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Asteroid mining – what’s going on?

Asteroid Miner.

That’s a classic science fiction job title, isn’t it? And we’ve all grown up with it. You could probably fill several shelves with sci-fi books describing the daring exploits of chisel-jawed, stubbled, sweat-stained astronauts risking their lives on huge chunks of rock and metal, out there, in the voids between the planets, risking horrifying death from punctured spacesuits, holed airlines or cracked faceplates to mine precious metals and minerals from them and send them back to Earth. We’ve all grown up expecting to see that, or something like it, one day, and have waited impatiently for the dawn of an age of asteroid exploitation, confident it would happen.

Well, we were partly right.

That dawn has broken, or at least is about to break. But the asteroid miners aren’t buzz-cut ex-marines or oil riggers in patched-together space suits. They’re sharply dressed, young, mega-rich entrepeneurs, businessmen and engineers.

We weren’t expecting that, were we? You might remember that back in 1998 a film came out called “Armageddon”, in which a team of unruly, maverick oil drillers flew out to an asteroid to stop it hitting the Earth, wiping out all life, by blowing it up with atomic bombs, dropped into it down holes dug by very fancy drilling equipment…

Read that last line back and you might see why “Armageddon” is often cited as one of the most inaccurate SF films ever made, and okay, it is about as scientifically accurate as an episode of Button Moon, or The Clangers, but it’s one of my favourites, I don’t mind admitting ( and I get really mad when people criticise it for its “bad science”. For pity’s sake, it’s a film, not a documentary! You don’t watch films to be educated, you watch them to be entertained, to help you forget and escape, just for a couple of hours, the struggles and hardships of everyday life! If I want to watch something that’s 100% scientifically accurate I’ll watch an epiosde of Brian Cox’s “Wonders of the Universe” or an old episode of “Cosmos”). Yes, it’s cheesy. Yes, its dialogue is dreadful. Yes, its characters are stereotypes, and about as deep as the icing on a Mr Kipling fondant fancy, but I don’t care! It’s got two kick-ass, armoured, shuttles launching at once! American heroes blowing up an asteroid – not just any asteroid, but an asteroid that moans and groans like an asthmatic dragon, and shoots out spacesuit-piercing metal spikes! Drilling rigs bouncing across – and then flying above! – that asteroid! It’s a tale of romance! Sacrifice! Epic music! The world saved by misfits and renegades! Come ON! What more do you want from a film?!?!?!? :-)

So, I’m happy to stand up in front of you all and say this: My name is Stuart Atkinson, and I LOVE “Armageddon”.

Accurate or not, cheesy or not,  that film did cement in our minds, I think, the classic image of an asteroid miner: Bruce Willis, inside a grungy spacesuit, sweat dripping down his face as he struggles to dig on a godforsaken piece of rock millions of miles from the Earth…

Well, last night we saw, and met, an actual asteroid miner, for the first time. And with the greatest respect to ex-NASA engineer Chris Lewicki, he looked nothing like Bruce Willis…

What happened?

Well, unless you haven’t picked up a newspaper this morning, or turned on a TV or radio, or gone online, or breathed, you’ll know that there was a big media event in the US last night, which has got the space communities of the internet and cyberspace flapping about like birds on an electric fence. Last night, in a huge aircraft hanger, the top people of a new company called PLANETARY RESOURCES announced to the world what the world had, to be honest, already know for a while – that they’re planning to go out intop space and start mining asteroids for natural resources. Not in a few decades, but soon. Very soon. In fact, their first hardware is already being built, and will be launched “within 24 months”.

After the press event, there were three camps, I think it’s fair to say. In one camp, filled with brightly coloured tents, where half-drunk space enthusiasts were dancing naked around campfires, celebrating the news, there were people who bought it, word for word, and were waxing lyrical about how PR would “open up the solar system”, “change the destiny of Mankind”, lead to colonies on the Moon and Mars and beyond, etc etc. In another camp, set up in a totally different field from the first camp – sitting inside darker, gloomier tents, drinking from bottles of warm beer – were the doubters and cynics, the skeptics who thought the whole thing was naive and over-optimistic at best and ridiculous at worst. Between those two fields, in a smaller camp, were people like me, who listened to the press conference and didn’t really pay much attention to the timetable, the timeline or the hard sell, but got excited by it for a wholly different reason. And that was this: it’s a change. And a BIG one.

I’m not going to go through PR’s plans in any detail, you can read all about them at their own website ( http://www.planetaryresources.com/2012/04/faq ) but basically, they’re planning on mining natural resources – water and minerals – from asteroids that are, or come close to, the Earth. They’re going to build and launch their own small space telescopes to look for and find likely candidates for mining…

… then send small prospecting probes to those asteroids to check them out…

…and then use other craft to collect those resources from them (er…how? That wasn’t made clear, to be honest, to the frustration of many). They may even bring small ones – i.e. house-sized – back to Earth whole, to process them here…

 They’ve already raised the money needed to allow them to do this, they’ve already started to gather a team to design, build and fly the hardware, and they’ve already got plans in place to grow the business. They acknowledge that what they’re planning to do is going to be extremely hard, and that they will have failures, but they accept that, and are going to push on anyway.

And that’s the main reason to be excited about this, I think. Forget the hyperbole, the huge profit figures being thrown about, the probably over-optimistic timeline. The big news here, the big change, the big difference, is that there is finally a group of people who are actually Going To Do Something, instead of just talking about it, preaching about it, producing Powerpoints and computer simulations. They’re building spacecraft, right now. They have the money, right now. They have a clear path in their minds, that will almost certainly include failures and disappointments, but those will be dealt with if and when they happen.

And it’s about time.

NASA was never going to do this, nor was any other space agency. Oh, yes, they’ve talked about it, told us how much potential there is for resource exploitation “out there”, but it’s all been blah blah blah. This, I think, is the real deal. Maybe not PR themselves. They might die a death (I personally think not), but again, that’s not the point. The point is, finally, in 2012, it seems that there are people with money, and vision, coming together to get off Earth, get out into space and DO SOMETHING.

I watched the press conference last night and to be honest the figures washed over me. All that bankers talk about GDP, the gross value of platinum, economic returns etc etc, I didn’t really take it in; I was just thrilled to see people standing there, enthused about space, with a plan to DO SOMETHING. When Eric Anderson told the audience that there had been enough talking, enough planning, it was time to start building things and go somewhere I almost jumped out of my seat and cheered. Because that’s how I’ve felt for ages, and probably many of you have felt the same way too.

I think the message from PR is one many of us can identify with, and have wanted to shout out and SCREAM from the rooftops and mountain peaks for years…

We were walking on the Moon FORTY years ago for f***s sake! Can we please stop f***ing about and get out there and DO SOMETHING?!!!!

So, deep breath – where are we? Well, we are NOT at the dawn of a golden age of solar system exploration and colonisation. This is just the possible start of a possible age of small scale natural resource collection from space. If everything works! PR is not going to turn us into a multi-planet species, and is not going to build colonies on the Moon or Mars; they are not going to put a single person in space, they’re dealing purely with robots. PR is not going to bring a km-wide asteroid back to Earth and use it to start building a USS Enterprise in a skeletal drydock above the Earth. Nor are they going to launch missions into deep space to look for and collect deadly alien creatures and bring them back to Earth for exploitation – they’re NOT Wayland-Youtani and we’re all quite safe. No. Take a deep breath everyone. The world hasn’t changed.

But what has changed, I think, is the WILL to do it. This team really seems to have its act together. Funding. Facilities. Determination to succeed. They’re all in place. They’re proposing a radical new approach to this – to mass produce small items of space hardware, rather than build one-off multi-gazillion dollar machines, and to accept that some of it will break or go wrong, to think of it as practical and almost disposable, instead of wrapping it up in cotton wool and treating it like holy relics. I like that. It seems realistic and practical.

And theyhave tons of money behind them, and some serious, high-powered backers too. (One of them is Titanic- and Avatar-producer James Cameron. He’s the one the mass media seems to have fixed on as the Big Backer, and one of the reasons why PR is so exciting, but I thought it was very interesting last night how his involvement in the project was played down by the panel. Acknowledged, yes, but definitely played down. Clearly they want the engineering and science  and economic benefits to take priority over glossy celebrity and adventure. Interesting…)

So, yes, the actual Hows of getting the minerals off or out of the asteroids are still pretty – ok, very! – vague, and PR really needs to give some more info about that or people just won’t take then seriously. As practical and sensible as their approach is – find useful asteroids, scout them out, then mine them – no-one’s really interested in the first two steps, it’s the actual *mining* part we’re interested in, isn’t it? That will come, I’m sure. But really, the sooner the better, or once the initial excitement has died down, PR risks being seen as just the latest bright idea by a bunch of rich guys with so much money they don’t know what to do with it all.

So, everyone, calm down, ok? This is interesting news, and while I personally felt shivers running down my back while listening to the company launch last night, there are still a lot of gaps to be filled in. But PR seems to be a serious company, with serious goals, and a serious approach. They’re definitely worth watching, and I wish them all the best. They could be the best thing to happen to “space” for a generation, because, if nothing else, they’ve given us back something many of us lost a long, long time ago:

Hope.

Hope that maybe, just maybe, after all these years of us hearing how expensive space is, how dangerous and risky it is, how only Governments and bloated space agencies can reach it, there are people telling us something different – that it can be for everyone; hope that there are some people who would rather make a spaceship with metal and glass, and wire, than with a graphics package, in the memory of a computer; hope that maybe, just maybe, there are people who look up at the night sky and think of “space” as a real place that we can live and work in, full of resources we can use to our advantage, rather than an empty blackness.

But above all, hope that we haven’t retreated from space after all. Hope that in a time when the ISS is the limit of our astronauts’ reach, when people insist we never flew to the Moon, and when politicians seem determined to force scientists to stop looking for life out in the solar system, there IS a chink of light shining at the end of the tunnel. Because if we can mine asteroids, for water and metals, that can only help efforts to send people out into space, because it will make building, and fuelling, their spacecraft easier, and cheaper.

PR won’t be sending people to asteroids, but if they succeed, it might be metals collected from asteroids and sold BY them that are used to build the spacecraft that eventually take men and women to them. And although PR won’t be sending people to Mars, it might be money raised by their operations that funds expeditions to there by other teams of entrepeneurs and adventurers, who are sick of waiting for Governments to take that next giant leap. We’ll have to wait and see.

Whatever happens, it’s just amazing, don’t you think, to be here at a time when there are people on TV talking about asteroid mining on the news, and on business discussion programmes, instead of in a cheesy science fiction film.

One last thought. During the media launch last night, the crying of a baby could frequently be heard in the background. Not loudly, but loud enough to hear over the speeches. Just think… that child is now going to could grow up in a world where asteroid mining is being talked about seriously, by businessmen and engineers, instead of fancifully, by science fiction writers and dreamers. When she, or he, grows up, who’s to say what might be happening “out there”? Maybe he, or she, will travel to the Moon onboard a shuttle made out of metal mined from an asteroid by PR’s probes. Or they might travel to Mars and help build a base there, drinking water processed from an asteroid by a PR probe. Such things aren’t necessarily science fiction any more. That’s got to be something worth celebrating. :-)

You want to see some asteroid miners? Here you go…

PR might crash and burn, or fly and triumph. They might kick-start our species’ long-overdue exploitation of space, or might fail, and delay it even longer. But the main thing is they’re going to give it a damned good try – and for the first time in a long, long I find myself daring to believe that maybe, just maybe, I might live to see people walking on Mars in my lifetime. Because come on, if we can mine asteroids, we can land people on Mars, surely… :-)

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