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Space Businesses

Mining the Heavens: In Conversation With Planetary Resources' Chief Engineer 80

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the dream-big-or-go-home dept.
cylonlover writes "It wasn't long ago that asteroid mining was only found in the pages of science fiction. Now, with increasing interest in the commercial exploitation of space, companies are springing up to turn asteroids from things that Bruce Willis blows up into raw materials for future travellers and colonists. One such firm is Planetary Resources, which is currently winding up a Kick Starter campaign aimed at raising public awareness about asteroid mining by offering the public access to a space telescope. Gizmag visits the company's Bellevue, Washington headquarters and talks to the President and Chief Engineer, Chris Lewicki." Long, but worth the time.
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Mining the Heavens: In Conversation With Planetary Resources' Chief Engineer

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  • so still scifi then? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Trepidity (597) <delirium-slashdotNO@SPAMhackish.org> on Tuesday June 25, 2013 @02:16AM (#44098593)

    "It wasn't long ago that asteroid mining was only found in the pages of science fiction. Now [...] a Kick Starter campaign aimed at raising public awareness about asteroid mining..."

    A Kickstarter campaign to raise money to raise awareness still seems like a few steps from mining asteroids...

    Also their business model seems somewhat speculative. One of the main ideas seems to be that they can get around the return-it-to-earth problem by not returning it to earth. What good will the mining do then, you ask? Well, they'll just sell the resources to the Mars colony:

    Space habitats, space stations are going to need hundreds of thousands or millions of liters of water, but there are some asteroids 75 meters across that are water rich. Just one has enough hydrogen and oxygen to fuel every Space Shuttle that’s ever been launched. It’s useful for fuel, its useful for supporting life and it’s full-blown radiation shielding for all those people talking about going to Mars. So, that is a resource that is of near-term interest.

    • "It wasn't long ago that asteroid mining was only found in the pages of science fiction. Now [...] a Kick Starter campaign aimed at raising public awareness about asteroid mining..."

      A Kickstarter campaign to raise money to raise awareness still seems like a few steps from mining asteroids...

      Also their business model seems somewhat speculative. One of the main ideas seems to be that they can get around the return-it-to-earth problem by not returning it to earth. What good will the mining do then, you ask? Well, they'll just sell the resources to the Mars colony:

      Space habitats, space stations are going to need hundreds of thousands or millions of liters of water, but there are some asteroids 75 meters across that are water rich. Just one has enough hydrogen and oxygen to fuel every Space Shuttle that’s ever been launched. It’s useful for fuel, its useful for supporting life and it’s full-blown radiation shielding for all those people talking about going to Mars. So, that is a resource that is of near-term interest.

      Yes, it is speculative as any new and breakthrough business plan. It is very risky, very dependent on progress in other areas (like the trip to Mars and establishing a colony there), but it is potentially very lucrative.

      And yes, it moved from the sci-fi pages to the realm of business plans and strategies. Far-fetched and speculative, but still business plans with financial backing, even if for the first step now.

      The Weyland-Yutani Corporation will not be created in a day, you know.

    • A Kickstarter campaign to raise money to raise awareness still seems like a few steps from mining asteroids...

      Yes - It's kind of like saying a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to raise awareness of leukemia is suddenly going to cure leukemia...

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by ledow (319597)

      "Just one has enough hydrogen and oxygen to fuel every Space Shuttle thatâ(TM)s ever been launched."

      Providing you have a free energy source, and lots of time and gas storage, in which to convert it all.

      Yes, you might get away with a solar panel churning through it for a thousand years, but more likely the energy you need to separate it from the water will cost you more than the energy you get from recombining it with an ignition source to go boom at a later date.

      This is one of those "there's enough car

      • You have completely missed the point. The utility of having H2/O2 in space is not that it yields energy, but that it yields reaction mass. Energy is a lot easier to come by, especially if you are willing to operate nuclear reactors in space.
        • by h4rr4r (612664)

          I hear you can even run them totally unshielded!

          There is a big one doing just that not too far from us.

      • by drinkypoo (153816)

        Solar panel? Solar panel? Have you ever heard of mylar? Are you aware that it is flexible and reflects light? You really think that photovoltaics are the only way to utilize solar energy in space? You don't even read science-fiction, let alone read what serious people have said about these problems, do you?

  • by EdgePenguin (2646733) on Tuesday June 25, 2013 @02:45AM (#44098659) Homepage

    There seems to be an attitude amongst certain people that space resources should belong to those rich enough to grab them. There hasn't yet been a serious discussion of paying for this exploitation of nature, and I suspect that is because many of the people involved have a libertarian agenda, and see space as an opportunity to escape any form of public restraint on their activities, and construct their Randian utopia off world.

    Given the immense resources of the solar system compared to those found on Earth, this is a recipe for immense, cruel and unfair inequality. Those of us Earthbound, who have motivations other than money and so are not billionaires, will be plunged into poverty by extraterrestrial energy magnates whose obscene resource wealth will make the Saudi royal family look positively frugal.

    Quite timely then that someone appears to be making a movie on this theme :)

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Mineable asteroids are nowhere near as scarce as natural resources here on earth. If we are going to discuss who should be able to mine asteroids we should also start to question how a single person can have the right to a patch of land.
      Just because your grandparent was a little bit older and got a head start to grab some land doesn't mean that my grandparent didn't have the right to an equivalent amount of land.
      While we are at it. The right to heritage makes it so that not everyone is born with the same op

      • Even though you are sarcastic here, I agree on both points. The 'right' to land is extremely dubious, and some countries have tax regimes that represent this (i.e. in order to hold land, you have to essentially rent it from everybody else, via their government.)

        And inheritance? Tax it heavily. Most people agree with this position - that money should be earned, not simply inherited.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          I certainly don't agree with it - what's the difference between someone getting the money and the govt helping themselves to profit from the death of a citizen? Oh no my mother died - govt "grand, we'll step in and help ourselves to a few grand minimum, thanks. Or you can go to jail, whichever"
          Family always want the best for their kids and simple begrudgery doesn't make it right to take it off them

    • by Intrepid imaginaut (1970940) on Tuesday June 25, 2013 @03:37AM (#44098749)

      You've got it backwards. The unfathomable amount of raw materials and energy available in space will act as a great leveller, ushering in an age of post scarcity undreamed of. I'm not saying it's going to happen tomorrow, but it is inevitable, and while the first movers may make a lot of money in the process, ultimately when we've got deep orbit factories being fed an endless stream of ores by automated refinerminers that will hardly matter.

      • What will us poor Earthlings trade for all this bounty? We won't have anything we could possibly offer to an off-world society, with comparable industrial capabilities but with incredibly larger energy reserves. Please not, that "trickle down" economics has failed every single time it has been tried on Earth.

        This idea that if we let the greediest amongst us (not the most talented; being talented per se doesn't make you rich, you have to be specifically talented at making money and motivated to do it) do as

        • by Intrepid imaginaut (1970940) on Tuesday June 25, 2013 @04:04AM (#44098807)

          Please not, that "trickle down" economics has failed every single time it has been tried on Earth.

          Good thing I'm not proposing it then. You can't just fly up there and start building cities in space, you have to finance each step as you go progressively, and you do so by first returning raw ores, then refined ores, then basic manufactured goods, then larger manufactured goods and ultimately agricultural/medical products.This stuff is wildly expensive, beyond belief, even if you disregard the fact that the technology doesn't exist to enable your randian outposts. Do you imagine some cabal of rich guys taking over the solar system and then chortling over the rims of their bubbly glasses at the rest of us below?

          You really, really don't understand the scale of what we're talking about here.

          The asteroid Eros has more metals including precious and semi precious than ever have been or ever could be extracted from the earth's crust, tons of gold for every man, woman and child on earth, and we have a giant nuclear reactor sitting there just waiting to help us take it apart. That's just one single asteroid out of millions, and not a very big one either. An embarrasment of riches doesn't begin to cover it. Once space manufacturing takes off do you know what happens to a global economy flooded with everything? I don't, but I'm looking forward to finding out. This is what's known as a 'post scarcity society'. I suspect it will start to look like Western Europe on steroids, with a very good basic standard of living guaranteed while still allowing options for those who want to excel.

          Hell, they'll need to place restrictions on how many cars you can buy in a year just to stop the place being flooded with trash. Growth industry of the longest term future? Waste disposal.

          • by bertok (226922) on Tuesday June 25, 2013 @04:47AM (#44098919)

            You really, really don't understand the scale of what we're talking about here.

            In reply, I posit that you really, really don't understand how much that doesn't matter.

            Spot iron ore prices are about $120 per metric ton. Asteroids are unrefined, remember? They're full of ore, or a complex and impure mix of metals at best. For comparison, a typical four-door sedan, the biggest lump of metal most people ever buy, is about 1.2 metric tons. This would need about $300 of iron ore.

            Do you seriously think that the primary limit on manufacturing, and hence overall wealth, are raw resources? My 10 year old car, if I were to sell it used is worth 20x the cost of the iron ore that originally went into making it!

            If space mining somehow magically made iron ore 10x cheaper than it is now, I'd save a total of $270 on my next $50,000 car purchase. I'd save more by skipping the optional coffee cup warmer, or whatever. That's not even factoring in that something like 90% of all iron and steel is recycled, so the difference would be more like $3.

            Space mining is a fantasy for rabid Star Trek fans who can't count, nothing more.

            • Do you seriously think that the primary limit on manufacturing, and hence overall wealth, are raw resources?

              Is there any compelling reason why you can't manufacture things in space? It would offer lots of advantages in fact - abundant free energy, pollute all you like, raw materials literally raining on you, and you can drop consignments next door to wherever they are meant to be going.

              Space mining is a fantasy for rabid Star Trek fans who can't count, nothing more.

              You just haven't thought this through.

              • Is there any compelling reason why you can't manufacture things in space?

                The immense costs of building, maintaining, and staffing factories in space, and the difficulties of returning finished cargoes to Earth.

                abundant free energy

                If you've got the tech base for orbital factories, you've got the tech base for orbital photovoltaic beamed down to Earth. So that free energy's down here too.

                pollute all you like

                Nope. Space junk is an issue already.

                raw materials literally raining on you

                Huh? If you're talking abo

                • The costs have already been mentioned, which is why you scale things up over time. Staffing I wouldn't imagine to be a major issue at the end of the day, many factories even today are moving towards full automation. We're talking about manufacturing on a massive scale. Free energy on earth, true, but that doesn't remove the other advantages of working in space. Space junk is not pollution in the manufacturing sense, unless you're banging artifacts off one another in the open for some reason. Think more 'tox

                • by h4rr4r (612664)

                  Space junk in Earth orbit is an issue, outside of that pollute away.

            • by Ost99 (101831)

              The raw materials are never meant to be returned to earth.
              While a ton of iron ore is worth less than nothing here, transporting it to LEO costs $10M (multiply that by 5 if you want it on the moon).
              Our space capabilities are limited by the cost of getting stuff out of earths gravity well.

              Asteroid mining would sell raw materials and water to other space ventures, private or public.

              • Asteroid mining would sell raw materials and water to other space ventures, private or public.

                That's a nice theory... But the elephant in the room is the fact that there aren't any such ventures currently. Nor are their likely to be any of sufficient size to support an asteroid mining venture for decades, if not centuries.

                • by Ost99 (101831)

                  Chicken and egg problem. Who cares if the market is not there yet? We will get nowhere in any field if we let details like that stop us. And it's going to take decades just developing the tech and getting the first roids. The investors are in it for long term, and from what they've said publicly, it's just as much about enabling a space presence as profiting from it.

                  We cannot build a large scale infrastructure in space without either asteroid mining or a space elevator. There seems to be less technological

                  • Who cares if the market is not there yet? We will get nowhere in any field if we let details like that stop us.

                    That has to be one of the most (though likely unintentionally) hilarious things I've read all day - and the rest of the week will have to work hard to top it. Asteroid miner wannabees are in the same situation as someone setting up to injection mold iPhone cases in 1897 - it's not that the market doesn't exist, it's that practically none of the enabling technologies exist (for the case or the ph

                    • by Ost99 (101831)

                      It's not a chicken-and-egg problem, it's a delusion and cluelessness problem.

                      Several of the worlds most successful businessmen are investing in this.
                      Take a look at the list of advisers and investors: http://www.planetaryresources.com/team/ [planetaryresources.com]
                      Clueless would not be the first word that comes to mind as characteristic for that group.

                      With plans for permanent lunar installations, probably within the next 10-20 years (China, India and Japan all have plans for permanent facilities on the moon - the US might also enter the race) the market will be there by the time the asteroid capture and mini

                    • it's not that the market doesn't exist, it's that practically none of the enabling technologies exist (for the case or the phone) and that someone lacks the capital to create them let alone even the foggiest clue what they actually are.

                      We know how to get to an asteroid, and we have some idea how to detect what it's made of. If you look, you'll see that these mining wannabees are working on the next few enabling technologies. The goal is to reduce one of the nastiest barriers to exploration and development of space for humans: the high cost of breathing, eating, and drinking. I'm glad we have machines like Curiosity that don't need to breathe, eat, or drink, but some day I'd like to go out there myself. A space civilization that gets i

            • by h4rr4r (612664)

              Think what would happen if platinum was now $120 per metric ton?

              You don't think that would open up a lot of possibilities?

          • by EdgePenguin (2646733) on Tuesday June 25, 2013 @06:07AM (#44099089) Homepage

            You won't achieve a post scarcity society (if such a thing is even possible...) with rich guys holding all the resource wealth. Such people have demonstrated a willingness and an ability to ensure that the rest of us see very little of the profits they make - despite the fact said profits often exploit public resources. You haven't addressed the fundamental issue - you hand over the solar system to those selected primarily by their capacity for greed and then you think they will just hand over these resources? No, they will demand trade. If space manufacturing achieves what you think it can, what can Earth possible have to offer? We would become the Somalia of the solar system. Trickle down hasn't failed because of lack of resources, it fails because the rich are simply too good at hoarding the wealth - and when they and their puppets in government try to prop up dwindling consumer spending power with credit, they cause a crisis.

            I do understand the scales involved. I'm an astronomer. Understanding things on a really big scale is kind of my job.

            • You won't achieve a post scarcity society (if such a thing is even possible...) with rich guys holding all the resource wealth.

              No your problem here is that you're seeing 'rich guys' and having a fit of the commies. There are exactly three entities that could make a serious attempt to exploit the resources of the solar system at this point: The European Union, The United States of America, and the Peoples' Republic of China. And they would damn near bankrupt themselves in the attempt. No rich guy, no cabal of rich guys, no army of rich guys is going to make this happen. Even Planetary Resources themselves acknowledge this.

              what can Earth possible have to offer?

              In order t

              • No your problem here is that you're seeing 'rich guys' and having a fit of the commies. There are exactly three entities that could make a serious attempt to exploit the resources of the solar system at this point: The European Union, The United States of America, and the Peoples' Republic of China. And they would damn near bankrupt themselves in the attempt. No rich guy, no cabal of rich guys, no army of rich guys is going to make this happen. Even Planetary Resources themselves acknowledge this.

                The entire

                • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

                  The entire solar system? No - but doing so will be within the reach of the first people to develop off-world resources and manufacturing, so wealth will continue to leverage more wealth and the overwhelming majority of humanity will not get a look in.

                  Are you seriously imagining a group of waxed moustaches in top hats and tailcoats seizing asteroids then what, setting up private palaces in the sky and somehow locking everyone else out of space? What?

                  You don't need to be independent of Earth's resources to economically dominate it. If you have such resource/manufacturing capacity as is supposed, someone from Earth can send you whatever you need. This won't enrich Earth, because the trading relation will be so absurdly asymmetrical.

                  None of this makes any sense. The Earth is the largest and indeed only market in which to sell your goods. You build up a presence in space by selling your goods there. Why would you stop?

                  I'm trying to keep my responses civil, but its hard whilst you keep trying to imply I'm stupid just because I'm questioning your conclusions. I do understand the issues at hand, you could do with paying more attention to what I understand.

                  Be as uncivil as you like, it will only strengthen my argument. The only situation in which your points might have merit i

                  • Your idea simply DOES. NOT. WORK

                    If it did, the developing world would not be so utterly screwed over by the developed world. Asymmetric power relations always become exploitative in trade, and the relation between a resource depleted Earth, and a massively resource rich solar system, is extremely asymmetric.

                    As for your utopian vision - you are proposing an extraordinary scenario (as opposed to me, proposing that essentially business as usual on a different scale) and have produced no proof it will come to p

                    • You're painting a picture of a gang of rich people seizing the basically limitless resources of the asteroids, pumping the earth full of cheap goods and then lording it over the huddled masses? Again, what?

                      Let's say I'm a company. Myself and many other companies, my competitors, have spent decades trying to harvest, refine and deliver raw materials to increasingly larger and more or less fully automated manufacturing stations. The process spent the first two thirds of this period being unprofitable, the nex

                    • by chihowa (366380)

                      Yet without them, there wouldn't have been as much economic activity with the freeing of resources and greater industrialization that helped bring about the modern world.

                      This premise is unsupported, though, and forms the foundation of all of the pro-robber baron arguments.

                  • by drinkypoo (153816)

                    Are you seriously imagining a group of waxed moustaches in top hats and tailcoats seizing asteroids then what, setting up private palaces in the sky and somehow locking everyone else out of space? What?

                    It is time for you to at least read William Gibson, or better yet, Walter Jon Williams. Or hell, any military strategist since military strategy was a thing, who can explain to you the value of the high ground.

                    • What makes you think national governments aren't going to maintain a military presence in space alongside the commercial ventures? These events will not take place in a vacuum.

            • by drinkypoo (153816)

              If space manufacturing achieves what you think it can, what can Earth possible have to offer?

              What Earth has to offer is Earth. Even though we have been poor stewards of the biosphere, it's still the nicest place to live in the solar system. Anywhere vaguely near the equator a person can survive without clothing, let alone a habitat resembling a small submarine. This is probably going to be true for quite some time after asteroid mining commences. Terraforming is a big job.

              I do understand the scales involved. I'm an astronomer. Understanding things on a really big scale is kind of my job.

              Presumably, then, you should understand that even with a whole lot of energy and resources, it will take a long time to make ano

      • You've got it backwards. The unfathomable amount of raw materials and energy available in space will act as a great leveller, ushering in an age of post scarcity undreamed of. I'm not saying it's going to happen tomorrow, but it is inevitable, and while the first movers may make a lot of money in the process, ultimately when we've got deep orbit factories being fed an endless stream of ores by automated refinerminers that will hardly matter.

        You forgot the land grab. All those resources will be owned by mega-corporations backed by government militaries, so don't think about trespassing on their asteroid belt or else you'll get a nuke up your mining ship.

        • As I mentioned earlier, one single asteroid contains tons of metals, including semi precious and precious, for every man woman and child on earth. The idea of any single group being given legal title recognised by every government on earth to the majority of the resources of the system is not, I feel, realistic. I would certainly oppose any attempt to do so.

          • by Anonymous Coward

            The top 0.1% of people on earth hold ~85% of the total wealth, more than they could possibly spend or use and enough to support almost every man, woman, and child on earth. There is no upper limit to greed.

      • but it is inevitable...

        Oh, it's entirely evitable. You get up out of the planet's gravity well basically on top of a huge human pyramid. If it turns out to be practical to snag wealth while you're up there (a highly questionable proposition, but let's assume), there is zero incentive to pass it back down the pyramid.

        ultimately when we've got deep orbit factories being fed an endless stream of ores by automated refinerminers that will hardly matter.

        Yuor deep orbit factories are not going to be making food o

        • Agristations could easily exist, no reason at all for them not to. Energy can be provided by microwave satellites (and please don't insult me by talking about 'death rays'). Building houses, yes that's a point, it wouldn't make any sense to do that in space. Just about everything else though, why not?

    • by Zeromous (668365)

      You could always read, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress for a twist on what you suspect.

    • There seems to be an attitude amongst certain people that space resources should belong to those rich enough to grab them. There hasn't yet been a serious discussion of paying for this exploitation of nature

      So what you're saying is they should belong to those rich enough to control the government instead...

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Space Mining is going be a challenging effort for everyone involved. They got do some serious long-term investiments in infrastructure hand 'roids to be mined. I can't think that despite everything, there going be easy way to dismantle one and make profit moving a potential roid which could be years away by ion thruster to Earth smoothly and safely AND dismantle it to send it to Earth.

    If there actual Mars colony or true orbital facility out there, using resources from 'roids maybe more practical than bri

  • by TWiTfan (2887093) on Tuesday June 25, 2013 @07:44AM (#44099453)

    It wasn't long ago that asteroid mining was only found in the pages of science fiction.

    Yeah, not that long ago, as in yesterday...and today...and tomorrow.

  • Asteroids are hardly unique on the list of things Bruce Willis blows up.

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