25 April 2012

Is This the Door to a Human Springtime?

....the metals we prize most — all the gold, platinum, iron, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, tungsten, and several others — wouldn't exist in Earth's crust if they hadn't been delivered here by asteroids in the final throes of planetary formation. _Sky & Telescope

Spacehabs.com Asteroid Mining Info Screen Capture

Dreams of asteroid mining aren't new — the first speculations date back a hundred years...What gives the Planetary Resources plan credibility are two key factors that've been missing from prior schemes: a space-savvy management team, and investors willing to fund them.

...Plans call for a three-phase approach. First, a series of small orbiting telescopes to find and track thousands of of NEOs. The first of these — dubbed Arkyd 101 is already under construction at the company's plant in Bellevue, Washington, and should be launched within two years. Next come clusters of Arkyd 200 satellites, equipped with propulsion packs to rendezvous with promising targets and assess their resource potential.

Finally, perhaps a decade from now, robotic miners will land and start harvesting the cosmic paydirt. "We're creating simple, elegant designs," says Lewicki. "We're going to create robotic explorers that cost one to two orders of magnitude less than current systems."

By then, the investors should start seeing a return on their investment. "An asteroid the size of this auditorium would be hundreds of billions of dollars," Diamandis noted. _Sky & Telescope
The new generation of robots will be smaller, cheaper, faster, and better. They will be networked in swarms, capable of communicating with other classes of robots which will serve other functions.

Not every observer is optimistic about the prospects for this venture. But even the naysayers have to admit that there are positive aspects to the plan:
Platinum and gold to one side, asteroids are thought to contain untold riches held in other precious metals and rare minerals -- asteroids, after all, are built from the same "stuff" as Earth (albeit in varying quantities) as they were formed in the same proto-planetary disk of material when the sun was a baby. It's reasonable to say that if we have the technology and if we can establish a mining outfit in space, the first company to do so could have access to resources that would make today's oil companies drool.

But Planetary Resources isn't just going to build the world's first refinery tomorrow. Like the majority of commercial space companies, they are going to take an incremental approach to the endeavor, building an observation satellite first and then developing new technologies for robotic probes that could autonomously prospect nearby asteroid candidates. They hope to make some profit along the way to develop the next technology needed to reach their ultimate goal.

It is known that asteroids contain water, so the first operation carried out on asteroids probably wouldn't be mining per se, it'll be extracting water and refining it for spaceship fuel. One of the costliest things to launch into space is propellant for in-space maneuvers; if there's a supply of fuel already floating in orbital "fuel stops," cheap and sustainable spaceflight may be possible -- the spin-off technology potential seems more exciting than asteroid mining itself.

"Water is perhaps the most valuable resource in space," said Eric Anderson, co-founder of Planetary Resources. "Accessing a water-rich asteroid will greatly enable the large-scale exploration of the solar system. In addition to supporting life, water will also be separated into oxygen and hydrogen for breathable air and rocket propellant." _DiscoverNews
Of course, all of these asteroid mining robots will need a way to get into space in the first place, and for them, Elon Musk's SpaceX hopes to be the main space transportation company.

The entire human space enterprise has been waiting for the chance to begin -- waiting for the "killer app" that would start the cash flow to feed the entire snowballing process. Near Earth asteroid mining may be that killer app (PDF).

More from Scientific American

More: The Re-Invigoration of the West through Outer Space Development

This is the real goal -- the jump-starting of a new phase of human horizons. Until now, it was not certain that enough persons of sufficient heft cherished the same vision. Doomers are a dime a dozen. But dreamers with a well-thought out plan and enough clout to see the dream through -- those have been vanishingly rare.

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Blogger Matt M said...

In his book Live Free Or Die, John Ringo suggested that an array of space based solar mirrors could be focused on a metal asteroid. Then, by spinning the asteroid - the centrifical force would flatten the rock out into a disc. Lighter metals would migrate to the outer area of the disc and heavy metals would stay in the center.

Wednesday, 25 April, 2012  
Blogger Matt M said...

Of course, all you need is a small rocket engine attached to a large asteroid in Near Earth Orbit - and you have your very own planet killer.

Wednesday, 25 April, 2012  
Blogger al fin said...

Matt: We are likely to see a large number of ingenious ideas for exploiting the wealth of the solar system, once we get started.

And who needs asteroidal planet killers when you've got Obama? ;-)

Thursday, 26 April, 2012  

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