I have a confession. I adore Isaac Asimov, bad puns and all. In particular, I love the story he wrote called “Buy Jupiter”—I really wasn’t kidding about the bad puns—in which the planets become useful for advertising across the solar system. Leave it to humans to step out into the final frontier with a marketing plan, right? So when I read a news article last Tuesday that Planetary Resources, Inc. had announced a space mining endeavor, Asimov instantly crossed my mind. Robots, space telescopes, Near-Earth Asteroids (NEA), precious metals: The story had all the elements (heh!) of a terrific science fiction account. Only it will soon be a reality if all goes well.
Quite a few asteroids exist near our home planet. Scientists can reach more than 1,500 of these NEA fairly easily—as effortlessly as going to the moon, according to Planetary Resources, Inc.’s press release. The promises of water, platinum and other scarce metals and minerals attract these future space miners, and it’s no wonder why. Key to space-exploration, water does more than quench thirst. Broken down into one part oxygen and two parts hydrogen, it sustains breathing and fuels rockets, sparking dreams of way stations for astronauts and space tourists. Although one hopes the golden arches will not expand above the troposphere. Platinum, though not as essential to human survival, plays a huge role in electronics, automobile production and jewelry. Its scarcity boosts its price to astounding amounts per ounce, but platinum abounds in asteroids. Once things really get going, the company projects profits to be in the tens of billions.
As the agenda stands now, the company will begin by scoping out the territory with an elegantly designed space telescope sometime in the next two years. Then the Ferdinand Magellans of the space age will explore the asteroids. Like the journeys to the New World 500 years ago, these voyages will bring both wealth and knowledge. Once the conditions become ripe for mining, the company will make water and platinum their first two priorities. Robotic machines will provide the principal labor, which the company anticipates will take several decades.
The scheme sounds futuristic, but the idea has been around for awhile. In fact, a handful of other companies have set out to accomplish the same thing. So what makes this venture so promising? The technical and financial support certainly helps. Former NASA scientists; Google’s CEO, Larry Page; and “Avatar” director, James Cameron, comprise some of the notables onboard.
The news still boggles my mind, but I have just enough faith in the science that I’ve started brainstorming pun-riddled headlines for the day Planetary Resources, Inc. mines the first asteroid. Because if you’re going to write about news that sounds like sci-fi, you might as well make Isaac Asimov proud.