Asteroid mining: disaster movie, or the shape of things to come?

Features editor

The extraordinary announcement yesterday of the formation of Planetary Resources, the billionaire-backed venture which aims to mine valuable minerals from asteroids, triggered an attack of deja-vu. It reminded me of my reaction when I first heard about the plans for Virgin Galactic’s maiden flight.

In an early publicity coup for the space tourism venture, Virgin announced that the passengers for the first flight SpaceShipTwo would include Richard Branson and his parents, plus Victoria Principal and Stephen Hawking. Hang on, I thought. The maverick and possibly hubristic tycoon owner of the ship, so confident that he’s brought vulnerable members of his own family along? The glamorous (but slightly B-list) actress, her glory days in the past? The wheelchair-bound genius scientist? This isn’t a news story, I thought. It’s the plot of a 70s disaster movie.

Then I felt slightly guilty about that, and tried to stop thinking it.

But my efforts were unsuccessful, because Planetary Resources — whose backers include Google CEO Larry Page and executive chairman Eric Schmidt; Peter Diamandis, who created the X-Prize Foundation; real estate magnate Ross Perot Jr (the son of the former US presidential candidate) and, almost inevitably, film director and undersea adventurer James Cameron — sounds like it was ripped straight from a science fiction movie. They’re planning on going into space? And strip-mining asteroids of precious metals like gold and platinum? And bringing it back to Earth? What could possibly go wrong?

Twitter, always a good place to go for amusing sarcasm, didn’t disappoint. ‘Oh, great,’ one commenter said, ‘now rich people are going to own space as well.’ Others asked whether these celebrity moneybags might like to solve world hunger before they started in on the asteroid belt.

Several pointed out that they couldn’t have found a more sinister-sounding name if they’d tried. To paraphrase a line from one of Cameron’s own films, you could easily imagine a dubious company representative telling the hero of our putative movie that ‘I’m from Planetary Resources, but don’t let that fool you; I’m actually an OK guy,’ before some sudden yet inevitable betrayal.

And that’s before you start thinking about the business plan — gold and platinum cost currently cost just over £1000 per ounce, and an upcoming mission to return two ounces of material from an asteroid for scientific study is costed at about £600,000. How can costings like that possibly turn a profit?

But when you look at Planetary Resources’ plans, cracks start to appear in the cynicism. For a start, the people in charge know what they’re doing. The president and chief engineer of Planetary Resources is Chris Lewicki, who was flight director for NASA’s Mars Spirit and Opportunity rover missions and mission manager for the Phoenix lander’s surface activities.

Moreover, the strategy is broken down into logical stages. The first is to launch small telescopes into orbit to survey near-Earth asteroids for useful substances, with volatiles like water, oxygen and nitrogen top of the list. The first of these is already under construction, and they can be launched on current rockets, piggy-backing with satellite launches; moreover, they can be spun around and leased out for Earth observation.

The second stage is to send out probes to tap these resources and place them into in-space supply depots. The thinking is that these substances are vital for deep-space missions but difficult to launch into space, especially water, which is heavy and incompressible. Future missions would need them, as propellants and to sustain crews, so collecting them and storing them in space, perhaps sending them out to a point where the mission could collect them, is a logical idea.

The third stage is the one which actually involves mining an asteroid, and there are several long-term visions for how this might be accomplished. With the experience of the previous two stages, you can imagine how costs could be driven down; but whether the economics stack up still seems far-fetched.

Is this another example of rich men’s hobbies getting out of hand? We’ve already commented on the example of James Cameron’s trip down to the Mariana Trench, along with Richard Branson’s upcoming attempt at the same feat (what is it with these two?) — in an upcoming issue, you’ll be able to read an interview with the designer of Branson’s submarine. Should we have to rely on the super-rich to have the vision and develop the technology to achieve these feats?

Perhaps not, but history is littered with examples of how what could be described as rich men’s hobbies blossoming into real science and engineering that affects everyone’s lives. Two of the most obvious are astronomy — originally the preserve of nobles and time-rich clergymen — and flight, whose early days as ballooning and the swashbuckling beginnings of powered aviation were solely the preserve of what must have seemed like rich idiots.

Page, Schmidt, Perot, Diamandis, Cameron et al are swimming in cash and if this is how they want to spend it, that’s their business. Of course, you could argue that they ought to be spending it on something else. You can definitely argue that they should pick a better name for their venture. But there’s no way that a government agency could possibly commit to such an ambitious venture, especially in the middle of a seemingly endless recession. And, as we’ve said numerous times, projects such as this grab the attention, bring glamour to engineering, excite future engineers, and make people think about and debate humanity’s aspirations and capabilities — and all of those are good things.

At the very least, it might stop James Cameron making another film. He hasn’t made a decent one since Aliens.