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Apr 24 2012

OMG ASTEROID MINING!

That noise you hear is millions of scifi nerds squeeing in unison. The startup Planetary Resources has announced its mission to investigate and mine resources from asteroids in space. While the fact that fricking asteroid mining is theoretically possible is awesome on its own, I really like their big picture view of the project:

“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 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.”

I love it. Sure, some of the investors probably aren’t totally selfless. Just imagine if you went down in history books as being one of the first people made a new era of space exploration possible. But I love that some people aren’t just motivated by profit, and they see the inherent worth of settling space. I’m just jealous that I don’t get to live forever and see how this plays out.

I highly recommend you check out the rest of Phil Plait’s coverage. He breaks down the steps of their plan and explains the feasibility of the project. It’s really fascinating stuff.

43 comments

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  1. 1
    UrsaMinor

    Yes! Yes! WOO-HOO!

    And the obligatory squee.

  2. 2
    Worldtraveller

    Realistically? Good luck with that, at least in this lifetime.

  3. 3
    UrsaMinor

    It’s unlikely to be doable in the afterlife, so I say go for it.

  4. 4
    eigenperson

    Good luck to them with their toy.

    I guess I’m happy that these billionaires are investing in this instead of buying a MASSIVE YACHT, but their resources are quite limited and I honestly doubt they have enough money coming in to get their project to the point where it’s more than a toy.

  5. 5
    julian

    This story has made my crappy day seem a little better.

  6. 6
    hiro

    NPR had a great news segment on it which I heard on the way home from work. Sounds a bit crazy but so did the 50′s science fiction I grew up on. Love it and hope it’s in my lifetime. squeeeeeee

  7. 7
    Robert B.

    The first asteroid mining company will be crazy whenever it happens – but if we let that mean it never happens, we become smaller as a species. What was that quote? “The universe is probably littered with species who made the sane, sensible, rational decision and stayed on one planet. The ruins of their cultures will be explored by the descendants of those who did the crazy thing instead and went into space.” Something like that. I forget who said it. (Randall Munroe?)

    This news rocks my socks.

  8. 8
    Johnny Vector

    It’s looking frighteningly attractive to me. One does get rather sick of certain stupidities within the traditional space business. A new venture hasn’t had time for the process-oriented people to have dominated the development of process. They won’t yet have been through the try, fail, add-another-layer-of-reviews cycle even once! And looking at their plan, I think it’s doable, at least for a while.

    Hmm….

  9. 9
    kraut

    Remember “Outland”…another semi prison Camp for the working stiff…

  10. 10
    Ray, rude-ass yankee

    SQEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE

    I volunteer.

    I. WANNA. GO.

    Ever since I was 12 or so I always put down my first career choice as “Asteroid Miner”. Took’em almost 40 years to catch up with me.

  11. 11
    scifi

    No, no and thrice, NO!

    Will you never learn?

    Have you not seen the Alien movies. This can only end BADLY!!!!!

    “In Space, no-one can hear you squeeeeeeeee!!”

  12. 12
    scifi

    OK – not sure why my old ‘name’ is still there. Thought I’d changed it so as not to be confused with “impostor” scifi. Hmmmm.

  13. 13
    Rorie

    This does sound interesting. I suspect that the mineral deposits up there will differ greatly to those on earth, considering that many deposits down here form via volcanic (copper/nickel sulphides for example) or hydrothermal (sandstone uranium deposits, certain gold ores for example) processes. Now that I think of it, there are a few that form through biological deposits as well (such as the iron ore deposits that formed around the time that oxygen became a major component of the atmosphere as a result of biological activity).

    It’ll be interesting to see how they plan to process these rocks as well, though that’s looking a long way ahead. Any platinum group metals (PGMs) will most likely be naturally alloyed with native iron/nickel/cobalt, and will thus need to be separated. Ignoring the PGM content, that native iron/nickel could be useful for the construction of processing facilities and rockets on the asteroids themselves. No need to smelt with coal or reduce directly with hydrogen when it’s in the metallic form already.

    I doubt I’ll ever end up actually doing metallurgical test-work on rocks from space, but it’s an interesting concept to think about.

  14. 14
    claschx

    grrr puny humans !!

  15. 15
    claschx

    This announcement carries the same weight as sponsoring a breakthrough in artificial intelligence, green energy sources, sustainable fusion reactors, etc. Although technically possible in the future, it demands huge amounts of fundings, other technological advances like advanced robotics and the capacity of sending huge payloads into orbit, not to mention an army of scientist, engineers, technicians and all sorts of possible workers just to get it started.

    Populating the moon with automated industries sounds more like a first step in that direction.

  16. 16
    Robert B.

    Oh, yeah? And what do you build these automated industries out of, happy thoughts and vacuum? Apparently, just getting stuff into Earth orbit costs about twenty bucks per gram at the moment. Everything starts with raw materials.

  17. 17
    Eric RoM

    Why haven’t we been landing robotic solar sails on asteroids for decades already? Sheesh, get on with it.

  18. 18
    imnotspecial

    Sounds like a lot of nonsense to me. It is just too fucking expensive to make sense.

  19. 19
    Grumpy Mr. Gruff

    But where’s our space elevator?

  20. 20
    The Lorax

    There’s no money in scientific endeavor, but if they found oil on Mars, we’d be living there now. I don’t want to see billboards covering up the stars, but honestly, if it means orbiting apartment complexes, do it. Don’t waste time. Just get it done. I’ll take the billboards if it means I get to look out my bedroom window and see the Earth from a few hundred kilometers up.

  21. 21
    John Shutt

    There’s huge money in scientific endeavor. It tends to be long-term, and not for the party making the investment. Both of which are forms of profit that naive capitalism doesn’t handle well. (No, I don’t claim to have the solution; I’m just observing the problem.)

  22. 22
    David Evans

    The moon’s top layer contains useful amounts of oxygen, silicon, aluminium and titanium. You can do a lot of engineering with that.

  23. 23
    bengilder

    Why so many naysayers? Go make an entry in Conservapedia if you’re so unhappy.

    It really does look achievable, rather than trying to do it all in one go they are going at it in a step by step fashion. This means less capitol outlay per annum, a gradual buildup of technology(meaning mistakes/wrong development paths can be corrected before too much capitol is wasted).

    Building the first ore processing plant will be the really expensive part, but the second will be cheaper and so on. Notice how they have not locked themselves into a particular technology for the ore extraction/processing? This suggests to me they have realized early on that there is simply not enough information. Hence the prospecting probes(300 series).

    I humbly suggest that anyone out there who designs DIY 3d printers and CNC machines think about how their designs could be adapted to making heavy duty parts in space.

    I can see vacuum and micro gravity being advantages once we learn to take advantage of it. The sheer intensity of solar radiation will be a major advantage right from the start.

    Perhaps one way to build heavy components in situ is to have a smaller(less robust) ore processing plant in use for supplying material for 3d printers/CNC machines to build the metal components of spares for repairs and some basic structural components for a mid sized ore processor. I know I left a few steps out there.

    At this stage we really are at the build the tools to build the parts for the tools that build the parts …. bunch of steps …… build a mid sized ore processor. Lot of possible and not so possible engineering paths available. Lot of Grey Cells going to burn the midnight oil on this project :-)

    Sorry about the long rant here, I’ve dreamed about this day since childhood. Damn it I want my Ellipsoid Asteroid home now!!!

  24. 24
    claschx

    I think David already answered you quest.. observation. Automated modular factories are not some happy thoughts as you so derisively put it. The idea has been around since the mid 90′s and there were prototypes back then and now actual production lines rely on them. But they are all at some point operated and serviced by people. They can shift production outputs, process raw materials and be reassembled to make bigger production units. The ones i’ve seen are the size of a cargo container.
    My question to you is : why? why the interest in mining asteroids, are we going to ship back all those nickel-iron asteroids to earth or are we planning for colonies on other planets, moons or whatever? what about organic compounds in asteroids, and water? are they of any use to us here on earth?
    The only thing that makes sense to me is a colony on the moon, for various reasons : near and easily accessible, lots of raw materials including water and metals, scientific research not suitable to do on earth, unpolluted environment, gravity, relatively near to the sun. Then we can talk asteroid mining.
    I prefer not to think i’m a naysayer, but someone who’s being more realistic about this issue. Having said all of the above it’s my personal opinion that Gingrich is an opportunist dickhead.

  25. 25
    Art

    This announcement reminds me of the declarations that a company had found found manganese nodules on the sea floor and they were going to build a ship, the Glomar Explorer, capable of lowering a device to sweep up and harvest those nodules. Some time later it was reveled that he whole thing was cover for a secret attempt at raising a Soviet nuclear sub to harvest military secrets.

    This story seems like a child’s story with a simple, and quite palatable, logic. But, like the Glomar Explorer, it is a story that leaves a lot of technical issues and details unanswered. Strikes me as a possible scam and/or a cover for something else.

    On the other hand it strikes me as a bit risky. You are talking about dragging a 400 ton asteroid from the belt to the moon and stopping it there. Suppose, just suppose, that they fail to stop the rock and end up dropping into the earth’s gravity well. A 400 ton rock effectively dropped from the moon striking the earth is going to cause a considerable crater. Big boom.

    But, assuming they can calm my doubts, it sounds like a good thing.

  26. 26
    bengilder

    HUH?
    One: a 400 ton Asteroid will burn up long before hitting the Surface.
    Two: If in orbit(or at least close to it) around the Moon it will not somehow magically gain A LOT of Delta Vee to enable it to hit Earth.
    Three: They are going to the Asteroids, not bringing them here. Four: Even if bringing them here, the current state of the art is quite capable of predicting short term orbital mechanics to within the required tolerances.
    Five: Also ‘from the belt’??? They are talking about Near Earth Objects!! Not Asteroid Belt Objects.
    Six: I swear you nutters really need to research your facts and actually read what you comment on. Yeesh!!!!

  27. 27
    Dunc

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

    No shit. Does anybody have any idea at all at what price they might have a fighting chance of one day breaking even? Asteroid mining makes about as much economic sense as recovering the gold from seawater.

  28. 28
    Svlad Cjelli

    If only we had some geth.

  29. 29
    John Shutt

    I keep thinking this is too obvious to say, but maybe not.
    “The meek shall inherit the Earth. The rest of us are going to the stars.” — Robert A. Heinlein (?).

  30. 30
    Peter

    Heinlein left us a lot of cool quotes. Meekness never did appeal to me, space always has. I think this project sounds possible and I want to see it done.

  31. 31
    Eric RoM

    1) Hey, non-tax funds? Go crazy, fellas. Good luck!

    2) On “waste”: every dollar spent on this project will go into somebody’s pocket here on Earth. So, it will feed children (or buy Maserati’s, or cocaine) right here on Terra. So, that money is not “wasted in space”, just the same as every fucking penny ever spent on the space program.

  32. 32
    noastronomer

    I am a sci-fi nerd and I did NOT squee*. As if.

    Mike.

    * Well maybe a little bit.

  33. 33
    leftwingfox

    If it can be made economical, getting metals from astroids seems preferable to getting them from open-pit mines on earth. Some interesting side effects, barring the potential for a dinosaur-extinction-level “Oops”:

    How much extraterrestrial mass can you add to Earth before it becomes noticeable? (I.e. affecting our orbit around the sun, or the relationship to the moon)

    Where do the mining tailings from the astroid go? Are we getting a ring system? A bigger moon? Or a lot of shooting stars?

  34. 34
    Johnny Vector

    Well, the question about affecting the Earth’s orbit depends on the momentum of the stuff that you bring back, not the mass. And since you kind of need to get it into orbit first, it’s going to collide with the earth with (on average) zero relative motion.

    Adding mass will affect the orbit of the moon. We can calculate how much pretty easily: the Earth mass is 6E24 kg. We can measure the distance to the moon to ~1 cm, out of 4E10 cm (and it’s spiraling outward about 4 cm per year due to tidal interaction). If we’re leaving the moon out of it (which is not actually the plan, but let’s simplify because the answer won’t matter), we’re just adding mass to the Earth while the moon’s energy is unchanged. I’m going to get the details wrong (or risk flashbacks to when I could do mechanics problems, and who wants that?), but to order of magnitude let’s just say h (distance to the moon) changes equal to m. So we could just detect a change of 1 part in 4E10, or round down to 1 part in 10^11. Multiply that by the Earth’s mass to see how much mass we’d need to make a noticeable change to the moon’s distance:

    6E24 * 1E-11 = 6E13 kg.

    The total amount of (pick a metal) gold produced per year is about 3500 tons, or 3.5E6 kg. So it would take 6E13/3E6 = 2E7 (20 million) years to add enough gold to the Earth at current production rates to noticeably affect the moon’s orbit. Maybe divide by 100 to account for other metals. Then we’re down to 200,000 years.

    I’m not worried.

  35. 35
    Johnny Vector

    Oh, and the tailings. We could well get a ring system, I suppose. That would really piss off satellite operators. Sure would look cool though!

  36. 36
    Art

    1) 400 ton rocks could result in significant chunks hitting earth. The amount of mass that makes it through the atmosphere depends on the direction and angle of entry and the composition of the rock. Nickle-iron holds together better than silicon based rocks. Indeed most meteors are the the size of gravel and they are reduced to dust by the atmosphere. Larger and tougher ones leave chunks that make it through. If 1/10th of one percent of your 400 ton rock makes it through you are looking at 800 pounds, in one or more pieces, moving at a fair clip.

    This is not, nor did I imply that, this would be an extinction-level event. But you don’t want people, houses, cars, or pretty much anything you value, hit by that sort of missile.

    2) There are multiple common tracks commonly referred to as belts. The main one is between Jupiter and Mars but near-earth asteroids also tend to track along, as I understand it, one of several common paths referred to as a belts.

    3) Yes, orbital mechanics can be very finely calculated and very small target windows are routinely hit from very impressive distances. At least they are when everything goes right. We pranged a Mars lander off the planet because of a series of small mistakes.

    Claiming we have it all under control is about as reassuring as saying that with a few small modification the Titanic wouldn’t have sunk or that that recent problems with an entirely predictable tsunamis hitting nuclear plants were easily avoidable. Most engineering failures are avoidable if you have an infinite amount of resources. You will know exactly how to avoid the calamity after the fact. Things are entirely under control right up to the point when … they aren’t.

    IMO this proposal is little more than spit-balling an idea based on back-of-napkin numbers. It isn’t even a business plan. It could be a scam. It could be serious. It will be a decade or more before anything comes of it.

    Using material already in space to build in space is smart but that isn’t new. We understood this back in the early 60s when we were talking about using solar furnaces and water, speculated to be present on the moon, to make concrete for our new moon base. The one that everyone was sure would be a hive of activity in the year 2000. I’m still waiting for my flying car, jet pack, and the end of both disease and hunger I was promised in the 60s.

    Returning “rare earth elements” from space to the earth sounds a bit fishy. Shades of harvesting manganese nodules from the sea floor. Rare earths are not rare. They are fairly common. The purified forms are rare because they are a pain to extract and purify from ores. Unless they have some way of more efficiently extracting and purifying them in space you haven’t solved the problem of making purified rare earth more plentiful on earth.

    Private enterprise is not inherently more efficient or innovative than government programs. It is easier to find out about government waste because the records are relatively open. In both cases efficiency and effectiveness depends on how the programs are structured and funded. The space shuttle was burdened by DoD funding that demanded that it accommodate huge military satellites. Science and commercial satellites didn’t require such a huge cargo bay. But for that it could have been a much smaller, and much more efficient, vehicle.

    bengilder @ 20-1: You might want to do a little research of your own before jumping.

  37. 37
    Robert B.

    Oh, I was just arguing about order – my position is that asteroid mining is the easiest way to get raw materials in space, because gravity wells are expensive. You probably need asteroid mining to build your moon factories (which sound awesome, btw.) If asteroid minerals can be sold at a profit on the surface of Earth, I see this as a happy coincidence that will help fund space colonization. Which I think will probably be on free-orbiting stations as much as on moons and planets, until ~1000 years on when we really get the tech for terraforming.

  38. 38
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    Meanwhile, I just walked in on two physics majors arguing about young earth creationism, one undecided and one strongly in favor of it. Then watched the latter, whose GPA presumably reflects not being married to a raging alcoholic and busily trying to protect an infant from her while taking the bulk of their lower division courses, get inducted into Sigma Pi Sigma tonight.

    This doesn’t bode well for the ability of our country to fulfill this kind of ambition. Europe, how’s it looking over there?

  39. 39
    Dunc

    Europe, how’s it looking over there?

    We’re bankrupt.

  40. 40
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    Shit. :(

  41. 41
    AlanMac

    Damn! I guess I’m too old to order my custom fitted space suit and take-off in my fusion powered single-ship to do a little prospecting for mono-poles.

    Oh ya….squee.

  42. 42
    AlanMac

    If I remember my 50′s science fiction, it’s all about the cost of delta-vee.

  43. 43
    laser hair removal

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