Mining & Space Exploration — A Follow-Up Post

Last week, I gave readers a heads up on an upcoming announcement by Planetary Resources and the possibility that it might be an asteroid mining company. Well, yesterday, Planetary Resources held their press conference, and they plan on doing things even more impressive than mining. They could have a big impact on the future of space exploration. You can read about the Planetary Resources announcement on Bad Astronomy, David Brin’s guest post, the WSJ, Yahoo!, or New Scientist.

You see, mining is just a part of what Planetary Resources has planned. It’s a big part, but not the most ambitious. Planetary Resources is interested in making “a permanent foothold in space…We’re going to enable this piece of human exploration and the settlement of space, and develop the resources that are out there.” That’s a quote from Planetary Resources President and Chief Engineer Chris Lewicki to Bad Astronomy’s Phil Plait. Lewicki was Flight Director for the NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity Mars rover missions, and also Mission Manager for the Mars Phoenix lander surface operations. As it turns out, Planetary Resources is more interested in space exploration — we may get to Mars and beyond because of their efforts becuase they could become, in essence, a space-based fueling station company.

Planetary Resources will begin by launching small telescopes as early as next year to scout for asteroids. These will be followed up by small probes. But these probes will not begin mining for precious metals right away (most likely metals in the platinum group, which are not native to Earth, but instead originally came from–you guessed it–asteroids). Instead, it will look for compounds such as water, oxygen, and nitrogen, that can then be trapped and stored in space. Not only is this about building an infrastructure for the future needs of the company, but these resources can also be used to aid future space exploration (instead of launching water and fuel refills, NASA could purchase these goods from Planetary Resources). Only then Planetary Resources will get around to mining for precious metals, which can then be sold in the commodity markets in the U.S. Oh, and by the way, this technology will also give us a greater understanding of asteroids, just in case we ever need to divert one from hitting the Earth. No biggie.

Yes, this plan is tremendously ambitious, and there are a TON of new technologies that need to be created to do it, but at a time when space exploration is dwindling, this effort might get people looking skyward again. This is a great way to develop technology that can’t be offshored and getting kids to think about solving big problems. And even if they fail, the steps they take along the way could have a big impact on space technology and in Earth-bound spinoff technology.

And if they are successful, this could have tremendous effects on energy production, resource pricing (precious metals might not be so precious after all, causing a price collapse), the availability and use of water in space, and how we build things in space. Imagine having small factories in orbit, able build bigger and bigger devices: that would dramatically change the future of space exploration. Of course, there’s also the issue of international law–the Outer Space Treaty might need some clarification–but that’s probably better left for another post.