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Asteroid Mines: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

Tue, 05/15/2012 - 9:53am
Karl Stephan, Consulting Engineer, Texas State University, San Marcos

If you happened to be in the Seattle Museum of Flight Tuesday, Apr. 24, you might have been able to squeeze into a news conference called by an outfit terming itself Planetary Resources, Inc. Planetary Resources’ main distinction so far is that it has a lot of resources of the monetary kind.  Backers reportedly include Google CEO Larry Page, who is in possession of some $16 billion personally. What Planetary Resources’s co-founder Peter Diamandis wants to do is to mine asteroids within a decade, that is, by 2022 or so. Already they are planning to launch small orbital telescopes, modern versions of the old mining engineer’s surveying transits, that they will use to search for likely prospects for a visit. But as in earth-bound mining, you are never completely sure what you have got until you go there and start digging.

The idea of mining extraterrestrial objects is not new. One writer at www.livescience.com traced the idea back to an 1898 short story endorsed by none other than Thomas Edison, whose single most costly failed project involved a Canadian iron-mine venture in 1902. In 1944, Isaac Asimov used an asteroid mine of the future as a setting for one of his speculative pieces about whether robots could become sophisticated enough to foment rebellion. But Diamandis and company are not fiction: they have serious money and serious plans, and while I’m sure science fiction enthusiasms are in their backgrounds, their main motivation is to make more of what they have a lot of already, namely, money. But they want to make it in a cool way.

There are actually two aspects to their plans. One is to use asteroids as a resource for the thing that currently makes space flight so expensive in the first place, namely, the fuel. When you have to pack everything you need on a trip and can’t count on finding any gas stations, it severely limits your options as to what else you can take along. But several researchers have shown that if it was possible to establish fueling stations in space, it would make the logistics and economics of space travel much friendlier than they are now. So once you’re in space, never mind gold or platinum or anything like that:  fuel is the most precious resource.  And the idea of erecting a solar-powered hydrogen plant on an asteroid and making hydrogen from water (ideally) or rocks (in a pinch) would satisfy that need.  From a technical engineering standpoint, this aspect of the Planetary Resources plans makes a lot of sense.

What about the rest of it, namely, mining asteroids for profit by extracting rare materials such as platinum and so on?  I would urge Diamandis, Page and company to do a little reading in the history of 16th-century Spain. It was Spain more than any other country which did on a small scale what Planetary Resources is trying to do on a large scale: namely, exploited newly discovered mineral wealth on a near-monopoly basis for quite a while, from 1492 right up to the 1800s.  The worst aspect of Spanish colonization of the Americas was their barbarous treatment of the native Americans, who were forced into slavery and furnished most of the labor involved in operating the gold mines that gave rise to the wealth that produced Spain’s Golden Age of culture. Fortunately, no asteroid appears to have even non-sentient life on it, so that particular problem will not arise.

Of course, if you import too much of a given scarce resource, its price can fall to the point where it’s not worth fooling with anymore. But I am sure that the Planetary Resources people will look to the example of the DeBeers diamond monopoly as to how to control their prospective monopoly to extract the most value from it. They are too smart to let greed get the best of them and flood the platinum market with tons of the stuff all at once. But smart people have been outsmarted by markets before.

All the same, even if the technical hurdles are overcome, I anticipate that some legal and governmental issues may arise. Somebody, somewhere, is going to want to tax all of this new economic activity. Unless the U.S. manages to impose jurisdiction on an asteroid, there will be no way that the U. S. government can claim that the operation is domestic and subject to corporate tax. This may be another attraction for the company: asteroid mining is the ultimate offshore site.  Nobody has given a lot of thought to how all this will be dealt with from a legal and governmental angle. And the current tight coupling between corporations and the U.S. government probably ensures that whatever regulations are imposed will generally be favorable to the corporations.

There are huge risks involved in this enterprise, even though the entire operation is supposed to use non-manned flight only. If anybody can afford it, though, it is the backers of Planetary Resources, who together have multiple billions of dollars to spend. And it may take every cent before they even get back a few grams of valuable stuff. Mining has always been a business for gamblers, and space mining is no exception. At the worst, even if it fails, it will furnish a lot of employment for heretofore unemployed aerospace engineers who can get to work on something that might actually make money. And if it all works out, it could be the first step in the transformation of space travel from an exotic, rare, super-costly thing engaged in only by governments to something closer to what international flying is like today:  still sophisticated and relatively costly, but open to anyone with the money to pay for it.  And as I say about so many things I consider in this blog, time will tell.

Sources: The Apr. 24 news conference was covered by many media outlets. I referred to an article in USA Today at http://www.usatoday.com/tech/science/space/story/2012-04-24/mining-asteroids/54507782/1. A good overview of space mining in science fiction appeared at http://www.livescience.com/19862-asteroid-mining-fiction-present.html. My attempts to access the Planetary Resources Inc. website at www.planetaryresources.com were unsuccessful. I hope their rockets work better than their website.

Karl Stephan has worked in the industry as a consulting engineer. He currently teaches college-level engineering courses at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas.

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