The gold rush has officially begun: the mining of the asteroids. Science fiction writers have been predicting it for decades.* Now some seriously hard-hitting billionaires and technical people are joining forces to make it happen, through a privately funded initiative called Planetary Resources, Inc. Investors include filmmaker and explorer James Cameron (yes, he who just dove the Mariana Trench), the founders of the X-Prize Foundation, Google executives Larry Page & Eric Schmidt, Ross Perot, Jr., and others. Technical people include—well, for example, the chief engineer is Chris Lewicki, who was Flight Director for NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity Mars rover missions.
They’re seriously planning to robotically explore and mine near-Earth asteroids, seeking precious metals, such as platinum-family metals, and water (very precious in space, very expensive to lift into orbit). From the Planetary Resources website:
“Initial space resource development will focus on water-rich asteroids. Water is the essence of life and exists in plentiful supply on asteroids. Access to water and other life-supporting volatiles in space provides hydration, breathable air, radiation shielding and even manufacturing capabilities. Water’s elements, hydrogen and oxygen, can also be used to formulate rocket fuel.”
Here’s a summary of a recent report suggesting that the technology to do this is available or nearly so.
I think this is one of the most exciting developments in space exploration since the Apollo lunar landings. For more details, visit the Planetary Resources website. For a highly readable but expert analysis, read Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog post: Breaking: Private company does indeed plan to mine asteroids… and I think they can do it.
I’m not an investment speculator, but if they were selling shares, I’d be in for a share today.
*My own short story, Dog Star, is based on the premise that we’ll be actively mining near-Earth asteroids; also, on the smarts of border collies.