An Aside: Asteroid Mining? I want in!

Let me start by apologising – today’s post was meant to be a continuation of my series about automated functional tests in Javascript using Selenium and Mocha, and for those who are interested, never fear, I shall be attending to that in my next post. Today however, something more important has come along, and that is this news article about James “If it’s not 3D, it’s not a movie” Cameron, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt (of Google fame), as well as other people teaming up to back a new company named Planetary Resources. Generally, I don’t follow corporate news that closely, but when the rumours about this new company centre around the belief that it will be attempting to mine asteroids using robots, I get a little bit excited… and by a little, I mean, almost giddy.

One thing to realise about me is that I love space – anything about space. Ever since I was a kid it has fascinated me endlessly – when my younger brother and I weren’t sending our teddy bears off on astronautic adventures, I read science fiction books ceaselessly – it didn’t matter if it was a free self published, D-grade space opera novella off of Amazon, I’d still read and probably enjoy it merely because it detailed the adventures of people who are living, breathing, and making something of themselves… in space. As I got older, I read articles about space (even the technical ones, it didn’t matter if I didn’t understand them), played every space game I could my hands on, dreamed of ways to make space travel a reality (as a youngster, I once designed a space craft that would travel by scooping up space dust, and shooting it out of the back at high velocities to impart acceleration. A good idea, apart from the fact that a better idea had already been thought of) and wondered why it was so hard to build a space elevator, or colonise the moon. So it’s pretty safe to say that when it comes to space, I’m a bit of a fan.

So the idea of that a company is could actually be attempting to mine asteroids is huge, and there a number of reasons, beyond just the cool factor, that this excites me so much.

The problem with this picture? We can't get back

Firstly, NASA (and other government space agencies) have dropped the ball. Just under 43 years ago, on July 20, 1969, a truly momentous thing happened – Apollo 11 – with Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin aboard – landed on the moon. Humanity had set foot on another world and the world would never be the same – space was now the next frontier. Except, apart from another 5 moon landings, it all just kind of… stopped. Now, before I start getting slammed by people claiming all the things NASA (and the other international space agencies) have done since then, let me clarify. These agencies have done some incredible things since then, such as the Voyager probes, the Mars Rover missions, the Hubble Space Telescope, not to mention the International Space Station (which is incredibly cool – for those who haven’t seen it, I highly recommend watching the tour of the ISS by Mike Fincke – it shows the real scope of the station). I’m not trying to diminish the enormity of these technical achievements, but when I say things kind of stopped, I mean that government controlled space programs seemed to lose the desire to expand the space frontier. Sure, the USA had proved that man could reach the moon, but there was no follow on. No moon base missions, no attempts to build orbital infrastructure to support future space efforts – in fact, in the 40 years since Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon we have not only not repeated the feat, but we have even lost the ability to do so. Instead, humanity remains stuck within the close confines of the Earth, sending remote controlled toys to take pictures of other worlds, and take dirt samples. Interesting and necessary – absolutely. Revolutionary and inspiring – not really.

What we needed (or rather that should be phrased as “What I wanted”) is a space program that had a forward direction, a vision, and a goal to expand humanity’s borders beyond the Earth. Since the space race started to take off, it inspired generations – millions of people – that the impossible was possible. What we’ve seen lately is that the impossible remains just that, and what’s the point of trying – mainly caused by a lack of funding from governments, and a misunderstanding about just how much value a space program can bring to a nation and the world. (As an Australian, it disappoints me just how little presence my country has in space – I know we’re small, but we’re innovators!)

The reason Planetary Resources and it’s asteroid mining rumours cause me hope is because while the government space agencies have slowed, in the past decade commercial endeavours designed to transform space into a commercially viable operating space have been gaining significant traction. Such enterprises, such as SpaceX, who have been conducting profitable operations since 2007, and are just about to take on the first COTS resupply mission to the International Space Station; Virgin Galactic with their sub-orbital tourist flights, and Bigelow Aerospace with their very cool expandable space stations (using technology originally developed by NASA) are really pushing ahead with making space a viable reality. As more and more players get involved in the space game, more and more money is going to be put into research and development of space related technologies and particularly with commercial enterprises being involved, there is a more solid push to get actually produce something at the end of it. After all, theories are all well and good, but theories aren’t going to make you any money. As someone interested in space, I’m in favour of this. Why? Because I want to see that cool engine design actually powering a space ship, not sitting in a scientist’s notebook gathering dust.

This asteroid is just ripe for the taking

The other benefit of having commercial entities involved in space is that they are interested in something that governmental space agencies haven’t been – and that is space related infrastructure. If you are a commercial operator looking to exploit space for financial gain, you’re going to need the supporting infrastructure to help you do that – something that we are already starting to see happening around the world. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, for instance, bankrolled Spaceport America to support their future space tourism operations, whilst their spacecraft provider, Scaled Composites has invested in their own manufacturing facilities designed to construct spacecraft. The true is same of any of the other major players in the space technology sector – SpaceX has constructed their own launch facilities and supporting infrastructure as well. At the moment, the majority of this infrastructure is on Earth, but with the cost of launching payloads out of Earth’s gravity well, one would imagine that these companies, and others, will be looking to expand this infrastructure into space as well – something that a resource company dealing in mining asteroids, such as Planetary Resources, would be ideally placed to help deal with. Which brings me to the second reason I’m excited about Planetary Resources and asteroid mining.

We need access to raw materials in space. Let’s face it – building stuff on Earth and shooting it up out of our gravity well on the back (or top of) of a liquid-propellant rocket is not real economical. At the moment, it costs upwards of a $100 million dollars to launch a few hundred kilograms of cargo. There are three possible ways of dealing with this:

1) Continue on as we are – keep spending huge sums of money for relatively payloads.

2) Develop a cheaper way of getting things to orbit – be it a cheaper, more efficient rocket; a space elevator; or a giant catapult.

3) Reduce the quantity of goods needed to take into space.

As you may have guessed, I’m not the biggest fan of option 1, but I am in favour of pursuing options 2 & 3. Asteroid mining has great potential to help with reducing the dependency of space bound infrastructure on Earth bound industry. By having access to raw materials in space, without the prohibitive cost of transporting it from Earth, means that manufacturing becomes a viable prospect. Sure, it requires a substantially higher outlay of financial and technological capital initially to set up an basic industrial capacity in space, but once it is there, the possibilities just explode, particularly if that industrial base is able to create additional industrial capacity.

Need a new one? Build one up there from raw materials

Need a new space station? Construct as much of the heavy structure in orbit from resources already up there, and save the heavy Earth lifting capacity that would have been used to lift large chunks of steel for the really critical bits. Need a spaceship to go to Mars? Forget about needing to design it to withstand an Earth launch, make it in space for travel purely in space – resulting in a substantially cheaper, simpler design. Need to build a hydroponics station to support growth of food for hungry spaceworkers? Ditto. Plain and simple – an industrial capacity in space means that the world is literally, at your fingertips. Needless to say, the first entity (be it government or commercial) with this sort of capacity is going to have an edge that will be hard to overtake for a long time (a point which leads to an interesting discussion on the nature of laws, ownership, nationality, and the role of corporations in space – but that’s a discussion for another time.) This sort of capacity starts with access to those raw materials, and if Planetary Resources are serious about asteroid mining, and can actually pull it off, then you and I may live to see a future where humanity has moved to living beyond this planet – and that is something incredibly exciting.

If you are a fellow space nut; a NASA engineer with an axe to grind about my article; or someone with something to say – feel free to leave a comment below.

If this article has interested you, you may wish to follow me on Twitter (@noehlman), or you may wish to browse the random collections of code on my GitHub repository.

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4 thoughts on “An Aside: Asteroid Mining? I want in!

  1. I really like this article, and having a similar opinion with you about building more space stations out there for universe studies.

    However, it will take time and (I hate to say this) money to launch it, otherwise NASA would have done this a long time ago, as Dr.Neil de Grasse Tyson mentioned in many of his videos

    • Hi Fordyce – I glad I’m not alone in thinking this!

      I totally agree about the time and money aspect of it all – which is why I’m hopeful that commercialisation of space will help resolve at least the money aspect of it. Corporations, moreso than governments at times, seem to be capable of injecting capital where they can see the benefit of the old saying “you have to spend money to make money”. The hardest thing about it (like with any project) I guess is getting it the foundations started – it’s all a bit of a blank slate up there at the moment with regards to infrastructure, but once a bit of momentum gets started, then hopefully we’ll start to see some real progress happening.

    • >it will take time and (I hate to say this) money to launch it, otherwise NASA would have done this a long time ago,

      I think this is disingenuous at best. Technology has certainly given us advantages and abilities unthought-of 20 or 30, much less 40 years ago! Modern CAD/CAM and 3D printing mean designs can go from conception to small-scale prototype in much less time (for for much less money) than anytime previous. Advances in materials science have improved everything from pressure suit designs to battery power/cubic meter. NASA ‘a long time ago’ had none of these advantages. What was impossible then is now possible, and what was possible-but-expensive then is possible-and-cheaper now.

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