Tuesday, April 24, 2012

To Mine the Heavens

It's been a long time coming, I'll say that much.

You may have seen the headlines popping up in the past week, headlines that look like they're from some science fiction universe, headlines having to do with asteroid mining. There are millions of asteroids in the solar system, ranging from dwarf planets like 1 Ceres to the irregular chunks of rock left over from the condensation of the planetary nebula four and a half billion years ago. Owing to their nature, asteroids have the potential to be mining bonanzas - miniature worlds made of iron and copper, with comparative pebbles containing more gold and platinum than have ever been mined in the history of humanity.

There's just one problem: the economics of space. Right now, the biggest stumbling block to any presence in space is the cost of getting there - presently, you're going to pay somewhere around $10,000 per pound of material launched into orbit. Efforts to bring this cost down have historically been complicated by the fact that for the last forty years, space missions haven't ventured past Low Earth Orbit and have been limited to satellite deployment and repair and space station resupply - not exactly a fertile market to breed competition, though now that SpaceX is in the game things may be changing.

With the arrival of Planetary Resources, things may be changing even more. The company - backed by billionaires such as James Cameron, Ross Perot, and Larry Page and Eric Schmidt of Google - is going to be officially unveiled today at a press conference in Seattle's Museum of Flight, with a goal to "revolutionize current space exploration and help ensure humanity's prosperity for generations to come." It's an idea whose time has long since come - one of the only ideas that can break the cycle that we're locked into, an alternative to the economists' folly of unlimited growth in a limited world.

As people have been saying for decades, there just are not enough resources on Earth for everyone to live a prosperous lifestyle - it's not a question of will, it's a question of mathematics. The obvious solution, then, has always been to expand the equation - to bring in resources from off Earth.

The asteroid 4 Vesta, one of the largest Main Belt asteroids, as photographed by the Dawn spacecraft. The asteroids Planetary Resources eventually intends to work are much, much smaller than this.

The idea of asteroid mining isn't new. Peter Diamandis, the man behind the X-Prize and co-chairman of Planetary Resources, wanted to be an asteroid miner when he was a teenager - a notion pulled from the fertile fields of science fiction, where roughneck belters in their spaceships leapfrogging from rock to rock has been a staple for decades. The cover story of the September 1963 Analog is all about asteroid mining and asteroid industry. It's not something that's come out of nowhere.

That is, at least, for people like me who follow this sort of thing. In scrolling through newspaper comment cesspools for the Planetary Resources stories, it's been interesting to see the reactions of people to whom this is all a bolt from the blue, people who never considered the notion of mining the sky. There are people who see it as hubris, that mining and moving asteroids will inevitably destroy us. There are people who pick up that nails-on-a-chalkboard environmental sanctimony, about how it's not enough that we're wrecking our own planet but now we're going to wreck other ones (note: asteroids are not planets; they are lifeless chunks of rock). I've seen people worried that using asteroid-mined metals on Earth would change its orbit because of the extra mass. I've even seen one person - thankfully, universally downvoted - who suggested that we get more experience by landing on the moon first.

Of all of that, the pseudo-environmentalism infuriates me the most. Sure, asteroid mining is expensive - it's going to be a long road before Planetary Resources gets to there from here - but what's the environmental cost to mining on Earth? Can you put a dollar value on a toxic tailing pond that may or may not be straining at its banks? What about the mining operations where mountains are flattened to get at the resources within? If it was up to me, I'd establish an infrastructure of asteroid mining with the goal of ending large-scale extractive mining on Earth. Asteroid mining is something that environmentalists should be behind, if only to provide an alternative to Earth mining.

Admittedly, this isn't a sure thing. It is expensive, and the value of all that gold and platinum locked away up there would plummet dramatically once it was brought to market on Earth; not that it would be a bad thing, because now you can use gold and platinum in manufacturing and industrial processes that were completely uneconomical before - imagine electric wiring made out of gold or silver, or cheap fuel cells to bring a revolution in electrical generation. But the possibilities of a successful asteroid mining program are such that as long as we have the capacity, it would be foolish to not even try. Nothing ventured, nothing gained and so on.

Still, the fact that newspapers are talking about asteroid mining with straight faces feels otherworldly - and not in the literal sense. I suppose I've just become accustomed, so inured to the drudgeries of the everyday that I never thought something like this would actually make the jump from science fiction to reality. Sure, I live in a world where people carry computers in their pocket that link to a vast global communications network, but it's still fundamentally a world, as if existing apart from the rest of the cosmos.

Some part of me keeps thinking that Planetary Resources shouldn't be real. That it can't be real, That it's just some big joke at the expense of people like me, people who are still willing to look up and believe in what might come if we got our collective acts together. "No, you don't get it!" says that annoying little voice. "You're not supposed to do this! You're supposed to jaw about coming together to work for a better future while never actually doing anything to bring that better future about!"

Fact is, this is the future. It's about time we started making it look the part.

No comments:

Post a Comment