Billionaires Fund Asteroid Mining Mission

Image: Space Taxi, National Geographic

When I first watched James Cameron’s Avatar, all I could think about was how cool it would be to have a living, breathing, giant avatar of my own.  Then when I watched it again, the issue of exploiting Pandora’s natural resources hit me.  I thought, “is it possible for humans to exhaust Earth’s natural resources and look for planets that could possibly replenish our supply?”  Yeah, it’s possible, especially at the rate we’re consuming things, but I thought exploring space for minerals would be decades away.  Guess I’m wrong.

Mining in the sky

Planetary Resources Inc. finally shed light as to what they have been working on.  They are set to outline their plans to send unmanned spacecrafts in space, land on an asteroid and mine it for valuable metals, such as gold, and water, which could be converted into fuel to power spacecrafts for further space exploration or be returned to Earth.

The company is backed by several billionaires such as Google Inc.’s co-founder Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, Hollywood director James Cameron and space-exploration proponents such as Peter Diamandis, co-founder of Planetary.

“If you look back historically at what has caused humanity to make its largest investments in exploration and in transportation, it has been going after resources, whether it’s the Europeans going after the spice routes or the American settlers looking toward the west for gold, oil, timber or land,” Diamandis said.

“Those precious resources caused people to make huge investments in ships and railroads and pipelines. Looking to space, everything we hold of value on Earth – metals, minerals, energy, real estate, water – is in near-infinite quantities in space. The opportunity exists to create a company whose mission is to be able to go and basically identify and access some of those resources and ultimately figure out how to make them available where they are needed,” Diamandis added.

John S. Lewis, University of Arizona planetary-science professor and adviser to Planetary, stated that the company is also looking into hiring engineers mission-planning experts in order to bring the project to private sectors.  Lewis’ 1997 book, “Mining the Sky,” made space mining quite popular.

Planetary aims to make a demonstration mission in orbit around Earth in two years.

NASA’s 2016 mission

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration strongly believes that space mining is crucial for space mining exploration.  In 2016, they will launch an unmanned mission called OSIRIS-Rex that would land on an asteroid, take a small sample, and bring it back to earth by 2023.  Other scientists published a study which stated “humans could use robotic spacecraft to capture a 500-ton asteroid seven meters in diameter and bring it into orbit around the moon so that it could be explored and mined.”

For ordinary people, this may sound totally awesome, but Lewis thinks that NASA’s efforts aren’t enough and that it’s painfully frustrating to watch the agency’s slow progress in space exploration.

Supporters and detractors

There will always be people excited about the project, and just as many skeptics.  Some are saying that space missions like this are just for wealthy people or corporations, but others see the potential of such feats like creating rocket fuel from water obtained from asteroids and eventually building fuel stations on asteroids to aid in space exploration.

“A depot within a decade seems incredible. I hope there will be someone to use it,” Dr Andrew Cheng, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory said in an interview.  “And I have high hopes that commercial uses of space will become profitable beyond Earth orbit. Maybe the time has come.”