Everything you need to know about James Cameron's asteroid mining

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Jun 25, 2015

Planetary Resources just wrapped up a press conference in Seattle, officially announcing both its existence and its ambitious plan to mine near-Earth asteroids. We were listening in live, and here's everything you need to know about how this asteroid mining plan is going to work and when it's going to happen.

Essentially, Planetary Resources is looking to send spacecraft to mine near-Earth asteroids for resources ranging from precious metals (like platinum) to water. The company has assembled a team of engineers and visionaries with a large helping of financial support from the likes of Larry Page and James Cameron, and today they went public with their vision for the future of harvesting resources from space.

There are between 500,000 and 1 million near-Earth asteroids greater than 50 meters in size, and any one of them might be brimming with useful goodies. Planetary Resources thinks that we've gotten to the point where it makes sense (both technologically and financially) to take advantage of this.

Mining Asteroids

It's easy to focus on the precious metals aspect of all this, but water may be the most valuable material of all. We need it to drink, of course, and it's useful for growing food and as radiation shielding in space, but if you split water into oxygen and hydrogen, you get rocket fuel. Planetary Resources plans to look first for water-rich asteroids to mine; it estimates that:

A 500 meter diameter water rich asteroid has $50B (billion) worth of water deliverable to a deep space fuel depot, even if one makes the conservative assumptions that: 1) only 1% of the water is extracted; 2) half of each load of water is consumed en route for propulsion; and 3) the success of commercial spaceflight causes the cost of Earth-originating launches to drop by a factor of 100. Of course, less conservative assumptions would raise the value of the asteroid to many trillions, or even tens of trillions, of dollars.

A water-rich asteroid with a diameter of only 50 meters apparently contains enough hydrogen and oxygen propellant to have powered the entire space shuttle program (!), so really, even one small or moderately sized rock contains a huge amount of value, probably in the range of hundreds of millions of dollars.

The first customers for water might include NASA, if and when it decides to send humans to Mars: If the mission can refuel with water along the way it'll make the launch costs cheaper, but more importantly, if water can be sent ahead to Mars, that means explorers will have fuel waiting for them, as well as fuel to send them home, without having to carry it all along from the surface of the Earth. Meanwhile, back in Earth orbit, having water available from asteroids means that payloads from the surface can be devoted to science instruments and people, and having an abundance of water could mean on-orbit "swimming pools," according to Charles Simonyi.

After water, Planetary Resources will also be looking for precious metals. Specifically, it'll be trying to find asteroids rich in platinum group metals, which don't naturally occur in the Earth's crust. In fact, all of the platinum that we mine already comes from ancient asteroid impacts, and it (and rare metals like it) are far more common out in space.

Some near-Earth asteroids contain platinum group metals in much higher concentrations than the richest Earth mines. In space, a single platinum-rich 500 meter wide asteroid contains about 174 times the yearly world output of platinum, and 1.5 times the known world-reserves of platinum group metals (ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium, and platinum). This amount is enough to fill a basketball court to four times the height of the rim. By contrast, all of the platinum group metals mined to date in history would not reach waist-high on that same basketball court.

Planetary will make tons of money if it can pull this off, of course, but it also hopes that it'll enable technological advances here on Earth when rare and expensive metals get a whole lot less rare and expensive, meaning that it'll suddenly be substantially more cost-effective to manufacture technologies that require lots of platinum group elements.

How and When

How is Planetary going to do all of this? To be efficient and cost-effective, Planetary Resources will create an entire line ("swarms," it says) of unmanned spacecraft, starting with telescopes and culminating in robots that will do the actual mining. For smaller asteroids, this may simply involve dragging the entire rock back closer to Earth, while larger asteroids will be mined on-site by teams of robots which will transport resources either back to Earth or to other destinations throughout the solar system, harvesting fuel for themselves as part of the mining process.

Before any actual mining takes place, Planetary has to figure out which asteroids are worth going after, and that's going to take a lot of work by itself. Fleets of inexpensive low-Earth-orbit (LEO) telescopes will scour the skies looking for likely candidates and use spectral techniques and gravity data to try and determine which rocks are worth going after. Once a short list is in place, more telescopes will be sent to the asteroids themselves, and the choicest ones will be targeted for mining.

Phase One, the exploration phase, should be launching within 24 months (!). Specifically, Planetary plans to send up its first Arkyd Series 100 Leo space telescope within two years. Beyond that, Planetary is more cautious about discussing timelines, but it does say that it'll spend two to three years observing asteroids from LEO, and then send self-propelled telescopes out for the next few years after that. Planetary hopes that within the decade it will have identified a number asteroids (10 or 20 or 30) which it will then send probes out to mine.

Meanwhile, all of those telescopes that Planetary Resources sends up will be available for use by the public (think academic and commercial) for space research or to look back down at Earth. There will be so many of them, and they'll be so cheap, that it should open up many new opportunities for space science that simply have not been available without funding and hardware from NASA. In fact, Planetary envisions that private citizens (like you) will be able to afford some observation time on a Leo space telescope if you'd like.

Of course, there's a much bigger picture going on here too: if we can move mining from Earth into space, it'll help us preserve the environment that keeps us alive. And surveying as many near-Earth asteroids as possible for mining potential also lowers the odds that one of them is going to come out nowhere and lay the smackdown on us.

We expect to see more details in the coming months, especially if Planetary Resources manages to keep to its ambitious timetable. And if it can make all this happen (which will certainly be difficult but not unrealistically so), we could be benefiting from asteroid mining within just a decade or two. Quite literally, it would be science fiction made real.

Below you can watch an overview video of the company that was shown at the press conference this morning, and we have a small gallery showing some of the spacecraft that Planetary Resources is currently working on.

—Evan Ackerman

(Planetary Resources via DVICE)