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Apr 27 2012

More on Planetary Resources as the USS Enterprise wows onlookers

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!

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  1. 1
    Worldtraveller

    As an engineer in the field, I would love to apply to that company. Maybe in a few years, when my wife is done with school, I can afford the risk, but for now, I think I need the stability of a large, commercial aerospace firm.

    I haven’t looked too closely at them yet, but I would be very interested in seeing an interview with them. I almost flexed my work schedule to go see their presentation here last week, but I figured it’s probably too early in the program and too pie in the sky at the moment.

  2. 2
    Renolds

    Meanwhile the vehicle that could very well be transporting this companies probes and materials is having its engines tested today.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-17864782

  3. 3
    EricJohansson

    Phil Plait has a neat (non-technical) overview of how this operation would unfold:

    http://goo.gl/6cgBE

  4. 4
    Stephen "DarkSyde" Andrew

    It’s worth a shot, Fastlane. One 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 make new stuff.

  5. 5
    Trebuchet

    As a (retired) mechanical engineer, thanks for the plug! We’re much underappreciated. Even though the only things I’m making fly these days are pumpkins, I’m still keeping my hand in.

  6. 6
    Stephen "DarkSyde" Andrew

    You’re a pumpkin chunker Tre?

  7. 7
    Nick Gotts

    I see no point at all in sending people into space: it’s hugely expensive, risks their lives – and their subsequent health even if they return alive – and sucks money out of space science. Nor does it seem in any way necessary for asteroid mining. About the only “argument” for it is the claim Stephen makes that: “It’s our nature”. No more so than torture and genocide, Stephen.

    Look at the quasi-religious tone of the post: the shuttle – which was a technological failure and a cause of human tragedy – “draws the faithful like believers to a shrine”. Look at the nostalgia of a member of a thoroughly suburbanised society for the mythical frontier days: “Panning for gold in the Asteroid Belt … see, I’m so excited just thinking about it I can barely write!”. Let’s assess plans like those of Planetary Resources coolly and rationally, for whether and how they can actually help us through the environmental and resource crises looming ahead in the coming century.

  8. 8
    johnhodges

    In the late 1980′s I looked hard at the successor to the L5 society, to see if Space Colonization was something I could believe in. I concluded that Arthur C. Clarke was right when he wrote in 1965 that “if all we have are chemical rockets, all we can look forward to is the occasional scientific mission.” The Space Shuttle gave us more flexibility than big dumb chemical boosters, but it did not reduce the costs; it cost between half-a-billion and one billion dollars per flight. At those prices, we are going nowhere. Before we can dream of doing more than sending robot probes on scientific missions, we have to invent a radically cheaper way of getting from the ground to orbit.

  9. 9
    Nick Gotts

    johnhodges,

    The one I would love to work is the orbital airship, because it’s so wonderfully counter-intuitive. Still wouldn’t convince me there’s much sense in sending people up, though. Send things that are designed for that environment, not fragile, squishy, bipeds!

  1. 10
    This week in science: Roam | Hotspyer – Breaking News from around the web

    [...] I can’t imagine a better use for fossil fuel extraction technology than mining the asteroids for precious stardust forged in the heart of ancient supernova. Forget about the jobs or the science, think of the end goal: We’re talking about panning for celestial gold! [...]

  2. 11
    This week in science: Roam | TeaBaggers Of America

    [...] I can’t imagine a better use for fossil fuel extraction technology than mining the asteroids for precious stardust forged in the heart of ancient supernova. Forget about the jobs or the science, think of the end goal: We’re talking about panning for celestial gold! [...]

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