By Bobby Miller
On April 24, a little company called Planetary Resources unveiled a big plan that, if successful, can profoundly affect the world’s economy, solve water shortage issues and make travel into deep space possible. It plans to mine near-Earth asteroids for their platinum, iron, nickel and sulfur, possibly adding trillions of U.S. dollars to the world’s gross domestic product.
Formerly known as Arkyd Astronautics, Planetary Resources’ two key players are Eric C. Anderson, who formerly managed a NASA mission to Mars, and Peter Diamandis, the man behind X Prize Foundation, which offers funds to any group capable of creating reusable spacecrafts. At first, its founders made no public mention of its goal to one day “expand Earth’s natural resource base.” However, this year, Planetary Resources has acquired a number of big-name investors who may be able to turn the company’s dreams into a reality, according to the company’s website.
Planetary Resources’ Financers and their Initial Plans
Among the backers are former Microsoft Executive Charles Simonyi, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and Google Director K. Ram Shriram—perhaps Google Earth will someday become Google Milky Way Galaxy if its lead thinkers continue to invest in space travel. Hollywood director James Cameron is also contributing to the enterprise, which is quite interesting since his latest blockbuster, “Avatar,” explores the possibility of mining in outer space.
These contributors plan to back Planetary Resources for the long term, acknowledging that it will take time for the company to achieve its goals. Anderson believes the first step, deciding which asteroids are worth mining, will be carried out sometime in the next two years. To scope out the asteroids, the company plans to develop and sell inexpensive robotic spacecraft capable of carrying out surveillance missions, according to the Planetary Resources website. These devices will be a part of the Arkyd series, named after the company’s original title. If successful, these observation platforms can attract the attention, and money, of NASA and private research institutions.
An actual mining mission, which in theory can take a decade to carry out, might be completed as early as 2025, according to the Keck Institute for Space Studies. The plan is to take an asteroid, move it near Earth, roughly to the moon’s orbit, and then mine pieces of it off. Cameron will not be hiring any Na’vi to carry out the mining, and instead, the job will be handled by robots. The platinum and other metals extracted can then be sold at high prices, Diamandis said. After all, these metals are found in many products, including defibrillators, hand-held devices, TVs and computer monitors.
Possible Economic Pitfalls: Supply and Demand on a Cosmic Scale
Even with all the money behind the mission and the amount of rare metal that can be extracted, some are skeptical of Planetary Resources’ ability to reap profits. For a long time, it’s been a rule that, for every pound of matter you shoot beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, it will put you behind about $10,000, according to NASA’s Advanced Space Transportation Program. NASA has also reported that each of its space shuttle flight cost nearly $1.6 billion. A report published by the Keck Institute estimated that mining a 500-ton asteroid would cost about $2.6 billion and take up to a decade to complete.
During its April news conference, Planetary Resources argued that it can cover these costs. Just one asteroid may contain more platinum group metals than the entire Earth does. Diamandis estimates that a 98-foot long asteroid can hold as much as $25 billion to $50 billion worth of platinum. However, Lawrence H. White, professor of economics at George Mason University, is skeptical of the economic venture. He believes introducing such a huge amount of rare ores into the world’s economy would inevitably cause their value to plummet. These metals are valuable because they are so scarce on Earth. When that changes, they will no longer be worth as much. Theoretically speaking, Planetary Resources can limit the amount of ore it sells in order to keep prices high, but limiting their sales may make it very difficult to cover the high mining costs.
On its website, the company addresses this criticism by noting how “history shows that an increase in ease of access to resources often leads to an expansion, not shrinkage, of the associated industries, as well as the development of new technologies that use that resource.” In other words, with more platinum going around to experiment with, perhaps scientists will find new ways to utilize it. Whether or not history will repeat itself with such a unique, ambitious endeavor is up for debate though.
Implications for Space Travel: Convenient Pit Stops
Although the economics behind asteroid mining are questionable, Planetary Resources’ vision goes beyond high profits. “It is a strategic interest of humanity to be able to go to space,” Anderson said on his website. The company has declared that its mission is “to help ensure humanity’s prosperity.”
Such bold claims stem from the fact that, in addition to rare metals, asteroids also contain water. Having water easily available in space opens up a number of possibilities for deep space travel. As Anderson has pointed out, water from asteroids may keep astronauts hydrated, allow them to grow food and provide a means of shielding spaceships from radiation.
More importantly, water can also be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen, two of the main ingredients found in rocket fuel, Anderson said in a press release. This may result in the formation of in-space “gas stations,” allowing humans to travel further into space. For scientists who believe that humanity’s long-term survival is dependent on space travel, this is a very important development. In the short term, Planetary Resources may also use this fuel for space tourism, allowing them to earn more profits.
Impending Political Arguments: Is What I Mine… Mine?
But how will governments around the world respond to the company’s ambitious plans? It goes without saying that introducing trillions of dollars to the global economy can have serious consequences for some nations. South Africa will probably take a serious hit if asteroid mining takes off. The country sells nearly 80 percent of the world’s platinum, currently earning over $1,500 for every ounce of the metal found, according to the InfoMine website. Just one asteroid may put the nation’s mining industry to shame. Russia and Canada may also be affected by the greater supply of rare metals.
There are also concerns that the technology capable of moving asteroids around can be used as weaponry. While Planetary Resources plans to use its equipment to move asteroids into ideal locations for space mining, what’s stopping another entity from moving asteroids into the Earth’s atmosphere to cause destruction?
Aside from these worries, there is one big question we need to answer: Who owns stuff in space? If I’m on Earth and strike oil, it’s mine. Is the same true for resources found in space? Does the U.S. government or international community have the right to regulate how a private company like Planetary Resources carries out its mining in outer space?
The only piece of space law that comes close to addressing these issues is the Outer Space Treaty (OST), which was ratified in 1967 by all nations with space programs. It asserts that “no nation may claim sovereignty over space, the moon or celestial bodies.” The main motivation behind the agreement was to ensure that neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union tried to claim ownership over the moon. While it may have served its purpose during the Space Race, it seems outdated today. Some experts of space law claim that the OST will have no affect on private businesses that try to find natural resources in space. Others, however, feel the exact opposite way, claiming that the treaty forbids anyone—governments or businesses—from claiming ownership over anything in outer space. Needless to say, the latter interpretation would be quite problematic for Planetary Resources.
What is clear is that the OST is unclear. The international community needs to develop revised legislation capable of addressing not only Planetary Resources’ mission but also long-term goals of space exploration. Forcing companies to share everything they earn in space would severely limit humanity’s venture into the cosmos. In our money-driven world, companies need an economic incentive to travel beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. Hopefully, governments will develop laws conducive to progress and innovation in space.
If Planetary Resources overcomes any political bickering that surfaces, it can reap enormous benefits for humankind. This start-up company with only about 20 employees may very well transform the world’s economy and revolutionize space travel. It will be no easy task, as Anderson has conceded. “There will be times when we fail,” he said in an address to the public. “There will be times when we have to pick up the pieces and try again.”
Through creative engineering, sheer determination and loyal sponsors, Planetary Resources may be able to overcome the technological hurdles ahead and make asteroid mining a reality.