John S Lewis? Very good non-fiction book.

  170. Don Tay

    Jeez guys I think ya all missed a couple of big targets…..
    So water is expensive.. sure… now they got water…. Metals are hard to launch too… and recover but not so tough on the moon Lower gravity less atomosphere to burn up in and lots less houses to hit…

    So here you are… you’ve aquired materials and resources to set up you’re own manufacturing and space hotel. Heck… just have your robots build more robots from the stuff out there already… (reduced transportation costs) . We may have printers that can spool parts out of metals by the time they get the astroid around the corner… attach a small booster w/computer to mined payload and send it to the moon for a skid landing.

    I’ll bet they’ve already considered some of this…

  171. mez

    To be honest, I haven’t read all of the foregoing posts, however doesn’t every crater on the moon represent an asteroid impact? Apart from partial disintegration, wouldn’t most of the asteroid material still be there (maybe a little buried)? Why not mine the crater impact sites on the moon? At least they are all in one general location! Sure, any water would have evaporated (if not frozen) by now, but the metals ought to still be there.

  172. Aryan

    Hi guys i’m 14 yrs old and i think that this is just unfair to those guys that weren’t rich but had the knowledge, skills and ideas for this asteroid mining plan cause now that all the investors invested on the first asteroid mining plan which is controlled PlanetoryReasorces so why would they want to spend more millions of dollars on another second asteroid mining idea?

    What i’m trying to say is will their be just one company or more than one companies emerging in this billion dollar business.

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