'Asteroid mining company' makes classic hypegasm debut

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Baku, April 24 (AZERTAC). A group of wealthy advertising and software kingpins have allied themselves with celebrity auteur James Cameron and prominent "new space" business figures to launch a business focused on mining asteroids for precious resources.

As is common with Silicon Valley new-tech business launches, hypegasm media management techniques are in force. Last week news outlets around the globe were informed of a press briefing set to be released online later today, and now phase two - tailored, carefully managed releases to selected channels and publications ahead of the scheduled brief - is underway. And yes, as had been widely expected, Cameron and his collaborators are planning to mine asteroids. There are now enough details available to take a look at what will actually happen.

Alongside Cameron at the new venture we find advertising billionaires Larry Page and Eric Schmidt of Google renown, former Microsoft bigshot Charles Simonyi - also known for having made two trips to the International Space Station as a paying tourist - and Eric Anderson, who arranged Simonyi`s and other tickets for wealthy thrillseekers aboard Russian rockets as founder of the space-tourism firm Space Adventures. Also speaking for the new venture, Planetary Resources, is spacebiz visionary Peter Diamandis, well-known for his efforts in setting up the X-Prize Foundation and other space-boosting efforts such as the International Space University.

“We have a long track record of making large-scale space ventures real,” Diamandis tells Wired magazine - predictably one of the chosen outlets to receive advance briefing ahead of today`s announcement.

There are also some real space technology experts on board, however: former astronaut Tom Jones, former NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer Chris Lewicki, and planetary scientist Sara Seager are all advisers. Jones and Lewicki, in fact, helped to produce a recent NASA study on asteroid mining, which would seem likely to offer a window into Planetary Resources` aspirations.

In rough outline, the plan is not to head out in science-fiction style to the Asteroid Belt proper. The human race won`t be sending miners out beyond Mars any time soon.

Rather, the scheme would be to identify a so-called Near Earth Object (NEO) space rock orbiting much closer to home, that wouldn`t be as hard to reach or to bring stuff back from. The NASA study suggests that a robot ship of a size suitable for launch on a normal, workhorse Atlas V rocket could travel out to a practicably sized (7m long, perhaps 500-tonne-mass) rock and bring the entire thing into a handy orbit around the Moon. The robot capture craft would use solar-electrically powered, highly efficient Hall thrusters and would take perhaps two to six years to carry out its task at an estimated cost of $2.6bn.

Some asteroids are believed to be rich in valuable metals such as the platinum group. Platinum itself is trading at around $50,000 per kilo, so theoretically one would only need to produce 50 or 60 tonnes of metal to cover the costs of an asteroid capture.

Unfortunately the asteroid envisaged in the NASA study would need to be better than 10 per cent valuable metals to deliver such a yield, which seems highly unlikely: and we haven`t even factored in the costs of refining and of transporting ore, metals, equipment etc between Earth and lunar orbit.

Planetary Resources` only firmish plans start with sending up specially designed lightweight space telescopes to survey NEOs for promising mineral deposits. Promising rocks might then be surveyed more closely using the trendy-at-the-moment concept of "swarm" spacecraft, groups of small machines linked by wireless communications which could perhaps do the work of much larger and more expensive integrated platforms. Beyond that, Planetary Resources offer some vague videos suggesting robot crawler mining of some kind.


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