Friday, April 27, 2012

Reason #185: Asteroid Mining

“It’s like computers. They used to be in clean rooms and handled by guys in isolation suits. Now they’re in your pocket and it’s no big deal if you drop it. That’s what we want to bring to robotic space exploration.”
- Chris Lewicki, President and Chief Engineer of Planetary Resources
With the support from the founders of Google and James Cameron, among others, this week saw the announcement of Planetary Resources, the first private business with the goal of mining asteroids - for water at first, followed by precious metals like gold and platinum.

To hear them talk about it, though, they seem less interested in the end result--which they admit is at least ten years away--than in developing an overall infrastructure for off-planet commerce. And it's thanks to that outlook that the business is already running a profit; through long-term contracts with NASA and various other private interests.

That NASA is now contracting with private businesses says a lot about NASA's budget problems, but even more important is what it says about the current cost-effectiveness of private enterprise conducting its business in space. One of Planetary Resources' first orders of business is developing satellite technology that is both cheap to obtain and easy to modify - dubbed the Arkyd series.

Think of them as the iPod of space - they'll eventually function as telescopes for the mining operation, designed to track nearby asteroids and determine their compositions, but in the meantime NASA can use them to bolster its communications network, and private companies can install any other research equipment that might suit their needs.

The goal is for there to be "swarms" of these things eventually, because Planetary Resources is realistic about the kinds of failures that can easily occur in space operations, and it's actually a better business model to make a crapload of really basic models that are easily replaceable (again: iPods) than to put all your money into a handful of top-of-the-line models that could still end breaking on you.

Even if the mining thing doesn't ultimately work out (some have mentioned that flooding the market with gold, say, would only serve to lower its value and reduce your overall profitability), they're quick to say that their fundamental focus is "access"; in other words, "extend[ing] the economic sphere into the solar system".

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