Sunday, June 17, 2012

Going Platinum

Can reality trump fiction?  That was the question of the day on April 24th, at the launch of the firm Planetary Resource’s plan to mine metals from asteroids and return them to Earth, at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

It sounds like a James Cameron film—fittingly, Mr. Cameron is one of the company’s backers.  The team behind the firm insists they aren’t joking.  The founders are Peter Diamndis, designer of the x Prize awarded in 2004 to Paul Allen and Burt Rutan for the first private space flight, and Eric Anderson, whose company Space Adventures has sent seven tourists into orbit.  Larry Page and Eric Smith, the chief executive and the chairman of Google, respectively, are involved in the project, too.  As is Charles Synmonyi, the engineer who managed the creation of Microsoft Office software (and who has visited space twice via Mr. Anderson’s company).  With a list of backers like that, the least you can do is take them seriously.

Most asteroids consist of unconsolidated lumps of leftover rubble from the birth of solar system.  Many, too, are chunks of small planets that have slammed into one another of the past several billion years.  These particularly have caught the eye of Planetary Resources, because the planet forming processes of melting mineral, and then stratification into core, mantle, and crust, will have organized to concentrate valuable materials into usable ores.  For example, platinum and its allied elements are rare on the Earth’s surface, but are likely more common in our metal-rich core.  It’s likely the same case for planets shattered and turned to asteroids.  Indeed, the discovery of a layer of rock rich in iridium—a relative of platinum—was the first indicator for geologists that an asteroid impact killed the dinosaurs.

Most asteroids hover between Mars and Jupiter’s orbits.  But enough of them are near-Earth asteroids (called NEAs) to be worth investigating as mineral sources—if that can be accomplished economically.

Don’t Count your Chickens
First we must locate a likely prospect.  Today, we know of about 9,000 NEAs, primarily through ground-based programs keeping tabs on bodies that might hit Earth.  That catalogue is a good starting point, but Planetary Resources would like to go further.  They intend to launch a series of small telescopes to seek out accessible asteroids whose orbits near Earth frequently enough for the mined resources to be returned at regular intervals, a plan that will cost a few million dollars.

That isn’t projected as too challenging, but it is seceded by a tougher phase.  In over a decade, when suitable targets have been identified, the company will send another kind of spacecraft to examine what’s been mined.  This is projected as significantly harder than getting telescopes into orbits, but is nevertheless considered conceivable with existing technology.  It is the process from this step onward that is more conceptual.

There are two basic ways to retrieve the materials.  One way is to drop a payload on a large NEA every time its orbit passes Earth.  That’s why the telescopes would try to detect asteroids with appropriate orbits.  This approach will require intelligent robots that can work without instruction for years, mining and processing desirable material.  The second process would be to retrieve smaller asteroids, place them in orbit and then dissect the materials at leisure.  This way, though, would limit the value of the retrievable materials, and risk catastrophe if there is something wrong in maneuvering the asteroid.

In either case, the expense is guaranteed to be incredibly high.  The Kech Institute for Space Studies’ feasibility study projected a $2.5 billion cost for the retrieval of a single 5000-ton asteroid from the moon.  Earlier research indicated a $100 billion expense for even the chance of a successful asteroid-mining venture.  Further, new technologies will need to be developed, including more powerful solar panels, electric ion engines, extraterrestrial mining equipment and robotic refineries—all of which can be doubtlessly accomplished with enough money and ingenuity.  The real doubts arise in the demand, not the supply.  Platinum and iridium are expensive because they are rare.  If they become common, having been dug from the heart of a planet, they will become cheap.  The most important members of the team very well might not be the entrepreneurs and venture capitalists investing, nor the engineers who make it possible, but the economists who can project the effects on price upon the arrival of an enormous amount of the materials.

Sergeo is a writer and rabble-rouser at Edictive. He covers film production, production management, social, casting and film distribution at Edictive.

post signature