Last month, a group of starry-eyed billionaires—including Googlers Larry Page and Eric Schmidt and director James Cameron—told the tech world about their latest, craziest scheme. The Avatar-esque plan: send robotic rocket ships into outer space to chase down asteroids, mount them, and mine them for precious metals. The company they’re backing is called Planetary Resources, and it aims to be prospecting for platinum on space rocks within the next few years.
How did the tech world respond? It yawned, rolled over, and returned to its collective dream about the next hot social-media startup. My message to the tech world: Wake up! This is outer space we’re talking about! This is awesome!
Though the solar system’s main asteroid belt is prohibitively far away, the near-earth region of outer space is chock-full of asteroids—tens of thousands at least 50 meters in diameter. Those asteroids, Planetary Resources co-founder Eric Anderson says, are lousy with platinum. Platinum is worth $1,500 an ounce. The math isn’t exact, but the potential value of the resource could be counted in the trillions of dollars. And that’s not including the other possible finds, including gold, rare-earth minerals, and water—which would be an essential ingredient if outer space is ever to sustain human colonies. (The hydrogen and oxygen could also come in handy for rocket refueling stations.) Anderson assures me this is all within the realm of possibility. Amazingly, the nation’s brightest space minds seem to agree with him.
This space-mining venture is either going to be a spectacular success or a spectacular failure. Either way, the emphasis will be on spectacular. And the best part of all is that U.S. taxpayers won’t bear the risk if these extraordinary plans fail to pan out.
From the start, the space race’s contestants have been governments, mainly those of the United States and the U.S.S.R. (and now Russia). One of the few positive outcomes of the Cold War was that it motivated the world’s largest nations to invest in a project that had the potential to benefit humanity in the long term but had very little chance of paying off monetarily in the short term. And fortunately, that war ended before either side could use its space program to wreak havoc upon the other. The result was a massive investment in a tremendous public good.
In the 21st century, it seems unlikely that such investments will continue, unless America does a rapid about face regarding the candidacy of Newt Gingrich. George W. Bush was mocked for proposing another manned moon mission, and President Obama has dropped the idea, citing more pressing economic concerns at home. That makes sense, but it’s also a shame. At the rate we’re sapping our own planet’s resources, it’s looking increasingly likely that we’ll eventually be forced to turn to outer space for a bailout.
Enter a cadre of filthy-rich tech barons who grew up in the pre-Apollo 13 era. It isn’t just Planetary Resources. There’s also Moon Express, a two-year-old rival backed by tech billionaires (including Intelius and Infospace founder Naveen Jain) that is doing pretty much the same thing, only it’s placing its mining bets on the moon. Tesla’s Elon Musk and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos also have their hands in various extraterrestrial endeavors.
Moon Express’ moonshot is considered less risky than Planetary Resources’ asteroid play: The moon is closer to home, we know just where to find it, and we’ve been there before. Planetary Resources president and chief engineer Chris Lewicki counters that asteroids are more plentiful and less likely to serve as a home for humans someday, meaning NIMBYism is less of a concern. (The planning commission meetings about strip-mining the moon will surely be contentious.)
But while Planetary Resources plans to have robotic telescopes in the air within two years, getting them to actually mine an asteroid is a significant technical challenge—one that even the company’s leaders admit might take a decade or more. “People think it must be really hard to mine asteroids,” says Anderson, the co-founder. “Well of course it’s hard. But it’s not so hard that it can’t be done.”
The ultimate plan is to create a swarm of robotic craft that can use artificial intelligence to cooperate on a complex mining operation without any humans present. Oh, and to do it affordably enough that the cost of extracting the resources doesn’t exceed their value. That’s complicated by the likelihood that as soon as it becomes tenable to mine precious metals from asteroids, those metals will cease to be quite so precious.
These challenges have led the media and some corners of academia to have a skeptical, even dismissive, reaction to asteroid mining. But the beauty of these private schemes is that the general public doesn’t have to care whether mining for platinum will be a money-making proposition. The biggest reason to be bullish is that barons like Jain, Page, and Schmidt have more money than anyone could possibly know what to do with and egos to match. Whether the major investors end up trillionaires or losing every dollar they put in, it’s almost certain that they will advance the state of space research and pave the way for other ambitious ventures to follow.
And they’re not completely on their own. Both companies have contracts with NASA, a collaboration that gives the U.S. government a vested interest in making sure their space operations are safe and legally above-board. The government, for its part, should think about updating some of the laws governing property and resource extraction in space, which disconcertingly seem to start and end with an international treaty signed in 1967. (It says, in short, that no country can claim extraterrestrial territory as its own, but it doesn’t have much to say on the topic of mining.) And in an ideal world, it would be NASA spearheading these types of explorations, to make sure that real life doesn’t imitate the pillaging of Avatar. But this isn’t an ideal world, and for the time being, private space exploration is better than none at all.