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Interplanetary Endeavors

Published on May 3, 2012 by in Columns

In last week’s column, I wrote about some amazing mathematical breakthroughs which had captured my attention.  This week, some breathtaking news is emerging from the world of science—news that could forever change the way we perceive Earth’s finite resources.

Last Tuesday in Seattle, a new company was formed with funding by a handful of billionaires.  With a little good fortune, it could one day make corporate titans like Apple and Google seem like the bush leagues.

It’s called Planetary Resources, and the startup has its eye on an asteroid called Amun 3554.  The M-Class (metal-bearing) asteroid is a little more than a mile wide, which is tiny in comparison to others.  But the latest scientific evidence suggests that Amun 3554 might contain $8 trillion worth of platinum, another $8 trillion in iron and nickel, and $6 trillion worth of cobalt.  If those metals can be extracted from the asteroid, that’s an estimated $20 trillion up for grabs.

Peter Diamandis

Peter Diamandis plans to mine near-Earth asteroids for precious metals.

The timing couldn’t be more symbolic.  Just as NASA’s space flight program grinds ceremoniously to a halt—with those striking images of space shuttle Discovery circling Washington, D.C.—private investors are stepping up to the plate.  Planetary Resources is funded by Google billionaires Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, along with “Avatar” director James Cameron, Microsoft veteran Charles Simonyi, and Ross Perot, Jr.

Planetary Resources is headed by Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X Prize Foundation.  The name might sound familiar to Southern New Mexicans—he was in the news a lot when Las Cruces hosted the X Prize Cup.  Speaking on his new startup, Diamandis said, “There are $20 trillion checks up there waiting to be cashed.”

I’ve got to admit, the prospect is exciting.  To think that there are these untapped, floating goldmines orbiting alongside us is, well, exhilarating.  But there’s also something frightening about destroying one—and the entirely-unforeseen chain reaction it might set into play, resulting in the total annihilation of life on Earth.  It seems like the plot of a James Cameron movie, actually.  Man’s greed drives him to mine precious metals from asteroids, interfering with our delicate gravitational equilibrium, sending Earth barreling toward the sun.  The underlying moral of the story is epic—nearly Biblical—and terrifying, albeit poetic.


Sure, it seems like something from a futuristic movie…

I trust that scientists are not expecting this to happen.  And the idea of mining platinum is alluring.  We Earthlings use platinum in jewelry, fuel cells, computers—and to manufacture commemorative phonograph wall-hangings when a band sells a bunch of records.  (Okay, those might not be made of real platinum.)  Only a few hundred tons of platinum are produced on Earth each year.

Amun 3554 is just the tip of the iceberg.  It’s just one of the asteroids on which scientists have conducted rigorous chemical analysis.  An asteroid called 1986 DA—another near-Earth asteroid that’s about the same size—is believed to contain 100,000 tons of platinum and 10,000 tons of gold.  Yeah, gold.

So that’s two of these near-Earth asteroids, of which nearly 9,000 have been discovered.  Only a few have been chemically analyzed, so the potential is almost incomprehensible.  Planetary Resources’ first phase will see the launch of space telescopes, which will handle all of the prospecting.  Then the mining process will begin, all of which will be conducted by (presumably-unmanned) robotic spacecraft.

This could be the beginning of something very, very big.  And as someone who was disheartened by the cessation of NASA’s space exploration, I’m a little relieved to see private investors rising to this challenge with such fervor.  Of course, a $20 trillion payday can motivate mankind to achieve just about anything.

Originally printed in “Pulse,” 05/03/2012.
© Damien Willis, 2012.  All rights reserved.

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