May
04
2012

Asteroid mining: Just a quick reminder that you’re living in the future, and it would have really confused your great-grandparents

Do you want my advice, guys?: You should go get some asteroids.
Do you want my advice, guys?: You should go get some asteroids.Courtesy Blue Marble
It isn’t good to confuse great-grandparents. For one, they’re often dead, and confusing them involves meddling in forces that are best be left alone. Or, in the case that they aren’t dead, they’ve had a busy life parenting, grand-parenting, and great-grand-parenting, and they deserve a little more from you than a bunch of confusing jibber-jabber about meteorites, or whatever you just said.

So if your great-grandparents are still alive (not dead), please do them a favor, and just make something up as you pretend to read the rest of this post out loud to them. Their side of the 20th century probably did not equip them for this sort of thing:

Asteroid mining! After thousands of years of scratching through the dirt, wearing our finger bones to stumps in near-futile attempts to uncover the shiniest bits of gravel, humanity will finally ascend to the stars, and scratch through the dirt of asteroids in the noble effort to find the shiniest astro-gravel. And it will make us richer than our wildest dreams!

Or it will make the billionaires behind the project as rich as their everyday dreams.

Here’s the story: a bunch of billionaires and their spunky sidekick, James Cameron (who is a film director, and worth only about 700 million dollars—practically destitute), looked out over their Earth and wept, because there was nowhere left to conquer. It was maybe the worst Unicorn Polo Sunday ever. But then James Cameron, lying on his back after slipping on a banana peel (that’s sort of his role in the group), looked up at the sky and said, “Hey, gang! I have an idea! Maybe there’s more up there for us!”

Well, the members of the Billionaires’ Club would like to say that they took lil’ Jim’s suggestion there and then, but, frankly, they had heard a lot of nonsense out of his pinched little mouth over the years, and they had long ago learned to tune him out. (Xenomorph this, Titanic that, look at my submarine, what about another killer robot, what has my ex wife done that’s so special?—they had heard it all before.)

But at some point Cameron’s seemingly childish remark filtered its way through the buzz of billionaire preoccupations (stocking up on mansion wax, plans to swim Scrooge McDuck style through gold coins, and which would be the best ocean to buy) and lodged itself in the billionaires’ minds, where it incubated, hatched, and chewed its way deeper into their brain tissue.

And thus Planetary Resources was born. With a group of billionaires behind it (including Larry Page, CEO of Google, power of earth; Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, power of fire; Charles Simonyi, Microsoft guy, power of water; and Ross Perot Junior, son of diminutive former presidential candidate, power of heart) and James Cameron as an advisor (because he has made at least two movies about space, and has been in a submarine), Planetary Resources plans to scan thousands of near-Earth asteroids for precious metals and water, and then send robotic probes to pull the asteroids into a convenient location, and then smash them up for their goods.

Why? For a few reasons. Partly because it’s awesome, and you need to be super rich to do it, and they’re exactly that rich. But also because lots of these asteroids are full of precious, useful metals—billions and billions of dollars worth in even small asteroids. And asteroids with lots of ice in them could basically be turned into gas stations for spaceships. Water is pretty easily split into hydrogen and oxygen, which we can use for rocket fuel, and having fuel waiting in space is way, way, way cheaper than bringing it there from Earth. So making fuel available in space could potentially lower the cost of exploring our solar system quite a bit.

The plan is to launch a fleet of (relatively) cheap asteroid-scanning telescopes some time in the next two or three years to identify near-Earth objects that both contain enough valuable materials, and are near enough to Earth (the hope being that they would be as easy or easier to reach than the moon). In the next decade, or somewhere in that neighborhood anyway, larger spacecraft would be launched that could capture the asteroids. Harvested materials could then be processed in space, or sent back to the planet. All operations would be unmanned, as having human pilots or minors would make everything significantly more expensive and risky.

In the week or so since the Planetary Resources made their announcement, it seems like most of the professional reactions I’ve read have treated the plan pretty seriously—while it requires a large investment, it’s not unrealistic.

I have to admit, it’s kind of an exciting plan. And it will keep the billionaires occupied for a little bit, which is good. Because we all know what happens when a billionaire gets bored.

(It didn’t make sense to me either. You think your great-grandparents are going to get it?)

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <h3> <h4> <em> <i> <strong> <b> <span> <ul> <ol> <li> <blockquote> <object> <embed> <param> <sub> <sup>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • You may embed videos from the following providers vimeo, youtube. Just add the video URL to your textarea in the place where you would like the video to appear, i.e. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pw0jmvdh.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Images can be added to this post.

More information about formatting options