Mining asteroids? I get it!
An organization called Planetary Resources had their big press conference yesterday announcing their plans to mine asteroids for raw materials that will facilitate private space travel. I mentioned this here and here.
I’ve barely started reading their website, but that’s enough for me to ‘get it’. With other work commitments I will have to get back to this later, but wanted to highlight it now.
An article in The New York Times provides more background – In Pursuit of Riches, and Travelers’ Supplies, in the Asteroid Belt
Here’s the concept in one paragraph from Planetary Resources’ web site – mind-boggling amounts of natural resources have yet to be discovered:
There are near-limitless numbers of asteroids and more being discovered every year. More than 1,500 are as easy to reach as the Moon and are in similar orbits as Earth. Asteroids are filled with precious resources, everything from water to platinum. Harnessing valuable minerals from a practically infinite source will provide stability on Earth, increase humanity’s prosperity, and help establish and maintain human presence in space.
What resources? Stuff that is key to space travel:
There are over 1,500 asteroids that are as easy to get to as the surface of the Moon. They are also in Earth-like orbits with small gravity fields, making them easier to approach and depart.
Asteroids contain valuable and useful materials like iron, nickel, water, and rare platinum group metals, often in significantly higher concentration than found in mines on Earth.
What kind of resources? How about water and precious metals:
Water from Asteroids
…A single water-rich 500-meter-wide asteroid contains 80 times more water than the largest supertanker could carry and could provide, if the water were converted to rocket propellant, more than 200 times the rocket fuel required to launch all the rockets ever launched in human history.
The Times article says:
Some of the asteroids are icy — up to 20 percent water — and the water could be drawn out by melting the ice. The water could be taken to supply stopovers for future astronauts or broken down into breathable oxygen or propellant for spacecraft on interplanetary missions.
Make a wild guess about how many rocket launches it would take to lift into orbit enough water to fill a supertanker? Probably would take less energy for a round trip to the moon than lifting all that water.
As for precious metals:
Rare Metals from Asteroids
In space, a single platinum-rich 500 meter wide asteroid contains about 174 times the yearly world output of platinum, and 1.5 times the known world-reserves of platinum group metals (ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium, and platinum). This amount is enough to fill a basketball court to four times the height of the rim. By contrast, all of the platinum group metals mined to date in history would not reach waist-high on that same basketball court.
A near earth orbit asteroid would less difficult to reach than the moon and far easier to leave since it has a low gravitational pull. So, for less effort than a round trip to the moon, a company (enter Planetary Resources) could mine enough water that could be converted to more energy than every rocket we have launched to date (picture a dozen Saturn Vs taking off for the moon and a hundred Shuttle launches).
Or – one other asteroid could more than double our known reserves of the platinum group metals. Could get more of the platinum-group stuff out of one asteroid than we have pulled out of Earth throughout history.
Amazing? Yes. Mind-boggling? Yes.
When you stop laughing at the novelty, ask yourself if back in 2000 or 1995 you would have thought Amazon, Google, E-bay, or privately-designed-and-funded-space-travel were ever in our future?
Mining asteroids. Cool. I get it.
The future is so bright we need sunglasses.