I write a sporadically monthly column for Blastr, the science/science fiction web news portal for the SyFy channel. My latest is about asteroid mining — the company Planetary Resources announced recently they have big plans to Go Where No Mine Has Gone before, and I give it the once over.
As I said when I wrote about this earlier, I’m enthusiastic about it, but I’d like to see details. But I’ll say that the first few steps the company wants to take make a great deal of sense to me.
And hey, if you speak French — je ne pas parles merci bleh bleh PeeWee — the French newspaper 20 Minutes has an interview with me about all this as well. I think I come off sounding really smart, because I can’t understand a word of the interview.
More of my Blastr articles are listed below, too. I seem to have a predilection for destruction. Hmmm. Maybe I’ll write about unicorns and rainbows next.
- Blastr: In which I vaporize the Moon
- Blastr: Invasion Earth!
- Blastr: So, you wanna blow up the Earth?
- Blastr: My Favorite TV Scientists
- Blastr: Other than that, Spock, how was the movie?
- Blastr: I Was A Zombie For Science
- Big budget movies that got their science right
- Master of Blastr
The Point is a web-based talk show on the Young Turks YouTube channel where various issues are discussed by panelists. They have people send in short videos making some salient point, then panelists discuss it. Cara Santa Maria — the senior science correspondent at The Huffington Post — guest-hosted the show this last week, and asked me to send in a video for discussion. I talked about asteroid mining, which started an interesting discussion.
For more information about asteroid mining and Planetary Resources, you can read my recent post about them.
The video embedded above is set to start at my segment, but I’ll note that my friend Chris Mooney was the first video they discussed, talking his new book "The Republican Brain". Chris is always careful when he discusses this topic, knowing it will be misinterpreted willfully or otherwise, which of course it has been. But I do have to point out one thing that bugged me: noted science author K. C. Cole was on the panel, and I agreed with much of what she said. But when talking about Chris’s book, she brought out the "Well, there’s antiscience on the left as well" meme, and that argument really irks me.
Yes, there does exist antiscience bias on the left as promulgated by antivaxxers and alt-medders — and I have to debunk that way too often as well — but it’s not nearly as far-reaching as antiscience on the right. It’s not a party platform, for one thing, and for another there simply isn’t nearly as much or as focused as it is on the right. Read this link for more about this (especially before you leave a comment here — hint, hint).
Still, it was an interesting discussion on The Point, and I’d like to thank Cara for inviting me. And as to her question at 35:43… yes. Yes, I am.
- Breaking: Private company does indeed plan to mine asteroids… and I think they can do it
- Space firm about to make a big announcement. I take a stab at what it is.
- TED talks now on Netflix… including mine
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?
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.
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.