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Billionaires and Polymaths Expected To Unveil a Plan To Mine Asteroids 531

Posted by timothy
from the why-couldn't-it-be-undersea? dept.
dumuzi writes "A team including Larry Page, Ram Shriram and Eric Schmidt of Google, director James Cameron, Charles Simonyi (Microsoft executive and astronaut), Ross Perot Jr. (son of Ross Perot), Chris Lewicki (NASA Mars mission manager), and Peter Diamandis (X-Prize) have formed a new company called Planetary Resources, and are expected to announce plans on April 24th to mine asteroids. A study by NASA released April 2nd claims a robotic mission could capture a 500 ton asteroid and bring it to orbit the moon for $2.6 billion. The additional cost to mine the asteroid and return the ores to Earth would make profit unlikely even if the asteriod was 20% gold."
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Billionaires and Polymaths Expected To Unveil a Plan To Mine Asteroids

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  • by suso (153703) * on Saturday April 21, 2012 @06:23PM (#39758619) Homepage Journal

    A study by NASA released April 2nd claims a robotic mission could capture a 500 ton asteroid and bring it to orbit the moon for $2.6 billion. The additional cost to mine the asteroid and return the ores to Earth would make profit unlikely even if the asteriod was 20% gold."

    And when the mission makes a mistake and an asteroid goes plummiting into a major city it will cause trillions of dollars in damage and massive loss of life and potentially create a cloud of dust that will cause an ice age.

    I'm sorry, but no, this isn't a good idea. If you don't even have the technology to completely destroy an asteroid yet, then you can't fully control it and shouldn't be trying to "bring it to orbit". Maybe the first team will succeed because they have the smarts, but then when its shown to be profitable, the morons will get involved with fresh VC, etc.

    • What are they going to find on a rock in space that is not already available on THIS rock in space?

      And a shorter distance.

      And with an atmosphere.

      And so on and so forth.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        And a humungous gravity well.

      • by gl4ss (559668) on Saturday April 21, 2012 @06:33PM (#39758691) Homepage Journal

        the point of the plan is that it is possible.

        not that it is profitable right now, but that it is a possible backup plan to get resources(ore) should we need them in the future.

        why does that matter? to shut the fuck up people complaining that we will run out of mineral X in 20 years and all civilization will be doomed because of that.

        overly right wing? I think my opinion on this is left wing, actually.

        another thing is that we wouldn't necessarily want the resources to be dumped back to earth just to shoot them up to space again, but use them in space.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by 0123456 (636235)

        What are they going to find on a rock in space that is not already available on THIS rock in space?

        I heard they're looking for something called 'Unobtanium'.

      • by shiftless (410350) on Saturday April 21, 2012 @06:50PM (#39758835) Homepage

        What are they going to find on a rock in space that is not already available on THIS rock in space?

        I dunno, maybe........resources that are not on this rock? i.e. in its gravity well?

        Why does the bulk of humanity always have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the future?

        • by blubadger (988507) on Saturday April 21, 2012 @09:00PM (#39759527)

          Why does the bulk of humanity always have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the future?

          Your "future" seems to be somewhere around 1970. Today's challenge is not how to find and use ever more resources, it is how to use and re-use the existing ones without making the planet unliveable. Given the current context of impending climatic and ecosystem breakdown, mining asteroids is nothing but an outrageous red herring.

          I continue to be astounded by the number of "technologists" in this forum who appear stuck in an almost Soviet mindset of science, where the future is all mining and flying cars and space exploration. It's as if you haven't noticed the last 30 years of scientific advance and all the new constraints that humanity must now work within.

          • by russotto (537200) on Saturday April 21, 2012 @09:10PM (#39759583) Journal

            Your "future" seems to be somewhere around 1970. Today's challenge is not how to find and use ever more resources, it is how to use and re-use the existing ones without making the planet unliveable.

            This is an impoverished view which will lead to nothing but stagnation, decline, and ultimately extinction.

            • by mbkennel (97636) on Saturday April 21, 2012 @09:32PM (#39759695)

              that lead to stagnation, decline and extinction if humans don't get sufficiently wise and active about mitigating them.

              _Wish upon A Star_ works in Disney movies. Mother Nature is unimpressed.

            • by blubadger (988507) on Saturday April 21, 2012 @10:07PM (#39759869)

              Well, I see that I'm outvoted by incurable, irrational techno-utopians.

              I too am optimistic, as it happens. But only cautiously so – not recklessly, like you people are. Given humanity's past, there is no reason to believe that we can't rise to the current environmental challenge. But we're taking our time seeing the problem, as evidenced by this frivolous chat about mining asteroids. Right now the world a half-century hence is looking a scary place, and even in the best-case scenario a lot of permanent damage is going to be done to the biosphere. If and when we solve this problem – mitigating the effects of consumption rather than finding resources for more of it – then we can perhaps start thinking about mining asteroids. Until that point, you are putting the cart before the horse.

              I have a strange feeling you don't even know what I'm talking about, that we're not even on the same page here. That's sad, because I'm talking hard science, and the solutions will come largely from hard science too. They include energy tech, biotech and all kinds of innovation in farming, town-planning and architecture. They don't include mining asteroids.

              • by shmlco (594907)

                First, you need the technology to get into space for a reasonable amount of money. Space X and a few others are working on this. Money spent on that kind of R&D is spent here, on earth, and creates jobs and spinoff technology. Next is working in space. Improvements in solar cell technology could power things here as well as in space, and that's not even mentioning the whole solar power satellite aspect.

                People talk about spending money on "space" like we just stuff cash into a rocket and blast it into or

              • by russotto (537200)

                Well, I see that I'm outvoted by incurable, irrational techno-utopians.

                Not really. I think any attempt at mining asteroids now is silly and doomed to economic (if not technical) failure. That does not mean I believe that "Today's challenge [...] is how to use and re-use the existing [resources] without making the planet unliveable." That's the essential part to the stagnation and decline. No matter how much you re-use, you're going to get less out at every step. As time goes on under such a system, eve

          • I want my flying car. Now! It was promised ages ago.

            Given the amount of money that our civilisation wastes in all sorts of ways there is no real reason why we can't do both. It is all politics.

            I doubt very much if we would even know about our impending climatic and ecosystem breakdown if it wasn't for them there sat-e-lites that go a whizzing around the planet.

          • by bryan1945 (301828) on Sunday April 22, 2012 @02:59AM (#39760775) Journal

            Or we could, you know, do both. Radical idea, I know.

          • We have enough water in the oceans that we won't miss the tiddly bit used for fuel, especially when most of it will fall back to earth as rain anyhow! As to the rest of your rant! Nothing can be recycled 100%, you are going to have to add a bit now and then to make up the difference! One fair sized nickle-iron asteroid contains more iron than man has mined in his whole existence, to say nothing of Carbonaceous Chondrites, Hydrocarbons from Jupiter and Saturn systems and Water and volatiles from Comets! The
      • by jamstar7 (694492) on Saturday April 21, 2012 @07:02PM (#39758921)
        Well, you know what they say in real estate: Location, location, LOCATION.

        I'm thinking they don't want to bring 'Mineral X' down to Earth unless it's in ton lots. What they want is, the materials right where they are, in space, where they will provide materials to work with in space. Yes, it could take $2.6 billion to bring a random 500 ton asteroid to lunar orbit. It would cost over 10 billion to launch that 500 tons into orbit at the current guestimated going rate of $10,000 per pound. What can you do with 500 tons of materials in orbit? Lots of things. 500 tons of very high grade iron ore, the purity of which we haven't seen on Earth in almost a millenium, would make the basis for the frame of a decent sized space station. For comparison, the ISS at full buildout is about 37 billion plus overruns and weighs in approximately 450 tons plus about 13 billion so far in supplies etc to date. Grabbing a carbonaceous asteroid could offset some of that 13 billion on the 'next-gen' space stations, when we learn to 'convert' that carbon into foodstuffs in space.

        Sure, we'd need to put a smelter assembly in orbit to refine the metals & scavange the carbon/etc from any asteroid, but add a machine shop as well, adn we can duplicate the factory complex and build out from there, at ZERO boost from Earth costs. Again, why would we want to send asteroidal material to Earth when we need it so badly in space?
        • by Ihmhi (1206036) <i_have_mental_health_issues@yahoo.com> on Saturday April 21, 2012 @07:56PM (#39759205)

          Exactly.

          First, on the marketing side... let's say that gold from an asteroid has a slightly different chemical composition than gold from planet Earth. IANA geologist, but you can tell (chemically) where a diamond came from, so wouldn't you be able to tell whether gold came from an Asteroid or from Terra Firma? Either way (chemical signature or not), they can bring down a few hundred tons of "Space Gold" and Debeers can tell husbands that only the men who really love their women will buy space gold at a 500% markup.

          Secondly, what if they can pull in materials that are a bitch to find here? It is possible that it might be easier to dump something from orbit rather than try to hunt it down and dig it up on Earth.

          Lastly, this is necessary prep for the future. As the parent post said, it's kind of necessary for eventually working in space. It'd be way easier to mine and refine metals out in space for a moon base or space station than it would to bring everything up from Earth.

          • by dbIII (701233) on Sunday April 22, 2012 @12:28AM (#39760347)

            let's say that gold from an asteroid has a slightly different chemical composition than gold from planet Earth

            It looks like US science education has jumped the shark. Notice he didn't write isotope so there's no excuse there, and there's nothing wrong with his written English which indicates at least a high school graduate if not more. Maybe we need to get bands to wear those periodic table t-shirts on MTV or something.

            • by Ihmhi (1206036)

              This is one of the things I really don't like about Slashdot, to be honest. I have a passing interest in chemistry - the last time I undertook any serious study of the subject was almost a decade ago in high school.

              I guess knowing the intricacies of covalent bonds and isotopes is really critical to my everyday life!

              I like coming to Slashdot because we have a wide variety of geeks here. Someone can go off on a tangent about, I don't know, toaster ovens and there will be people in here talking about whether H

        • by artfulshrapnel (1893096) on Saturday April 21, 2012 @08:12PM (#39759285)

          Don't forget about real-estate. A 500 ton asteroid would have nearly as much interior space as the ISS, so all you have to do is hollow the thing out (selling the resulting materials of course) then seal it, brace it, and bolt on some air tanks and maneuvering thrusters. You've constructed the world's roomiest space station!

          Also, the water content of those meteors is worth a fortune in and of itself. Ice chunks + solar powered electrolysis = rocket fuel worth a minimum of $10,000 per pound by virtue of not needing to be launched with the ship.

          What do you want to bet this asteroid retrieval system will be configured to use a hydrogen/oxygen engine of some kind? They could refill and relaunch it off the first asteroid for a fraction of the original launch costs!

          • by sjbe (173966) on Saturday April 21, 2012 @10:34PM (#39759961)

            Also, the water content of those meteors is worth a fortune in and of itself. Ice chunks + solar powered electrolysis = rocket fuel worth a minimum of $10,000 per pound by virtue of not needing to be launched with the ship.

            The economics are nowhere near that simple. Let's say you have a big store of rocket fuel up there and ignore (for a moment) the cost of obtaining it. Then what? You still need payload which mostly has to come from Earth and the key processing equipment which also has to come from Earth. You haven't escaped the cost of the launch, you've simply added to the complexity and thus the cost.

            Then there is the problem of actually developing the technology to mine and process these resources. We don't have industrial scale factories that are space worthy. Even if we did, they still have to be launched into space. We don't even have anyone working on them because there is no reasonable prospect of a return on investment. To get financing you have to have a product you can sell back here on earth and there is very little prospect of an economic return in the reasonably near future. Most of the economic benefits to the private sector are indirect ones (spinoff technologies, etc) for the foreseeable future.

          • by symbolset (646467) * on Sunday April 22, 2012 @12:50AM (#39760415) Journal

            You're right about the water. But a 500 ton asteroid is about 7 meters in diameter. The linked pdf is really neat - it's got a lot of interesting details. Once you build it into a space station, yeah, then it'll be as big as the ISS.

            You are correct about the hydrox fuel also, sort of. The first one has to be Xenon, but they did figure they'd need about 40 tons of LH2/LO2 to bring back 1000 tons of asteroid that is about 40% water. So successive trips can be done with LH2/LO2 once you've got a boat and some fuel, and of course if you can use part of the asteroid itself for fuel.... With LH2/LO2 you can also bring back much larger asteroids. Or you can go down to the moon and get unlimited water from the moon's poles at that point. It becomes an energy problem only, rather than both a materials and energy problem.

            I've been thinking about Ceres. That one is entirely covered in ice (more water than all the Earth's oceans). If you're refining water into rocket fuel all you have to do is get your gear out there and Ceres has the fuel for the return trip. The upside is that we don't have to find it. We know where that one is. The DAWN mission is about to go out that way. (am not talking about bringing back the whole minor planet, just some water). Surface gravity is just .03g, so landing and blasting off is no big deal. The downside is that it's not a near-earth asteroid so travel time is a drag. But there's no limit to how much water you can bring back.

            Once you have an unlimited fuel depot in orbit around the moon though you can do some really neat things. Manned craft only have to get to LEO, and can be met with the rest of the fuel they need to go anywhere in the Solar system. Things like habitat modules could be lifted to LEO, where they're met by robot rockets that can move them into whatever place we want them. Not having to launch with all the fuel, water and air for the whole trip opens up everything. Maybe some robotic gardens or something could be arranged as well. That would be really cool.

            I'm getting very excited about this project. I am told that the project is for real, though the other stuff above is speculation.

      • by Chris Mattern (191822) on Saturday April 21, 2012 @07:12PM (#39758961)

        What are they going to find on a rock in space that is not already available on THIS rock in space?

        Raw materials that aren't at the bottom of a gravity well.

      • by poly_pusher (1004145) on Saturday April 21, 2012 @07:35PM (#39759075)
        Actually that is completely incorrect. Many asteroids in the solar system have been shown to contain as much iron ore as has been mined in the history of human industrialization as well as many other exotic and precious metals that are very rare on earth. There are many reasons to consider mining asteroids. It is actually a very important step in the progress of our society. When we stop stripping the earth of resources and move both extraction and manufacturing off our own planet we have a huge opportunity to sustain the quality of our environment, develop lower cost means of transporting materials on and off this planet because there is a financial incentive, and access exotic materials that are increasingly part of electronics.

        Remember, most the metal in this planet is below the crust. The metals we do have in the crust is from the lower levels of the earth squirting little bits out every now and then. An asteroid does not have that problem.
      • by Dogbertius (1333565) on Saturday April 21, 2012 @07:41PM (#39759119)
        This is to prevent a new ice age. We simply mine big chunks of ice off of Halley's comet and drop it into the ocean every 75.3 years. That should keep us going until 3003.
      • Let's look at the real numbers.

        The asteroid belt is over a THOUSAND times further from the Earth than the Moon is. It's over 200 million miles away.

        The asteroids in the asteroid belt are about SIXTEEN times further BETWEEN THEM than the distance from the Earth to the Moon.

        What that means is that going from asteroid A to asteroid B is about the same distance as going from Earth orbit to the Moon
        and back to Earth orbit
        and back to the Moon
        and back to Earth orbit
        and back to the Moon
        and back to Earth orbit
        and ba

        • Who said anything about going to the asteroid belt? There are hundreds of asteroids classed as "near Earth" that would be significantly easier to get to and from.
        • Yes, it's a long way. Farther than to the chemist's, even. But it doesn't really matter so long as we have some patience. What matters is energy production mass and reaction mass, and both of these can be reduced to quite low levels if we are willing to take enough time to do the transfer. With current or near future solar technology and ion drives, it is feasible.

          See this on applied chaotic orbits: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interplanetary_Transport_Network [wikipedia.org]

        • by FatLittleMonkey (1341387) on Sunday April 22, 2012 @09:26AM (#39762019)

          then you do not have a grasp of how far away the asteroids are.

          If you: a) Think that all asteroids are in the belt between Mars & Jupiter. And b) think of space in terms of distance, not fuel/velocity/energy. Then you don't understand enough to comment.

      • by TheRaven64 (641858) on Sunday April 22, 2012 @08:13AM (#39761657) Journal
        Less government regulation on mine safety and pollution? Probably going to be a problem once they start trying to deliver tons of rock from orbit, although possibly people trying to deliver tons of rock from orbit are in a strong negotiating position...
    • by Grishnakh (216268)

      Did you miss the part where it's going to be put into orbit around the moon?

      Honestly, I think Slashdot has even stupider, more closed-minded people than the Westboro Baptist Church and the people who attend the Creationist Museum. For a place that's supposed to be a hang-out for tech-heads, the people here are pathetic.

      • Don't you understand? One non-technical paragraph is enough for me to make a completely informed decision about what a group of scientists does.

        I don't even have to have studied any of that because I can use a mixture of quick, logic, common sense and, If I feel really smart, maybe even google something.

    • And when the mission makes a mistake and an asteroid goes plummiting into a major city it will cause trillions of dollars in damage and massive loss of life and potentially create a cloud of dust that will cause an ice age.

      The former would probably require the mission planners suddenly forgetting Newton's and Kepler's laws en masse and all the trajectory-calculating computers to burn out simultaneously. For the latter, a 500 t asteroid is too lightweight.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      The diameter of earth is less than 13'000 km. The distance between earth and moon varies (elliptical path) but even when the moon is at its closest, the distance is more than 363'000 km. That's nearly 30 times the diameter of earth. This picture [trickofmind.com] illustrates it pretty well. I think that a lot of people fail to grasp that scale due to having seen very deceiving images of the solar system (all planets and the sun presented relatively close to each other) at the classroom walls when they were young.

      Even factori

  • by olsmeister (1488789) on Saturday April 21, 2012 @06:27PM (#39758655)
    Do they understand what this would do to the price of gold (not to mention platinum and palladium)? Most of the gold bugs make themselves feel good about their investment with the mantra 'you can't print gold.' It's trading in the stratosphere as it is, and the Wolfram Alpha link in TFS uses the current commodity price of gold.
    • by Larson2042 (1640785) on Saturday April 21, 2012 @07:03PM (#39758923)
      They're not going to have the 20% gold problem, anyways. If you had bothered to read the study, you would have known that the asteroids targeted would be C-type, which are full of useful volatiles and organics that can be turned into handy things like water, and hydrogen, and oxygen (which also happen to be pretty good rocket fuels). Any asteroid mining isn't going to be returning stuff to earth. It's going to be using it for other purposes IN ORBIT. That's where the profit comes in: you don't have to launch 500 tons into lunar orbit at today's launch prices.

      Plus, that 2.6 billion cost estimate was for a "Prime contractor design, test & build based on NASA-provided specs" with NASA insight/oversight. I'd be willing to bet that a wholly private effort could do a similar mission at a cost quite a bit less than that. (I would also point you to the NASA study that stated the cost difference between SpaceX's Falcon 9 and a NASA developed Falcon 9 was more than half [scientificamerican.com].)
  • by Fippy Darkpaw (1269608) on Saturday April 21, 2012 @06:28PM (#39758659)
    First, there are other uses for an asteroid in orbit with thrusters on it. Namely, ramming comets or asteroids on a collision course with earth. Second, why bring the resources to earth? They can be used for orbital construction.
  • Ultor Corporation. or maybe UAC.
    • by Apothem (1921856)
      More likely UAC, because you are the demons when it comes to towing around a gigantic rock.... I suppose. Okay okay, yeah the cost of doing all of this the first time is unlikely to be profitable. However, the first time doing stuff like this hardly ever is in the immediate short term. Think about our first missions to the moon, just the technology we got in the process of those initial missions made future missions possible because of the amount of spinoff of new ideas from this one endeavor. If they mana
  • Why the moon? Why not bring it into low orbit around earth? What could possibly go wrong?

    Seriously though, gold is a bubble metal. It has very limited practical value and is desirable only because it's desirable. Bring back billions of tons of the stuff and it ceases to be desirable, or at least will be no more special than iron or uranium. Mining an asteroid actually uses up real resources so is not a paper shuffling exercise that creates financial paper products. It had better result in something ac

    • by ceoyoyo (59147)

      The summary added the gold bit. It's very unlikely they're planning on mining gold (exclusively). They're probably going to mine an asteroid for everything they can get out of it - every metal and mineral you can think of. I seriously doubt they're going to do a 500 ton asteroid either (unless it's as a demonstration). If you can move a 500 ton asteroid, you can move a 5000 ton one, and their press release specifically talked about adding "trillions" of dollars to the global GDP.

      Not to mention a cheap s

  • Ohhhhhh! (Score:5, Funny)

    by mbadolato (105588) on Saturday April 21, 2012 @06:34PM (#39758709)

    Ross Perot Jr. (son of Ross Perot)

    Thanks for explaining that; we would have never figured it out on our own!

  • Awesome (Score:5, Insightful)

    by chuckymonkey (1059244) <charles.d.burton@NosPaM.gmail.com> on Saturday April 21, 2012 @06:35PM (#39758713) Journal
    If this does nothing else but push the science of rocketry and space travel further then I'm all for it. If they succeed though, I can't wait to see what comes next. Haters be damned, I love that people still want to explore and see what's out there. You can't move the species forward by taking no risk at all.
  • Aaa but what if it was 20% Unobtanium ?
  • Is not to particuarly mine for Earth, but for space. Having resources up there means not having to lift them from earth surface. And not only scientific space stations, or satellites, could be built up there, factories, solar panels and other ships could be built there too.
  • by daemonenwind (178848) on Saturday April 21, 2012 @06:45PM (#39758797)

    You only make a small part of the money involved in capturing an asteroid on commercially-viable minerals/metals like gold.

    What people will pay for a space rock is way more important than what people will pay for gold. A 500 ton asteroid could be 500 tons of rock. But that would make millions of lumps of Space Rock that could be sold by The Franklin Mint in a special collectors set.

  • by Larson2042 (1640785) on Saturday April 21, 2012 @06:48PM (#39758827)
    The study wasn't talking about mining the asteroid to return the material to Earth! The asteroid mass would be used to generate water, hydrogen, and oxygen (primarily) for use IN ORBIT, where it is far more valuable than returning x amount of minerals back to earth. It would also be used as a test bed for advancing mining tech, becoming more efficient, and driving down the cost of the next operation.
    However, long term, it could very well end up being economical to return materials to earth. If any initial effort at mining of materials that are useful in orbit succeeds, then there will be an existing industrial base for mining asteroids, and the incremental cost of the next one will be less. As mining methods are refined and become more efficient and the industrial capacity in orbit expands, it becomes possible to create more and more of what you need in orbit instead of launching it from earth (which is where much of the expense comes from). Then, when all you have to do is turn the less valuable parts of an asteroid into shipping containers, load it with the more valuable stuff, add an electric propulsion system, then it might be worth returning stuff to earth.
    But the bottom line is that mining asteroids is going to be most useful for getting lots of useful material in orbit (be it lunar or Lagrange points or whatnot) without having to go through the process of getting out of earth's gravity well.
  • Meanwhile (Score:3, Funny)

    by skipkent (1510) on Saturday April 21, 2012 @07:19PM (#39758997)

    A committee has asked Michael Bay to make a film depicting the worst case scenario of this project.

  • by gestalt_n_pepper (991155) on Saturday April 21, 2012 @08:05PM (#39759245)

    when we discover it's already been done.

  • SpaceX's costs (Score:5, Insightful)

    by WindBourne (631190) on Sunday April 22, 2012 @04:35AM (#39761063) Journal
    Just 6 years ago, many 'experts' claimed that SpaceX would never get off the ground. Likewise, if they DID get off the ground, they would have higher launch costs than all of the other subsidized nation's launch systems.

    Yet, here we are.
  • by Karmashock (2415832) on Sunday April 22, 2012 @07:13AM (#39761469)

    We have plenty of resources on earth as it is... where we lack them is in high earth orbit. Move the asteroid to high earth orbit and keep it there. Mine it there to build things in orbit for orbital use. That way they don't need to be launched.

    We need a source of resources off planet that are closer then the moon. A stepping stone. If we start moving asteroids into high earth orbit, cracking them for their resources, and turning them into the fuel for our space industry we can eliminate a lot of problems we're having with our gravity well. For one thing, we can use the waste material that we have no particular use for to insulate a better space station... one that doesn't allow so much radiation into the habitat.

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