Robots will go for the gold
A group of high-tech tycoons wants to dig holes in nearby asteroids, hoping to turn science fiction into money.
The mega-million dollar plan is to use robotic spaceships to squeeze rocket fuel and valuable minerals like platinum and gold out of the lifeless rocks that routinely whiz by Earth. One of the company founders predicts they could have their version of a space-based gas station up and running by 2020.
The first step, coming in the next 18 to 24 months, would be launching the first in a series of orbiting telescopes that would search for asteroid targets rich in gold, platinum and water.
Several scientists not involved in the project said they were simultaneously thrilled and skeptical, calling the plan daring, difficult—and highly expensive. They struggle to see how it could be cost-effective, even with platinum and gold worth nearly $1,600 an ounce. An upcoming NASA mission to return just 2 ounces of an asteroid to Earth will cost about $1 billion.
Robots only: The mining, fuel processing and later refueling would all be done without humans, Anderson said.
“It is the stuff of science fiction, but like in so many other areas of science fiction, it’s possible to begin the process of making them reality,” said former astronaut Thomas Jones, an adviser to the company.
The target-hunting telescopes would be tubes only a couple of feet long, weighing only a few dozen pounds and small enough to be held in your hand. They should cost less than $10 million, company officials said.
The idea that asteroids could be mined for resources has been around for years. Asteroids are the leftovers of a failed attempt to form a planet billions of years ago. Most of the remnants became the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but some pieces were pushed out to roam the solar system.
Floating rocks: Asteroids are made mostly of rock and metal and range from a couple of dozen feet wide to nearly 10 miles long. The new venture targets the free-flying asteroids, seeking to extract from them the rare Earth platinum metals that are used in batteries, electronics and medical devices, Diamandis said.
Water can be broken down in space to liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen for rocket fuel. Water is very expensive to get off the ground so the plan is to take it from an asteroid to a spot in space where it can be converted into fuel. From there, it can easily and cheaply be shipped to Earth orbit for refueling commercial satellites or spaceships from NASA and other countries.
In the past couple of years, NASA and other space agencies have shifted their attention from the moon and other planets toward asteroids. Because asteroids don’t have any substantial gravity, targeting them costs less fuel and money than going to the moon, Anderson said in a phone interview.
There are probably 1,500 asteroids that pass near Earth that would be good initial targets. They are at least 160 feet (50 meters) wide, and Anderson figures 10 percent of them have water and other valuable minerals.
Planetary Resources Inc.: http://www.planetaryresources.com/
NASA’s 2016 asteroid sampling mission: http://osiris-rex.lpl.arizona.edu/