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April 20, 2012

Asteroid Mining in Our Time?

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

“Space Exploration Company to Expand Earth's Resource Base” is not a line out of a science fiction epic, but the title of a media alert I received this week. Planetary Resources -- yes, that's the company name -- makes its debut on April 24 in Seattle to talk about “a new space venture with a mission to help ensure humanity's prosperity.” Speculation is rampant this will be all about asteroid mining, but I'm willing to put a little side money on moon mining and solar power.

Speaking at the Planet Resources rollout event at the Museum of Flight will be company investor and self-styled “Space Tourist” Charles Simonyi, co-founders Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis,  President and Chief Engineer Chris Lewicki, and company advisor Tom Jones. Microsoft (News - Alert)-made billionaire Simonyi is the only person to take two (2) Soyuz flights into orbit. Anderson booked Simonyi's flights through his startup Space Adventures. There's also a supporting cast of investors/advisors that includes Google's (News - Alert) Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, film director and explorer James Cameron, Google board of directors founding member K. Ram Shriram, and Ross Perot, Jr.

Diamandis founded the X-Prize organization and gave a 2012 TED talk entitled “Abundance is our Future.” In his talk, he briefly discusses the vast amounts of solar energy hitting the planet and how plentiful energy can deliver plentiful clean water.

On LinkedIn (News - Alert) Lewicki is currently listed as President and Chief Engineer at Arkyd Astronautics, a company that “ develops technology and systems to enable low-cost commercial robotic exploration of the solar system.” Lewicki was also involved with the NASA Mars Exploration Rovers and the Phoenix Mars Lander missions.  

Rounding out the presenters, Jones is a planetary scientist and flew four space missions as a NASA astronaut. His official NASA bio lists his PhD research interests to include the remote sensing of asteroids, meteorite spectroscopy, and applications of space resources, but the most tantalizing tidbits are on his website. Jones has advocated establishing a lunar outpost on the Moon if water ice is available on the lunar poles, otherwise going to near-Earth asteroids.

Planetary Resources sounds good. It's got billionaire backers, heavy-hitters on its advisory board, idea guys, and real-world NASA experience.  But is it enough to mine asteroids?

Let's be clear: Asteroid mining is a hard problem that nobody has ever demonstrated in real life. First, you have to take a chunk of rock and move it to where you want it -- presumably to one of the Earth-Moon Lagrange points. Once parked, then you have to strip it down to usable raw materials in zero gravity, and ship them either to an off-planet factory (something else you need to build from scratch) or “import” them to Earth without burning up your materials or accidently killing anyone on the ground in the process.

Oh yes, and at the end of the day, you have to make a profit. Easy, right?

Edited by Jennifer Russell

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