Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The plan to mine asteroids

Someone is a forward thinker.

Actually, a great many "someones."  They are collectively known as Planetary Resources, Inc.   The drivers of this new space venture are a few of the brightest in the fields of science and technology.  One of them is even James Cameron (and before you balk, remember Cameron's physics and engineering background as well as his undersea exploration projects.)  Their proposal: mine asteroids for minerals and water.

The organization recently signed Dr. Sara Seager of MIT on as chief science consultant.  You may recognize Dr. Seager from several astronomy-related programs on the Discovery and History Channels.  I often catch her playing "voice of reason" on shows such as Ancient Aliens.

As outlined in Dr. Seager's interview that I linked above from The Atlantic, the project is formed in part from businessmen and innovators who have grown frustrated with relying upon governments to take the next steps in space.
"The bottom line is that NASA is not working the best that it could," Dr. Seager said in the interview. "In order for people like me to succeed with my own research goals, the commercial space industry needs to be able to succeed independently of government contracts."

One way in which this asteroid mining project may benefit astronomy is through the launching of several small and cheap satellite telescopes.  These orbital telescopes will be used to scan for asteroids that would be the best candidates for mining.  Such an asteroid would be one rich in platinum metals.  For the next step, there are two choices in the mix.  One method would be to send several robotic space probes to the asteroid and have them mine the minerals and then return to Earth.  Another plan of action would be to capture the asteroid.

That's right.  Actually capture a small one and bring it back into Earth orbit.  People could then travel up to this asteroid and mine in the same way that we now go back and forth from the International Space Station.  Why not just bring the whole asteroid back down to Earth?  That would be a massive undertaking due to the physics involved and therefore cost prohibitive.

Which brings up another point.  This will require massive funding.  Not to mention a great deal of risk as developing new technology always involves a roll of the dice.  Will this actually work?  Will it eventually be more cost effective to get these valuable minerals from space rather than digging deep into the Earth?  Will new artificial intelligence be necessary for the automatic mining probes?  The whole project is on its own 25 yard line with a way to go and many challenges to overcome.  As I said, no different than any other big project.  Plus, it doesn't seem like there's any real shortage of people willing to share the risk.  Planetary Resources announced that it is looking to hire qualified engineers to help bring this space mining technology into reality.  The agency received over 2,000 applications.

I still say that just talking about this idea is a big leap forward.  Even if mining doesn't work out, the unforeseen benefits that may come about as by-products of these innovation may one day be irreplaceable.  Then what if mining asteroids actually becomes doable?  It has been speculated that asteroids with high presences of water could become "gas stations" in space for astronauts headed to other planets.  Water can be separated into its component parts and then turned into fuel for spacecraft.  Heck, just being able to get water en-route to somewhere like Mars would save cost and effort in launching it with the mission.  It's possible that we may one day establish permanent bases on asteroids.

Currently, NASA has an unmanned mission planned to an asteroid for 2016.  Who knows?  Planetary Resources might beat them to it.

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