Growing up I was always fascinated with Sci-Fi movies, and recently I’ve been reading more news that recent investments in space exploration may turn those fantasies into reality. The most recent and exciting news is the partnership of visionary director James Cameron (Avatar, Titanic) with the Google billionaires as financiers. It is called “Planetary Resources” and the vision is simple: mining the asteroids for their resources like gold and other valuable metals and transporting them back to Earth. It is an immensely costly project with complex logistics involved, and this has scared many government agencies (including NASA) all these years, so private enterprise backed by billionaires invested in this high risk – high return project.
This kind of deep space exploration also involves changing the way we think about fuel, logistics etc. so in order to make this kind of project possible scientists are already working on the feasibility of interplanetary gas stations. Without going into too much detail, a rocket has to travel close to 18,000 miles per hour to get out of the gravitational pull of the earth so in order to reach this kind of speed they need to burn a lot of fuel (close to 95%) and if the scientists behind this project can find a solution to this by setting propellant stations in Earth-Moon system then travelling between will be much more cost effective. In my research I found that even a 150 feet asteroid that is made up by 20% of ice carries enough liquid oxygen and this can be easily used as the necessary fuel for reaching the next target. Another interesting number that I came across, which kind of justifies this immense investment is that a 500 ton asteroid can contain more than 100 tons of water, more than 100 tons of carbon rich components and 90 tons of valuable metals like iron, cobalt etc. The valuable metals and minerals can be brought back to Earth for their commercial value and remaining water & energy can be utilized as fuel for the next trip, thus providing an abundant energy source. If harnessing this kind of fuel in space becomes available, the conservative estimate of the cost of deep space exploration can come down by factors of 100. Another approach developed by the California Institute of Technology is identifying potential asteroids with resources, robotically capturing them in space and bringing them close to earth so that mining can be done in a closer area.
Just like the many advantages of finding and harnessing the resources in space since no other beings claims those resources (yet), there are some threats involved as well. Let me explore one big problem with an example; it is estimated that a M type asteroid with diameter of only 0.6 miles can contain an iron-nickel ore amount that surpasses annual ore production or a relatively small metallic asteroid with 1 mile diameter may contain $20 trillion USD of valuable metals so considering bringing 500 times of one asteroid with this size can decrease the commercial value of metals significantly. In other words, certain metals like gold, silver etc are valuable cause they are not that abundant on Earth so once a company increases the supply, the commercial value comes down as a rule of basic economics. This is a big challenge that investors at Planetary Resources have to handle if they want to remain profitable after investing billions of dollars on a vision like this.