It’s been long thought, especially in science-fiction, that once Earth’s dwindling metallic resources dry up, the human race would look to the stars for precious metals. While this has been posited for decades in science-fiction literature, this is the first time that futurists are actually planning missions to harvest asteroids from space for metals.
Asteroids contain many tons of precious metals, and that’s why a consortium of wealthy, adventurous entrepreneurs have announced a new venture called Planetary Resources that plans to send swarms of robots into space to scout for asteroids containing precious metals.
They state that there are plenty of riches available in the solar system, making the ones on Earth pale in comparison. There are nearly 9,000 asteroids larger than 150 feet in diameter near Earth’s orbit. Some of these should contain as much platinum as is mined in an entire year on Earth, making them worth at least a couple of billion dollars each.
There are long time-scales that need to be considered before any such venture might lead to astronomical profits, which is one of the main reasons why investors haven’t taken part in such undertakings before. The new company is backed by some tech billionaires, including Larry Page and Eric Schmidt of Google, Charles Simonyi from Microsoft, and Ross Perot Jr from Dell. Advisors include James Cameron, astronaut Tom Jones, former JPL engineer Chris Lewicki, and planetary scientist Sara Seager.
Most of the technology needed in this endeavor hasn’t yet been developed. Within the next 18 to 24 months, Planetary Resources plans on launching between two and five space-based telescopes, which have been dubbed the Arkyd-101 Space Telescopes, at an estimated cost of a few million dollars each, that will be tasked to identify potentially valuable asteroids.
In five to seven years, the company hopes to send out swarms of small spacecraft for more detailed prospecting missions, each of which will cost between $25 and 30 million. The next step involves using robots to remotely mine these metals, and refine ores before sending the materials back to Earth. This is the hardest phase, and one on which Planetary Resources is staying tight-lipped about.
It’s possible that the asteroids could be pushed closer to Earth using low-power solar-electric ion engines, making them easily accessible from Earth. Some experts think that bringing back these metals, with current market prices, is too expensive to be feasible in the discussed time-frame, but they could be used for space-based operations. Asteroids contain water, which is very valuable for astronauts, either as water itself or broken down in to oxygen and hydrogen.