Brian Wang’s NextBigFuture has posted four compelling articles on asteroids this week. That’s getting hard to ignore and the potential is substantial.
The reason why is the resources asteroids contain. There will be metals of considerable interest, lots of water, and perhaps some methane. Plus a lot of what many will consider junk. Still, with some ingenuity plus nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus as a group, space life could get to self-sustaining status and start exporting, well – practically anything. With unlimited solar power and a gravity free work and production facility the potential for high value product production is extreme.
First, on Monday Mr. Wang took note of a Technology Review piece that discusses an asteroid strike on earth about 65 million years ago. The point is that a huge chunk of earth was blown off into space with some life aboard that’s been scattering through the galaxy ever since. Now if life can stay viable over time and the conditions of space then seeding will occur in the rest of the solar system and a noteworthy part of the galaxy. There is a theory suggesting life got going in the galaxy as much as 10 billion years ago with propagation getting to earth 4.6 billion years ago. Humm, intellectual bait?
On Wednesday the first post Mr. Wang loaded was the Google founders, Ross Perot, James Cameron and some others are considering a venture (perhaps called Planetary Resources will announce its existence at the Charles Simonyi Space Gallery at The Museum of Flight in Seattle next Tuesday) seemingly to mine an asteroid. With a founding list like that and a press release suggesting trillions of dollars of value paired to the Spacex lift to orbit effort with greatly reduced costs – the idea has real legs.
Wang quickly follow that with the news of the Xprize finding multiple billionaires backing an asteroid mining prize. Peter Diamandis is expected to have an announcement ready next week as well. So far the supposition is the Wednesday post is coupled to the Xprize announcement. One assumes that is so, still Mr. Perot is certain to go his own way and Mr. Cameron is very likely to take off on his own as well – as just seen where Cameron was at the bottom of the deepest part of the sea. These are two guys with the character and temperament to get things done.
The Xprize piece has some fascinating information. Wang links out to the post this Thursday on a Wired article about a four day workshop investigation the feasibility and requirements of capturing an asteroid and locating it close up as a base for manned missions. Now, this is a grand idea. Moving an asteroid is a huge undertaking; never has a celestial object been moved by mankind, but it’s not an impossible one. A recent study at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has already shown possible feasibility to move a small asteroid, with a mass of ~10,000 kg, deep into the Earth’s gravity well – even as low as the orbit of the International Space Station.
Thursday’s post also has a link to Professor John Lewis’ discussion on “Asteroid Exploration and Exploitation”. By all means, please have a look at the pdf. While 29 pages might seem large the text is huge and the graphics occupy a lot of space. Its fact packed and a very fast read – except for the moments of astonishment like:
One small sized near earth asteroid (NEA) is Amun #3554. Its 2000 meters in diameter containing about 30 times the total amount of metals mined over the course of human history that is worth something like $70 Trillion dollars.
Lewis also has a brief word on the legal regime prospects with a sensible offer not far from the coda used for promoting the internet, “keep your laws off my asteroid!”, a lot like the “keep hands off the internet” that is still holding tenuously for free countries here on earth.
Lastly the hard part – there hasn’t been a large discovery of nitrogen, the about 80% of the air we breath and an crucial part of plant growth for food. The water is abundant, with oxygen, carbon and the trace elements so nitrogen is going to be a problem. Yet is can be ‘mined’ on earth, cooled to a liquid and transported up. It would be grand to find a bunch of it though. It would be worth the effort to bring some in.
A side point offered in the Lewis’ presentation is from 100 meter sized asteroids (400,000) to one kilometer sized (1,000) about 30% are going to hit the earth over time. Of course the impacts are spread over multiple millennia, but mining them to nothingness is preferable to worrying or plotting ideas on how to move them.
Your humble writer will back Lewis with the thought, “We cannot afford a centrally controlled, duplication free government dominated effort.” The Xprize and all the private efforts are the leadership for the free world and free men and women for the economy of the future. Billions of us could live “out there” with little risk as the problems are discovered and solutions found.
Yet there will be loss, of capital, lives and injury. But we’ve seen one smallish asteroid is worth about 5 years of gross domestic national product. In five years here on earth the losses are considerable as well.
There’s stuff out there, worth getting, processing and for making life, business, society and culture. It’s our destiny; let’s get on with it.