Mining is a very necessary but destructive industry, the lifestyle that we have all become so accustomed to has been built on the back of an enormous mining industry which has taken the economics of scale to its limit.
This week the company Planetary Resources – PR – was formed to explore the concept of space based mining. Backed by Google co-founder Larry Page, Google chairman Eric Schmidt, Google board member K.Ram Shriram, filmmaker and adventurer James Cameron, former Microsofter Charles Simonyi and Ross Perot, Jr. PR together they are attempting to kick start one of the industries of the future, space based mining.
The newly formed company’s website claims “Harnessing valuable minerals from a practically infinite source will provide stability on Earth, increase humanity’s prosperity, and help establish and maintain human presence in space.”
The company’s initial vision is to launch all of the robotic satellite equipment required to identify asteroids rich in the minerals being sought. Then the claims – asteroids co-ordinates – will be handed over to mining satellites to do what they do so well. PR are taking an industry approach by allowing other companies to be involved in the mining operations. Equivalent to selling a claim in the old gold rush days.
PR are after all building a brand new industry from scratch. Taking the risks that many have pondered but never taken. With 1,500 target satellites already being tracked by existing technology there are plenty of targets for PR to explore.
Low cost commercial robotic spacecraft will be the key to exploring asteroids and determining their position, composition, and the accessibility of resources. With the use of robotic systems and leading edge technology PR hopes to keep costs low, one of the hurdles most often quoted when discussing space based mining, the perception that working in space is exorbitantly expensive. Conversely mining on Earth has traditionally been very very cheap, dig a hole.
This situation is slowly changing, with advances in technology for launching equipment into orbit it is becoming far cheaper. Couple this with the fact that on this crowded planet no one wants to live next to a mine, along with governments around the world putting more and more legislative rules around mining and the equation slowly changes. With each new set of rules and taxes terrestrial mining becomes more difficult and expensive. It won’t be too long before only countries like Australia, large with low population density, will be able to build new terrestrial mines, tasked with mining the resources demanded by a high-tech world.
PR has seen these changes unfold and realized the inevitability of space based mining. PR has a well thought out plan and disciplined approach to achieve their goal of economically viable interplanetary mining.
Imagine for a moment if large gold deposits were found under the Amazon rainforest, which side would win ? The requirement for resources or requirement to preserve our precious plant? The Arctic and Antarctic circles are in this predicament at the moment.
The first piece of technology being developed by PR is the Leo Space Telescope the first Arkyd Series 100 satellite. Leo will be PR’s eyes in the sky, spotting and tracking potential targets for mining. The Arkyd 200 Series satellites, Interceptors, will track and inspect any likely candidate asteroids, potentially working in pairs to thoroughly scan the target asteroid. The Arkyd Series 300 – Rendezvous Prospector will analyse the asteroid for mineral content and prepare the asteroid for mining. The final generation of satellites will be responsible for mining in a zero gravity environment. These mining satellites require the most research and development being the only satellites that couldn’t be built with today’s off the shelf technology.
Here at Highpants we have often had heated discussions about the merits and inevitability of space based mining. The winner was always space based mining and the closing argument always boiled down to timing, not if it will happen but when.
While from a personal perspective this planet seems limitlessly large, it is actually a very finite home. There are limits to everything in life, resources, relationships and family all things often thought to be without limit, in reality all have hard boundaries. How we treat the planet is the same. There is a limit to its resource, the quanta of that limit may be disputed, 15 billion people, 30 billion? The line in the sand is a little unclear at the moment but it is there and we may not see it till we are standing right upon it.
Humanity is stretching its wings, after tentative steps into space beginning in the late 60’s, with quick return trips to the moon and back we are on the verge of a rush back into space, this time we are moving in. Russia, Europe, America, China and Japan are all eying off the moon, with a land grab expected to happen by 2020.
The Moon is also thought to be an excellent location to base mining from. With the required resources to support human life, water, oxygen and sunlight, this is an expensive but very viable option. The greatest expense being establishing the base itself, once constructed though the base could be close to self-sufficient. Exactly the same situation when establishing a mine on Earth.
Other advantages to basing mining operations on the moon include lower rocket launch costs due to lower gravity and lack of atmosphere.
The moon itself is rich in many basic resources, gold, iron etc, but it is also rich in Helium-3, the power source of the future. Helium-3 is one of the last pieces of the Fusion reactor puzzle, unfortunately it doesn’t exists in useable quantities on Earth. Estimates suggest there is enough Helium-3 on the moon to power the Earth for 100,000 years.
Space based mining this week took a massive step towards becoming a reality. It isn’t by accident the investors in the company are new money people, the current leading edge high tech investors. This is after all an extremely expensive and risky bet. Like a child leaving home to build a new life and explore the world humanity is on the verge of taking that same enormous step. This is the follow up to the one small step for mankind taken by Neil Armstrong, the inevitable leap into the darkness of space.
Reference: Planetary Resources Website
Related Article: Moon Base Alpha