Asteroid Mining Still Just Science Fiction


Jackie Hartsough
Staff Writer

A new company called Planetary Resources just announced their plan to extract valuable resources from asteroids and return them to Earth. This endeavor is called asteroid mining. They are going to send ships into space to drill into asteroids.

Anyone else reminded of “Armageddon?” Will Bruce Willis be joining the team? I actually looked at who the various advisers are, but disappointingly he was not one of them.

You know who was on that list? James Cameron. Now, you know he just wants to make a movie about it. Oh wait, I think he already did. Okay, they aren’t going to be mining Unobtainium from an inhabited planet, but it’s a similar idea. They plan to extract large quantities of platinum from some of these asteroids. The very wealthy investors in this project expect it will be worth the billions they are putting into space. Let’s just say I’m glad there will not be any Na’vi getting in their way.

If Planetary Resources is successful in their endeavor, it will actually be much different than either “Armageddon” or “Avatar.” They don’t plan to send any humans into space. Instead, they plan to launch a line of unmanned spacecrafts called the Arkyd Series. So don’t worry James Cameron, there’s still room for a new movie involving asteroids hurtling through space in your future. Would that be science fiction? A documentary? Can it be a drama if there aren’t actually any people?

In all seriousness, when did science fiction become real life? Now it’s just science? I realize the asteroids in question aren’t about to destroy Earth, and they aren’t inhabited by extraterrestrials, but they are still in outer space. The final frontier. Part of me wonders if this is just a bunch of extremely rich guys and scientists mourning the end of NASA’s shuttle program trying to build their own version of “Star Trek.”

From listening to the Planetary Resources press conference, it sounds as if they have come up with an amazing plan that will make them rich and supply the world with necessary resources. The scientists in charge of the project claim that their new spacecrafts (which they plan to launch in two years) will be relatively low in cost and enable further exploration of the solar system. They say that the commercial nature of their company will allow them to do this cheaper and more efficiently than NASA.

That all sounds great, but there are no guarantees it will work. They say themselves that it is a huge risk and that they are likely fail many times. Nobody has done this before. Nobody has even tried this before. They want to be first.

Is this even realistic? It is their money and their time, but are they wasting it? By their own admission, no actual mining is likely to occur for another decade. They have a plan, but it won’t be a reality for quite some time. What do you expect? It took James Cameron 12 years just to make a movie about mining in space; you can bet it won’t take any less time to actually do it. So for now, what sounds like science fiction is still science fiction.


  1. Did the author here do any research at all on the feasibility of this project? Anything? This isn’t investigative journalism. This is a disgrace.

    Here, let me help with your investigations a bit:

    That’s what the Caltech / JPL guys say we can do with existing and near-term tech. (UCSB can only wish it had that sort of talent.)

    It also gives you a good place to start, talking about the sorts of asteroids we can find, what they’re made of, the sorts of asteroids we can haul, the amount of power you have available to you on one of these missions, the amount of money it costs to put this together (when the government is involved; note that it could be 10x cheaper in the private sector), that kind of thing.

    From there, you could determine (if you investigated some numbers from a power tools site) that a payload capable of mining an asteroid could have enough power to run as many as ten standard pieces of hand-held cement cutting equipment… more than enough to get you started on a mining operation on a rock no bigger than a school bus.

    It gets a lot less science-fictiony when you look at it that way, eh?

  2. Here are some arguments I made to the Financial Times when they dismissed this venture:


    FT’s Javier Blas erred in accepting Barclays’ analysis
    re asteroid mining. (“Asteroid Mining is for Space Cadets”, April 30)
    All the wealth on Earth will be worthless if a large asteroid hits
    (see Wikipedia re “Apophis” and “1999 RQ36″).
    Much of the technology needed by Planetary Resources will be
    developed by the US Air Force and NASA to deal with that threat.
    DOD’s $600 billion/year budget doesn’t have to yield a profit and
    Planetary Resources’ board includes former Air Force Chief of Staff
    Michael Moseley.

    Mass-producing copies of a modified product is vastly cheaper than developing
    an initial prototype. Moore’s Law will make intelligent robots much
    cheaper in the future and asteroid mining will give a major boost to
    Silicon Valley’s computer,electronics, robotics, software and
    communications companies –both as suppliers and as customers.

    To survive, Silicon Valley must break China’s monopoly on rare earths.
    A crash in rare metal prices will only hurt goldbugs and those who make
    useless baubles for the rich. In contrast it will trigger an explosion
    of advanced products that benefit the common citizen (e.g., medical diagnostics.)

    At one time aluminum cost twice the price for gold. When innovation
    made it cheap, it spawned the massive aviation industry: huge fleets of
    military bombers to win WWII and the Cold War, commercial airliners,
    Boeing, British Airways, FedEx etc. In 1980, would Barclays have advised against
    investing in Microsoft and Apple because plastic for slide rules was cheap?

    Re time for return, early investors earn money selling stakes to later
    investors as risk is reduced and value is created. ”
    PS Those interested in this subject should look at John Lewis’s book “Mining the Sky”.
    Lewis is on Planetary Resources’ board.

    Alternatively, we could just let the progress of the human race stagnate and die — the
    way it did in the Roman Empire, ancient Egypt, and Ming China.