Today a shuttle that barely flew draws the faithful like believers to a shrine. The shuttle Enterprise is making low altitude passes from DC to New York City on the way to JFK airport and its retirement on the deck of the USS Interpid. The nation’s love affair with the adventure of space travel is on full display on malls in our capital and the streets of the Big Apple. I share that, like so many of you, having imprinted on NASA’s astonishing endeavors from earliest memory as surely as a baby duck on its mother. Sadly, we find ourselves without ground to orbit capability even as the sleek Enterprise wows onlookers one last time. Hopefully, that’s not permanent. And in that spirit of optimism, a little more info on Planetary Resources, the asteroid miners featured here last week, came out:
MSNBC) — Asteroid mining promises to be a multidecade effort requiring many billions of dollars of investment. But in that respect — and in the technological challenges that must be overcome — it’s similar to deep-sea oil drilling, said Planetary Resources co-founder and co-Chairman Peter Diamandis.
They’ve literally created robotic cities on the bottom of the ocean, 5, 10 thousand feet below the ocean’s surface — fully robotic cities that then mine 5 to 10 thousand feet down below the ocean floor to gain access to oil,” Diamandis said Tuesday. “For me, that kind of work makes going to the asteroids to extract resources look easy.”
The company confirmed it has its eyes on water-ice and platinum group metals, starting with near earth asteroids. Gold and silver may sound good, but water may be more profitable: it is one of the most valuable resources we can find in space. Not just for obvious reasons, it’s heavy and humans need to consume it survive, but because it breaks down, with the help of unlimited solar power, into hydrogen and oxygen. Both hugely useful in space exploration. H and O are an ass kicken rocket fuel, both elements are essential in other ways, as in fuel cells for exmaple, and we humans have a particular affection for diatomic oxygen.
Not that metals aren’t important too. Mining the asteroids for pristine, golden stardust produced in super nova explosions billions of years ago, is about as freakin romantic a venture as I can possibly imagine seeing in my lifetime. Panning for gold in the Asteroid Belt … see, I’m so excited just thinking about it I can barely write!
Another thing that excites me about newspace, aside from anything with the word space in it, is they actually use a ton of good old fashioned, hardcore tool-using mechanical engineers. People who actually create wholly new devices with intricate moving parts. All due respect to software engineers and developers, you have done an amazing job, you have transformed the world and, soon, the final frontier with it. There would be no newspace on the horizon without the stunning advances in wafer design, processing, and programming. But I still find the idea of people designing and actually building incredibly cool new gizmos terribly exciting, and even sorely missing here in the US to some degree. It’s fundamental, we are human, we are the species that makes things.
For anyone feeling the urge to get all preachy about exploitation and greed, there’s more to Newspace than money. My friend Rick Tumlinson once explained it to me as almost spiritual, saying what drives him and his ilk is the goal expanding into space until it becomes “economically and culturally irreversible”. The reason? It’s our nature.
Space exploration could be thought of as coming in three stages. The first has as patron saint, Werner von Braun, the idea was to launch big government rockets and conquer space! Apollo, a huge boost to US prestige at a time when we needed it, and a giant leap for mankinde The next came in the form of unmanned missions, take pictures and leave no footprints, patron saint Carl Sagan. Almost all the science and breathtaking images brought to earth has come form this effort. Now we’re in the early years of the barnstorming phase, where the idea is to make space travel way more affordable, ultmately sustainable, and eventually, as Tumlinson hopes, irreversible.
One of the first steps in doing that is to catalogue the resources available. That’s the likely immediate goal of Planetarey Resources. Small, high tech detectors looking at asteroids big and small to learn what makes them tick. How they plan to do that, how much it will cost, what kinds of telescopes and vehicles they’ll need versus what is currently available, and how it could scale into mining, is all beyond the scope of this post. Besides, I don’t know. That’s the big question.
So, heads up to anyone who was kind enough to read this whole thing: I’m trying to arrange an on-the-record interview with a senior engineer-scientist at Planetary Resources who can talk about the nitty-gritty mechanics of how this would work, from an engineering and economic perspective. Some progress has been made there, I’m optimistic about it, but nothing solid, yet. Stay tuned and by all means bring up any interesting topics, contructive criticism, or big picture concerns. I just may have someone to put those queries to very soon!