To the Asteroids and Beyond

A group of big-name tech billionaires wants to open up a new frontier in space—mining space rocks

Is mining asteroids the next space frontier?
Is mining asteroids the next space frontier? Photo courtesy of European Space Agency

A strange thing happened in Washington last week. This normally is a pretty jaded place, but when the space shuttle Discovery did its victory lap over the city atop a 747 Tuesday morning, people poured out of government buildings or raced to office windows to take one long, last look. Most fired away on their cell phone cameras, knowing that they weren’t likely to get a great shot, but equally sure they had to try.

It was a moment that revived awe, if only for fleeting minutes, one that screamed “Turning point!” in a way that history rarely does. Some, such as the Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, saw it as a sad funeral procession, a “symbol of willed American decline.” Others, including America’s reigning celebrity scientist, astrophyicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, viewed it as motivation to double NASA’s budget.

Truth is, the next chapter in American space exploration may be more likely to unfold in Seattle tomorrow when a startup called Planetary Resources has its coming-out news conference. Last week it sent out a cryptic press release, announcing that the company “will overlay two critical sectors–space exploration and natural resources–to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP.” Analysts offered an instant translation: It plans to mine asteroids.

Not a big leap to draw that conclusion, especially since one of the principals of Planetary Resources is Peter Diamandis, the space entreperneur behind the X-Prize competition, and a man who recently told an interviewer, “Ever since childhood, I wanted to do one thing–be an asteroid miner.” (The rich apparently are different from you and me.)

What makes this undertaking much more than one man tilting at asteroids, however, is the band of billionaires behind it. Drum roll, please: Film director and ocean explorer James Cameron, Google co-founder Larry Page, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, Google board member Ram Shriram, former Microsoft exec and two-time space tourist Charles Simonyi and Ross Perot, Jr., the suitably wealthy son of the former presidential candidate.

Obviously, it’s a group with loads of money to burn, but also one that knows something about smart investments. While mining asteroids is clearly a high-risk enterprise with enormous challenges, it has the potential to be hugely lucrative. Diamandis has estimated that the platinum alone in one relatively small asteroid could be valued as much as $20 trillion.

Still, Planetary Resources’ mission appears to be driven, at least in part, by the young-boy fantasies of very rich men. Diamandis talks of others like himself who grew up when NASA was golden and “Star Trek” aired weekly and now have the means to be space frontiersmen–people like Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, both of whom are investing heavily in developing vehicles that can launch satellites or carry people into space.

Says Diamandis: “They’re able now to take the money they’ve made and hopefully fulfill the vision they had as a child. In our heart of hearts, many of us have given up on NASA as the mechanism to get us there.”

A rocky road

How plausible is asteroid mining? It turns out that earlier this month NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, along with the Keck Institute for Space Studies and the California Institute of Technology, released a study concluding that asteroids could be retreived, then mined. The scientists agreed that by 2025, it will be possible to have a robot spacecraft capture a 500-ton asteroid and move it into a high lunar orbit. The cost? About $2.6 billion.

But that would be for an asteroid only 22 feet or so in diameter–a big expense for a not such a big rock. And it doesn’t include the cost of actually extracting minerals. The other option would be robotic missions to asteroids where mining operations would be set up. But humans have yet to land a spacecraft on a body as small as an asteroid and take off again with minerals from the surface. The closest attempt came in 2005 when the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency landed a probe on an asteroid. It returned to Earth five years later with about only 100 microscopic particles.

Can’t wait to see what Planetary Resources has in mind.

Meanwhile, back at NASA

No, they haven’t turned off the lights at NASA. Here’s some of its more recent news:

  • Private business: The space agency has been working closely with Space Exploration Technologies, better known as Space X, in preparation for the first flight of a private spacecraft to the International Space Station at the end of April. The unmanned capsule, named Dragon, will deliver cargo after it’s grabbed with a robotic arm operated by astronauts in the space station.
  • Moons over Saturn: Now 15 years into its mission, the Cassini spacecraft continues to send back images of Saturn and its moons. The most recent photos are of Enceladus and Tethys.
  • Can’t get enough…of that Martian stuff: The latest rover headed to Mars, an SUV-sized vehicle named Curiosity, is now more than halfway to its destination. After it lands in early August, it will start exploring the large Gale Crater and a three-mile-high mountain inside it for signs of microbial life.
  • The hunt goes on: Earlier this month NASA extended the mission of the planet-finding Kepler space telescope until 2016. It has discovered 2,300 potential alien planets since its launch three years ago.
  • “Recalculating…”: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in California is developing an atomic clock that will serve as a kind of GPS for spacecraft in deep space.
  • Where stars are the stars: And we definitely can’t forget the Hubble Space Telescope, which turns 22 tomorrow. It just keeps delivering remarkable images from deep space, including this latest one of the Tarantula Nebula 170,000 light years away.

Video bonus: Here’s one for old time’s sake, a flashback to one of NASA’s signature moments. Using data from its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, NASA has recreated what three Apollo astronauts saw on Christmas Eve, 1968 as they watched a bright blue Earth rise over the moon’s horizon.