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Planetary Resources Confirms Plan To Mine Asteroids 500

Posted by timothy
from the that-better-be-some-delicious-water dept.
Matching widespread predictions, The Bad Astronomer writes with word that "The private company Planetary Resources has announced that it plans to mine asteroids for water, air, and even precious metals in the next few years. Your initial reaction may be to snicker a bit, but it's headed by Peter Diamandis — who established the X Prize — has several ex-NASA personnel running the engineering, and also has the backing of a half-dozen or so billionaires. So this is no joke — their plan looks solid, and may very well be the first step in establishing a permanent human presence in space."
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Planetary Resources Confirms Plan To Mine Asteroids

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  • by GameboyRMH (1153867) <gameboyrmh@[ ]il.com ['gma' in gap]> on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @11:35AM (#39782489) Journal

    Hopefully they'll be very careful about bringing asteroids into Earth orbit. But the energy and mining industries are pretty safe and responsible right?

    • by dkleinsc (563838) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @11:43AM (#39782599) Homepage

      Slightly paraphrasing Hubert Farnsworth: "Yes, there's no safer occupation than mining. Especially when you're on a rock whipping through space at a million miles an hour! Whoo whoo whoo whoooo! Safe!"

    • by pr0t0 (216378) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @11:44AM (#39782611)

      Well, there's always the possibility that some enterprising manager finds that if he provides performance enhancing narcotics to the miners, his quarterly numbers and thus compensation will go up. Then a marshal of Scottish descent will catch on after a miner wigs out on the drugs and opens an airlock without an environment suit on. He'll try to stop the operation leading the manager to send up some thugs to take the marshal out. This will cause a bloody gunfight and some EVA shenanigans; maybe an explosion or two.

      Props to everyone who's old enough to get the reference!

      • by Joehonkie (665142)
        Nice.
      • by jpedlow (1154099) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @11:50AM (#39782713)
        I'll just leave this here
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outland_(film)/ [wikipedia.org]
        It was made 3 years before I was born. But I did catch original transformers & spiderman & gi-joe. (and a-team re-runs) Ahhhh the 80's, could do no wrong..
      • by arth1 (260657)

        Props to everyone who's old enough to get the reference!
        Get off our lawn, youngster. We had the stories of Kimball Kinnison mining asteroids and chewing drugs long before you were born :)

        • by whitroth (9367)

          Yes! And who needs asteroids....

          "My name is Kimball Kinneson
                I lead the Lensman band
            Although we're few in number
                Our abilities are great..
            We play with stars and planets,
                Catch comets in a net
            And use a supernova
                To light a cigarette.

            - Poul Anderson

                          mark

    • A lot, but (Score:5, Insightful)

      by oGMo (379) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @12:04PM (#39782939)

      A lot could go wrong, but hopefully they're talking about dropping it at L1 [wikipedia.org] and not actually bringing it into LEO/MEO. After all, we already have a rather large chunk of rock [wikipedia.org] in orbit. A fair-sized asteroid at L1 would make a great place for a real space station, especially if it's ice and rock ... water, breathable air, and a place to build, and you don't have to do anything to keep it there. And the moon is a short jump away.

      • by bwcbwc (601780)

        I think that's part of their real business model here. They aren't going to make money shipping asteroid materials down to earth. Their best sources of revenue are either 1) acquiring vast swathes of asteroid mineral rights cheap and then selling them on markup once the technology matures and 2) becoming the prime supplier for any lunar base that gets built. the one area where they can compete on cost is the cost of lifting mass quantities UP earth's gravity well vs. the cost of lobbing mass quantities DOWN

      • by slew (2918)

        Everyone seems to talk about L1 being somehow a "nirvana" of space locations, but L1 (and L2) are unstable points. Sure you've balanced the earth and moon gravity, but any large pertubation (say like a explosion or meteor hit), will knock whatever you put there away from this equilibrium point and probably with more energy than you have to correct for. Of course if the direction happens to be towards the earth (bad juju). Even w/o large pertubations, you probably need continuous adjustments (thrusters)

    • Humanity is doomed. Might as well start the new Dark Ages now. These crazy statist fear-mongers will stop every bit of progress anyone ever proposes because it "might be dangerous" or it could "harm the environment" (or, more to the point "humans are a viral infection"). Reverting to hunter-gatherer lifestyle run by a totalitarian government is the only thing that will ever satisfy them.
  • by j00r0m4nc3r (959816) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @11:37AM (#39782507)
    Because we're just about running out of problems to solve here on Earth
  • I'll believe it (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Black Parrot (19622) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @11:38AM (#39782517)

    when I see it happening.

    Does anyone know what the (plausible) ROI for this is?

    • Re:I'll believe it (Score:5, Insightful)

      by gurps_npc (621217) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @11:44AM (#39782615) Homepage
      They are not sending metal down to earth.

      Their first step is to mine water and air and other materials to sell to NASA in orbit..

      Cheaper for a space station to get water from an asteroid mine than it is to ship it up from earth.

      Similarly, if they can get a simple forge up there, they can build the heavy support structures for satelitels and space stations out of metals mined on the asteroid.

      This allows bigger construction in space.

      • Do you need heavy support structures if you are building in space?

        They are certainly a convention in art and film; but if you are interested in modest acceleration(eg. solar sails, ion engines, and other stuff where fuel weight doesn't kill you) in a nearly total vacuum you enjoy considerable freedom to build massive structures out of toothpicks and mylar, with structural concerns only kicking in in pressurized sections of the craft or anything designed to re-enter a planetary atmosphere...
        • Re:I'll believe it (Score:4, Insightful)

          by BlueStrat (756137) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @12:58PM (#39783793)

          Do you need heavy support structures if you are building in space?

          There are these things called "mass" and "inertia" that remain unchanged regardless of the gravitational field they're in, or lack of one.

          This is basic Newtonian physics.

          If you wanted to do something like, say, create a space station or ship that uses the centrifugal effects of spin to create a form of "pseudo-gravity" for long-term health of the residents/crew and/or for purposes of performing certain industrial operations that involve separating materials of differing masses, or something of significant mass that must endure acceleration, you still need structural supports with enough strength to prevent it from flying apart from centrifugal forces or collapsing under acceleration due to it's mass and inertia.

          Strat

      • Re:I'll believe it (Score:4, Interesting)

        by FleaPlus (6935) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @03:51PM (#39786687) Journal

        Their first step is to mine water and air and other materials to sell to NASA in orbit..

        Actually, from their website [planetaryresources.com], their first step is to create a fleet of assembly-line space-based telescopes, which will start launching in 18-24 months. In addition to scouting for asteroids, the telescopes will be licensed/sold for both astronomical and ground observation for a few million each. Over time they'll be producing incrementally-upgraded versions with the capability to chase down asteroids, survey other locations in the solar system, and eventually perform sample return missions. Even if the company never reaches the point of asteroid mining, their Arkyd series of telescopes/probes looks like a big (and potentially profitable) game-changer for planetary exploration and orbital monitoring.

    • Finding just one asteroid rich in Platinum and other valuable metals may result in a return on the order of trillions of dollars, justifying the billions in expenses of bringing such an asteroid to earth/lunar orbit and extracting all of its resources.
      • by Abreu (173023)

        Wouldn't bringing large amounts of Platinum to Earth cause it's price to plummet?

        • Re:I'll believe it (Score:4, Insightful)

          by Baloroth (2370816) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @11:57AM (#39782831)
          Yes, but lower price means more people can afford it, which in turn increases demand. So even if they don't get a trillion dollars for it, they can still make a lot of money.
          • Much more profitable just to threaten to destroy the Earth unless everybody pays them. And they can do it again -- and again.

            After all, it's not just the price of platinum that may plummet... it could be the platinum itself.

        • Re:I'll believe it (Score:5, Interesting)

          by squiggleslash (241428) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @12:14PM (#39783099) Homepage Journal

          One of the ironies is that many materials are prized for their scarcity, but their scarcity actually makes them less valuable in the real world.

          Take gold as an extreme example. There's not enough of it to be useful, so we don't really use it that often. Instead, its rarity is prized by people who value rarity and that's it.

          Libertarians might think it's valuable as some post-apocalyptic currency. Me, I think gold's useless. Outside of plating electrical connectors (something silver's pretty good at too), it's only in my house 'cos my wife like wearing the stuff decoratively.

          If we had lots of gold, on the other hand, we'd start using it. Copper wire would start being replaced by gold/copper alloys. We'd use it to plate large objects to protect them from rust - car components, train bodies (perhaps even train rails.)

          The irony here is that by becoming abundant, gold would become useful. As such it would be valuable. You could build and fuel industries around it. There's not enough of it to build industries around it today.

          • Re:I'll believe it (Score:5, Insightful)

            by 0123456 (636235) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @12:23PM (#39783197)

            Me, I think gold's useless. Outside of plating electrical connectors (something silver's pretty good at too), it's only in my house 'cos my wife like wearing the stuff decoratively.

            The odd part is that you have just demonstrated the primary reason why men like to have a big stash of gold while simultaneously claiming that it's useless.

    • There isn't any for the first trip. Still, how much would you pay to put 100 tons of iron, or water, or oxygen into earth or lunar orbit? $10,000/lb is a round figure, and bulk launches could probably come in at as little as $500-$1000/lb. A million dollars a ton is a pretty hefty sum of money.

    • Re:I'll believe it (Score:5, Interesting)

      by vlm (69642) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @11:53AM (#39782769)

      Does anyone know what the (plausible) ROI for this is?

      Most people are just going to babble nonsense in this article, but I'm going to try to actually give you numbers.

      You can orbit a Kg for about "ten grand". However asteroids are already in orbit, and it takes a hell of a lot less fuel to deorbit than to orbit. So to a VERY crude first approximation the delivery expense is perhaps a buck per gram. Precious metals from the ground cost around one to two orders of magnitude more. So the delivery cost seems high in an absolute sense, but its not really a significant fraction of the cost of the metal.

      Its kind of like complaining that you can't mine gold in South Africa because a 747 cargo plane costs $50M and $50M is a lot to spend for a little gold. Well, yes $50M is a lot of dough but you'd find that the cargo capacity of a 747 in gold is worth a whole hell of a lot more than $50M, so suddenly the airplane cost doesn't matter much.

      The ROI killer is going to be the mysterious and unclear latency from when the $ are spent until the capsules of solid gold hit the earth. I would postulate that you're trading the risks of international and national politics (nationalization of mines, strikes, government delaying regulation, etc) for technology risks.

      I think the ROI/risk is about as bad as opening a gold mine in South Africa. Much riskier than a diamond mine in Canada. Not as risky as a rare earth mine anywhere on the African continent. Its a plausible realistic investment.

    • Does anyone know what the (plausible) ROI for this is?

      If you bring enough precious metals back to make huge profits then the price of the precious metals will drop because they won't be as scarce as the were before you sent your miners into the heavens on a fool's errand.

      • by Jeng (926980)

        And then since it is now cheaper there is a larger demand for the materials.

        Yea, they might not be selling the platinum at $1500 an ounce, but instead at probably $500 an ounce and still have a nice profit.

    • And not just happening but turning a profit.

      Those guys have enough money to throw at something like this and never show a cent profit ... for a while.

      I think the fascination on /. with this is more driven by bad science fiction than by an understanding of the science behind it.

      From TFA:

      The key point is that their plan is not to simply mine precious metals and make millions or billions of dollarsâ" though thatâ(TM)s a long-range goal. If that were the only goal, it would cost too much, be too diffi

    • by perpenso (1613749) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @11:59AM (#39782879)

      Does anyone know what the (plausible) ROI for this is?

      5 year, 25 year, 100 year?

      The real return will not be from delivering things to earth, rather it will be delivering things to orbit and the moon to further orbital and lunar construction and habitation. Lifting metals and waters from the earth to orbit or the moon is very expensive. Getting those resources "locally" (local in terms of gravity well not absolute distance) is the way to go and someone will get very rich doing so. The problem is that a profitable mining enterprise is optimistically many decades in the future, more likely something for the next century at our current pace.

  • by robot256 (1635039) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @11:40AM (#39782541)
    The last article on asteroid mining said it wouldn't be profitable even if the asteroid was 20% gold. That was based on the ludicrous assumption that the material would be brought back to earth. Going to all the effort of capturing and mining an asteroid in space just to get a bunch of air and water seems silly until you look at just how ungodly expensive air and water are *in space*, after launch and storage costs. Producing life support materials in situ is the holy grail of space exploration.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Travco (1872216)
      "Producing life support materials in situ is the holy grail of space exploration"
      Not to mention construction materials. This is what NASA should have been working on for the past 30 years instead of the ISS
      • Not to mention construction materials. This is what NASA should have been working on for the past 30 years instead of the ISS

        Yeah, they should have constructed a research facility on orbit so they could research chemical processes and materials handling on orbit, in zero G, so we have the basic knowledge to proceed with developing in situ resource processing.
         
        Oh, wait. That's exactly what we tried to do. But because of people who don't see the value in doing the grunt work, we're years behind where we could be. You want to mine the asteroids or go to Mars? You're going to have to wait until the basics have been worked out.

    • THIS!

      This is exactly where they get the long term payoff! And parking everything in orbit around the moon is even smarter. The absolute worst thing they could do is bring resources down into our gravity well just so they can take them out at a later date.
  • How ironic that the predicted Asteroid Human-Extinction event would be man made?

    • How ironic that the predicted Asteroid Human-Extinction event would be man made?

      Yes, but how are they going to accomplish it by the end of the year?

      Methinks the Mayans were overoptimistic about technology development. But then again "billionaire" probably sounded like a rather lot of money to them.

  • This telescope will be used both to look for and observe known Near-Earth asteroids, and can also be pointed down to Earth for remote sensing operations.

    "Remote sensing operations" being what exactly? /spideysense

    • by gl4ss (559668)

      you know, looking for hidden ruins, catching some boobs, a few terror-tits and that stuff. of course. what else?

  • by Tx (96709) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @11:42AM (#39782577) Journal

    Solid as a rock?

    IGMC

    • That's what their plan is
      That's what they've got. Oh, mmmm.
      The thrill is still hot, hot, hot, hot, hot, hot, hot, hot, hot

  • by ledow (319597)

    Amazing how many things are the "first step in establishing a permanent human presence in space".

    You'd think by now we'd actually HAVE one.

    • Amazing how many things are the "first step in establishing a permanent human presence in space".

      You'd think by now we'd actually HAVE one.

      Problem is that we keep on doing those "irst step in establishing a permanent human presence in space" things and never get around to the "second step...".

  • by geekoid (135745)

    As long as they are willing to pay fro damages if an asteroids destroys some property, I have no problem and wish them luck.

  • by netsavior (627338) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @11:53AM (#39782763)
    Everyone wondering how they could possibly make money on this forgets that in 2036 or 2040 there is a decent chance that the fattest multinational government contract ever awarded will go to whomever knows how to capture an Asteroid. AG5 or Apothis or some other yet undiscovered rock will need to be moved sometime in the future, we know this.

    It actually is possible that a few billionaires actually do want to keep the human race from going extinct, as far-fetched as that sounds.
  • by Overzeetop (214511) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @11:54AM (#39782775) Journal

    I really kind of like this. A group of rich guys with a bent towards science fiction are doing a proof of concept mission that is - quite honestly - to risky for a big organization like NASA.

    This is such a phenomenally more interesting use of their money than a huge yacht or a private island or buying a baseball team. I say go for it.

    FWIW, I believe the target asteroid size is 500T, which is the same order of magnitude (barely, factor of 7.5) as the one that re-entered and blew up with apparently no ground damage over the US west coast last night.

  • New hotness: taxing asteroids.
    Them rich rocks gotta pay their fair share. I heard they're Dick Cheney fans, anyway, so to rubble with 'em.
    • Aaaah! Outland revenue.
      Interesting question, how long after the first permanent space residents appear that we start to have governments on Earth demanding that taxes are paid?
      I can imagine a phase where the old Earth governments are chasing the miners through space, not for being pirates but for not paying their taxes on what they owe Earth for their work.

      After all, what have the Earthlings ever done for us?
      The water purifiers
      Oh yeah, yeah they gave us that. Yeah. That's true
      And the sanitation!
      Oh yes... sa

  • by k6mfw (1182893) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @12:33PM (#39783389)

    Retrieval of Asteroidal Materials [1979]
    http://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19790024063_1979024063.pdf [nasa.gov]
    BRIAN O'LEARY, MICHAEL 1. GAFFEY, DAVID 1. ROSS, and ROBERT SALKELD
    Earlier scenarios for mass-driver retrieval of asteroidal materials have been tested and refined after new data were considered on mass-driver performance, favorable delta-V opportunities to Earth-approaching asteroids with gravity assists, designs for mining equipment, opportunities for processing volatiles and free metals at the asteroid, mission scenarios, and parametric studies of the most significant variables. We conclude that the asteroid-retrieval option is competitive with the retrieval of lunar materials for space manufacturing, while a carbonaceous object would provide a distinctive advantage over the Earth as a source of consumables and raw materials for biomass in space settlements during the 1990's. We recommend immediate studies on asteroid-retrieval mission opportunities, an increased search and followup program, precursor missions, trade-offs with the Moon and Earth as sources of materials, and supporting technology.

    insignia for this program? http://www.flickr.com/photos/45676693@N03/6959137824/in/set-72157629163524738/ [flickr.com]

  • by Sebastopol (189276) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 @12:35PM (#39783433) Homepage

    Jim Benson's baby, SpaceDev, had the same business plan in the mid-90's. They were players in the X Prize and the NEAR satellite, with custom satellite launches to fund their asteroid mining plan. Sadly, Benson died in the mid-2000's and his dream went too. [But not after I made lots of money trading small fluctuations in SPDV shares for 5 years (paid for my student loans!)]

    Of course, he originally claimed there could be cobalt asteroids out there worth a quadrillion dollars. (No citation, but I remember the quadrillion # clearly.)

    I really hope this new venture works, I think it is a feasible idea.

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