This Is How Asteroid Mining Will Work

Yesterday, a group of billionaires, scientists and engineers announced what could become the most important enterprise in human history since Columbus sailed West: an asteroid-mining company called Planetary Resources. They want to jump-start a completely new industry between the Earth and the moon, one that will add trillions of dollars to the world economy and ensure our prosperity for centuries to come.

It's an amazing and lofty goal. One that has the potential to change our world forever. One that is risky and hard, but which they believe can be achieved within a decade. This video offers a glimpse of how space mining will work.

The tycoons

Planetary Resources is backed by people with deep pockets, like Google's Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, filmmaker James Cameron, Microsoft's former Chief Software Architect Charles Simonyi, and Ross Perot Jr, among others.

The target

There are 9000 asteroids near Earth. Of those, about 1500 are within easy reach using the same or less power than what was used to go to the moon.

The benefits

These asteroids are loaded with two things. Some of have a high content of water ice, which could be converted into solid oxygen and solid hydrogen to provide rocket fuel for exploration; in its un-altered form, it could help support life in space. Harvesting water from asteroids will make space travel really inexpensive, allowing for an industry to blossom in space.

Other asteroids are rich in rare metals, like platinum or gold. An abundance of these metals will enable easier acces to technology that is currently prohibitively expensive.

One small asteroid of, say, 50 metres in diameter could contain billions of dollars worth of these metals, pure and ready for easy extraction. Likewise, an icy asteroid of the same size could contain enough water to power the entire space shuttle program.

The process

First, within two years, the company will send prospectors to low-earth orbit. Called the Arkyd 100 series, these machines will be cheap and networked together. They will track near earth asteroids (NEA) and asses the possibility to reach them and mine them.

Within a decade, they will launch a swarm of prospectors with propulsion capabilities. They will be the Arkyd 200 and 300 series. These will approach asteroids and analyse their composition.

After identifying the best candidates in terms of distance, speed, physical stability and composition, they will launch the actual mining spacecraft.

Some of them may be swarms that will grab asteroids and bring them closer to Earth for mining. Others will be large containers that will engulf the asteroids to move them and process them.

The Ultimate Goal

Eventually, Planetary Resources wants to start a new industry in space, one that may become the main engine of humanity's future. The company believes many others will follow its business model. The group of investors believe that the search for resources is the only way for humans to move forward and, in a few decades, space mining will be considered a normal industry. They think that this may save Earth from its own destruction, since we are quickly consuming our resources.

It sounds like science fiction, but the people behind PR are convinced they can turn fiction into fact. And they are putting up the means to start it. I want to believe they will be successful. Even while the road will be hard and they may not succeed, I think others will end their task.

I look at these people and remember Kennedy's words during his famous Rice University speech:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

And all I can say is: let's go for it.

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    Very interesting idea for the device that catches the rocks but I'm left wondering how will these giant rocks be slowed down? Using fual based engines like rockets may not work due to the amount of thrust that may be required to bring it to a stop. Ion Engines need a fraction of the amount but I don't think that they would provide enough thrust to stop or even slow it down.

      why slow them down? why not just put them into a safe orbit around the earth, knocking them into orbit would be easier then slowing them down surely?

        Putting them in orbit requires slowing them down...

          Not necessarily. It definitely requires changing their orbit though, which could be just as much effort. Still, I get the impression they intend to take the mining robots to the asteroids, rather than bring the asteroids to the mining robots. That way they will only need to move the refined minerals, in manageable payloads, rather than the whole thing in one hit.

    I, for one, welcome our new asteroid mining overlords.

    Quoting Kennedy doesn't evoke much for me, considering he made that speech as a resolution to his people that they will beet the Ruskies to the Moon. Infact the whole Moon race was propaganda, sure it got them there but the reason was fundamentally flawed. Neil Degrasse Tyson is making more appropriate speeches nowadays.

      I'm sorry but I cannot agree at all. If they needed the Russkies for motivation, that's fine. What really matters is that they went ahead and did it. These guys are clearly of the same mindset, even if their motivation is different, and I think it is way past time our society moved back to that kind of risk-taking vision.

        My point is that the quote means nothing, not that they shouldn't do it..! I notice you often read what you want into other peoples comments and disregard the points the commenter is making. The point of my comment was about the quote used and had nothing about how I felt about the quest, of which I would gladly volunteer, such would be my commitment to it. As I said in the first comment, Neil Degrasse Tyson is making more appropriate speeches nowadays.

    If we can get the device to move at the same speed as the asteroids, hook them up, change their course and bring it within the "accessible" range, that should do it :P

      Just reverse the polarity! You clearly haven't watched enough cartoons

    Damn, bastards beat me to it!
    It really is one of the big logical next steps

    When I first read this I had to check todays date, that it's not April fools day.
    Sounds like one VERY expensive way of mining - Very!
    And with all the stock-piled gold we have(and plenty more in the ground), one has to ask, do we really need to mine more - in space??

      There are rockets now available that can get to space for less than $100 million. I am not assuming that I know how much the operation in the above article would cost, but even if it costs 10 times this amount, it will likely still be making money.

    I love the stupid idea of adding "trillions of dollars to the world economy and ensure our prosperity for centuries to come". Yeah ok, so if a company discovers tonnes of gold in Antarctica, does that much us ALL rich and set for life, magically improving thing everywhere?
    Economics doesn't work that way, value is relative and finite, it moves from place to place, it can't increase for the whole.
    Space mining will only benefit the space miners. Everything else will continue as usual, with many people being made poorer and some richer as industry shifts and changes to compensate for this new source of materials.
    All very practical and prosaic. I hate how crazy scifi fantasy thinking is attendant on any story involving space. As if sense just suddenly goes out the window. May as well say they'll be mining using light sabres.

      *make us

        you have to admit that the only time that people have been "Generaly Prosperous" ie the vast majority of us improving our way of life is when new resources are introduced to the econnomy, the new world expansion of rome etc, at the moment we are sitting in a closed economy, this will change that

      I disagree with your point there that it will only make miners richer. Sure, directly maybe. But in the end, the miners will buy more stuff, meaning someone else is getting more than they previously did. It will all be passed on...

      However, poorer countries won't really be able to take advantage of this. So unless some sort of official "space government" takes control and taxes the miners, they would continue to fall deeper into poverty.

      But i do think, a unified space government is very much necessary. I don't want some country claiming someone else's asteroid, then causing war. I'd rather a shit economy over that anyday......

    I like the altruistic reasoning behind this, but the only trillions that will occur is that there'll will be a trillion to one chance that the "prosperity" will flow down the chain. A few people will become obscenely rich which is how all mining works today. I guess we won't feel as bad as we'll be trashing an asteroid and not out own planet.

    I can see the Somali and other East African pirates licking their lips on this one!

      What if it results in a space elevator being built in East Africa? It would be a good, central location, easily accessible to markets in Europe, Nth America and Asia. Tens of thousands of construction jobs, masses of infrastructure and ongoing work of all kinds would bring incredible prosperity to that region. In fact, it would be the perfect way to break the control of the warlords, too, so it could be a massive win-win. You just need to think outside the box.

    on the down side though,...what if one of their captured asteroids somehow escapes and crashes to earth destroyinh a large city and killing millions of people - who's gonna pickup the compensation bill?

      Price of progress. Move along. Nothing to see here.

    1) I seriously doubt that this venture will ever turn a profit in these middle-aged guys life-times.
    2)When you consider that the comparitivly low tech stealth bomber was worth more than its weight in solid gold how much gold do they expect to bring back.
    2)Arnt they just swapping one scarce resource (fossil fuels) for another (gold etc.).

      1) So what? That is no reason not to do it.
      2) The B2 is orders of magnitude more high-tech than most of this would need to be.
      2) (sic) What fossil fuels? Rockets don't run on petrol.

    Now I get the book "Salmon Fishing in Yemen". Same deal.

    It's not gold they're looking for, There is stuff in space that there isn't much of on earth, like iridium.
    As they mention, they could sell water and other volatiles to NASA to supply any space stations in orbit.

    Lets use rare resources to get into space to get rare resources .... wait

    they should name one of those ships 'Ishimura'

    Something I haven't seen touted on here from the first announcement but everyone is assuming that the resources need to get down to earth. It likely that it would be easier to construct refinery means in space or on the moon to process these material into something usable and then manufacture them into good from space.

    Think about it, constructing spaceships larger than what we have or station 2x larger than what we have and these better suited to tourists. I think over the next 10 - 20 years mining in space will be the platform for creating a completely space based industry and then perpetuating us further into the Solar System and onwards

    Before the nay says say anything I would like to remind you of several things
    1.) we onced believed there would be only 5 computer in the world, we no have phone capable of doing more than computer 7 years ago

    There are other good example but I can't be bother writing them all. but point is don't think about the resources jut needing to get back to earth for refinement and turned into useful objects. Creating that whole system in earth orbit to be used in other space endeavours could serve to make space profitable to the point were doing something serious about it

    gundam wing

    Epic fail if you ask me. Their money would be much better spent steering astroids away from destroying life on the planet but that would require these egomanics think of something other than themselves for once. I know, I know, its not likely. Check out minute 24.

    if you can do it, and do it in way that makes money, i say go for it!

    It always bugged me that with space travel comes space junk. ie - we take finite resources from Earth, and dump them in space.
    surely doing the opposite, enrichening Earths resource supply, can't be seen as a bad thing?

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