Explore the dissolving boundary between science and science fiction with news from the front lines of discovery and imaginative speculation on how each one could change our world.
A startup company called Deep Space Industries just released its plan to mine raw materials from asteroids. Last year, another new company called Planetary Resources announced similar intentions. The extracted materials, including water, metals, and volatile chemicals, would be used to make fuel and parts for satellites.
Each company is approaching the challenge in a different way. Planetary Resources intends to begin by launching telescopes into Earth orbit to scout potential mining targets. Deep Space Industries will take a more hands-on –well, robotic hands– approach, sending cheap spacecraft to explore specific asteroids. These “Firefly” missions (no relation to the TV series) would begin as soon as 2015, succeeded by “Dragonfly” craft that could mine up to 100 pounds of material and bring it back to Earth.
With approximately 9,500 asteroids near earth and 1,000 more joining the ranks each year, there should be enough targets for everyone, assuming the plans ever get off the ground.
This could be tomorrow’s favorite corporate rivalry. Coca-Cola vs. Pepsi is so last century; let’s see two mining titans slugging it out over who gets to dig bits of ore from hurtling space rocks.
Even with an ample supply of asteroids, you can imagine competition for the richest targets. One word – sabotage! Destroying equipment, wooing away talented employees, and heavy corporate espionage might become just part of doing business.
Still, consider the potential profits for a successful asteroid mining enterprise. With Earth’s resources already dwindling and few signs of changes to our consumption habits, we may be forced to rely on extra-planetary supplements in the near future. If continuity of civilization depended on cosmic imports, the company providing them would wield an enormous amount of power.
Currently, the mining plans seem to involve purely remote equipment, but what if human workers became necessary to pilot spacecraft or operate machinery in space? If they were paid a commission based on their haul, conflict would undoubtedly arise over rights to the best mining spot. Crews might push to dangerous limits in search of newer, richer asteroids. Then they’d get lost and find themselves on a sinister planet, where an alien life form comes aboard and begins hunting them down one by one…oh wait, that was a movie, not reality. At least for now.