I’m about a week late talking about this, but I’ve mostly resigned myself to not doing really topical blogging these days. Anyway, there was a lot of excitement last week over the announcement that an all-star team of nerd billionaires is planning to do commercial asteroid mining. (The post title is a reference to the Sean Connery movie, not the post-Bloom County comic.) I find it kind of amusing that this made the news while I’m doing retrospective blog posts (the next of which is coming), which have turned up a bunch of old posts where I say skeptical things about space in general. So I sort of feel like I ought to say something, and give other people the chance to talk about it in comments.

All in all, I’m pretty much on board with Phil Plait’s cautious optimism. The three-stage plan they sketch out seems well considered, they have some plausible-sounding technology, and the principals involved are both seriously smart rich people and people who have shown a willingness to spend huge sums of money to achieve goals they find worthwhile. If this sort of project is ever going to work, this is the kind of team you want working on it.

My primary initial reaction to this was not so much excitement at the idea of asteroid mining per se, because there are a huge number of things that have to fall out the right way for that to work. What struck me as interesting about the initial plan is the first stage, where they plan to launch some unspecified number of small space telescopes. The idea is to use these to detect, identify, and try to determine the composition of asteroids passing relatively near the Earth, but this strikes me as the sort of thing that’s likely to turn out to have some scientific benefit that isn’t part of the original plan. They’re not very large (9″ diameter is the spec that keeps getting thrown around), so I’m not quite sure what you’d do with them, but I’m pretty sure that if you gave a bunch of astronomers access to a whole bunch of these, they’d find something interesting to do. Actual astronomers are invited to chime in in the comments.

(The “can be turned toward the Earth” aspect of those seems slightly more problematic, though the resolution wouldn’t be all that great. If I’m doing the math right, from the low-ish orbit of the ISS, they’d be able to resolve ~1m objects on the Earth’s surface, and only around ~100m from geosynchronous orbit, so this isn’t a total panopticon scenario.)

Anyway, I wish them luck, and I’m interested to see what comes of this.

Comments

  1. #1 Lurker #753
    April 30, 2012

    Given the size and low mass, these may not be targettable, just tidally stabilised and staring/sweeping across the sky. Flying a large number of them tends to confirm that.

    They are most unlikely to be able to see anything on the ground – the ground-track speed of LEO satellites requires either a specifically engineered tracking mode or extremely short exposure times. The engineering work for ground tracking won’t be done, and they don’t have the collecting area for short exposures. Phil Plait said he has seen Hubble (100″ diam) earth-pointing calibration frames with objects visible streaking through them.

    Something else: Why build orbiting telescopes in the first place? The most likely reason is to observe asteroids inside the Earth’s orbit (daylight from the ground).

    If these are survey/scanning instruments, then astronomers don’t want to play with them…. they just want the data.

  2. #2 John Novak
    April 30, 2012

    Yeah, cautious optimism is about right– I meant to say something, too, but have been too busy. I *am* keen on asteroid mining as a general thing, because I think mining and refining are nasty, dangerous, polluting industries to have on earth. But that said, would I invest in these guys? Well, maybe if I were a billionaire and could lose a hundred million dollars without worrying about it. But I’m not.

    And while the plan seems as well conceived as such a thing reasonably can be, all things considered, they stopped just shy of giving me a cult-like impressions. Two things I specifically remember were:

    1) One of the investors saying (as close as I can remember) “We’re not betting on the horse, we’re betting on the jockey,” meaning to me, “I don’t know much about this rocket stuff, but these guys are smart and have a track record, so I gave them a lot of money.”

    2) Apparently, working for these guys is not a job, it’s a Way Of Life and you’ll have to sacrifice a lot (which I interpreted to mean, spend 100 hours a week) for the privilege. Yeah, no.

    That said, I had similar thoughts about having swarms of telescopes up there, if they all have independent motion. It seems like it would be relatively simple(*) to network them in ways that would enable Excessively Long Baseline Interferometry(**) right about the time we’re discovering that, yes, there really are big chunks of rock and gas orbitting lots and lots of stars.

    If not for the cult-like attitude, that alone would be a nifty research project to head up– it’s got radio coordination, distributed robotics, artificial intelligence, optics and telescopy….

    * Relative to what? A multi-billion dollar budget, and a multi-decade schedule that already encompasses getting hundreds of pieces of equipment off the ground.

    ** That’s now the official term for telescope arrays bigger than the planet

  3. #3 John Novak
    April 30, 2012

    Also, it is totally worth a few billion of someone else’s money to go pull a few hundred tons of gold and platinum back to earth and shut Ron Paul and his band of gold-worshipping lunatics up.

  4. #4 Jon Jones
    April 30, 2012

    The collection of raw materials from the asteroid belt could lead us down the path we SHOULD be on. We need to be outwardly focused as a civilization. If this project proves bountiful and other firms begin to pop up, along with the developments being made with companies like Space X we could easily see human expansion throughout the solar system in our lifetimes. Instead of relying on Congress who keep pushing back NASA’s proposed launch deadlines.

    Also, what is the issue if you have to put in extra hours to help develop man kinds first attempt at harnessing the potential of our solar neighborhood? When did blood, sweat, and tears become a turn off for scientists and adventurers? The practical application of the technologies developed in the first stage alone would be worth the investment. If you dont see the merit of attempting something new or if you just dont like the plan then say that outright. But to make comments that it is ‘Cult’-like and to refer to Ron Paul supporters make you seem childish and honestly slightly jealous. If I was a billionaire with no degree in physics or engineering but I found it interesting or I believed in the endeavors why wouldn’t I support a project like this? So what if they dont know how it works, they knew how to make money and there is way worse they could spend it on.

    Why not embrace the fact that these people are attempting to give back what was stolen from two generations of Americans. Hope for a human future in space.

  5. #5 Steinn Sigurdsson
    May 1, 2012

    Somebodies in NoCal spent their impressionable youths reading Flynn and Bova…

    Engineers have a strange view on telescopes and astronomers – they seem to think research astronomers have huge magic sources of money they use to buy data – data costs money, so does analysis of data – a lot of astronomer’s reactions would be that they’d take a look at Planetary Resources data if Planetary Resources paid them to do so, no prob.

  6. #6 Matt Bright
    May 1, 2012

    Why not embrace the fact that these people are attempting to give back what was stolen from two generations of Americans

    Where was it written that Americans owned ‘a future in space’ in the first place?

    Hope for a human future in space.

    There’s barely any hope for a human future on earth at the moment. Certainly for lots and lots of individual humans whose would stand to gain very little, and potentially even lose a lot from this sort of activity. Shall we sort that out, perhaps, before we decide that we want to inflict ourselves on the rest of the universe?

    In other words, and as usual, this, basically: http://scruss.com/blog/2008/09/22/speaks-to-my-condition/

  7. #7 Chad Orzel
    May 1, 2012

    Also, what is the issue if you have to put in extra hours to help develop man kinds first attempt at harnessing the potential of our solar neighborhood? When did blood, sweat, and tears become a turn off for scientists and adventurers?

    It’s fine to build a system that requires superhuman efforts on the part of the people involved if your only goal is to get somewhere and say “First!” like an idiot commenter on a media web site. It’s not sustainable, though. You can do a proof-of-principle demonstration using True Belieers who are willing to work 100 hours a week and lose millions in the process, but if you want to make a useful business out of it, whatever you’re doing needs to be doable by people who put in 40-ish hours a week and have kids and hobbies and are just in it for the paycheck.

    Engineers have a strange view on telescopes and astronomers – they seem to think research astronomers have huge magic sources of money they use to buy data – data costs money, so does analysis of data – a lot of astronomer’s reactions would be that they’d take a look at Planetary Resources data if Planetary Resources paid them to do so, no prob.

    My speculation that this would be of interest to astronomers is based on the unstated assumption that Planetary Resources would offer them the use of the non-asteroid data for free (because what do they care?), and that given that opportunity some clever astro type would come up with an idea that could be done using existing grad students, or possibly generate funding for new ones.

    There’s barely any hope for a human future on earth at the moment. Certainly for lots and lots of individual humans whose would stand to gain very little, and potentially even lose a lot from this sort of activity. Shall we sort that out, perhaps, before we decide that we want to inflict ourselves on the rest of the universe?

    And then this overshoots in the opposite direction of the first quoted comment by roughly the same amount. So, I guess we’re on point in an average sense, if nothing else…

  8. #8 John Novak
    May 1, 2012

    My basic problem is with this: So what if they dont know how it works, they knew how to make money….

    I’ve heard variations on that theme too many times from management that didn’t deign to understand what they were managing. It is a warning sign that someone– maybe not the whole team, but someone– is in a reality distortion field. The bit about the type of worker they’re looking for was a similar red flag.

    So, while I support the general idea and certainly hope that they succeed, there is a difference between moral support and material support. Happily, they’re a private company and not really asking me for material support, anyway.

  9. #9 Art
    May 1, 2012

    Many of this sort seem to have have a ‘throw money and make it happen’ mindset. A lot of those made their money from software and internet operation. The first means you get people who are not used to being constrained by physical realities, the hard physics of spaceflight, and have very little idea of the scale of such an undertaking. The second is that your looking at ‘idea’ guys who may have no idea the tidal wave of details involved, nor the possible costs/risks when you talking about life-critical systems.

    It will be interesting to see how they handle their first ‘lost in space’ event. Governments with space programs are able to stop everything, stage a protracted rescue effort, or, given a death, reassess the situation, and spend billions to correct or address issues. How does a for-profit corporation do that with investors demanding timely progress?

    Consider that it is the government that organizes, equips, and runs the mine rescue teams that go into private mines. It is the government that finances the immediate rescue efforts. They may be reimbursed but regulation, safety, and rescue are tasks the private sector has never shown any ability or willingness to undertake.

    I would expect the first few missions to be undertaken with very high standards for safety and reliability. I also expect that standards will fall in time. We saw this in the shuttle program and they were not under the sort of pressure private industry can get. Standards approaching what we see in present day terrestrial mining and industrial operations are possible. In which case the body count is going to rise considerably. And it isn’t just miners and pilots who pay. Business is often a matter of privatizing profits and socializing liabilities. Contemplate a possible mass casualty event with that understanding.

    These are the same sort of people who applied high finance to the housing bubble, harvested obscene profits, but claimed they were the victims of an ‘evil government plot’ when the whole thing blew up. Then they shamelessly demanded that they be bailed out and had a temper tantrum and sulk when it was gently suggested that they might have to act like adults and take just a little bit of the blame.

    All these issues: what is an acceptable level of safety, who gets to make that call, and who pays if things go south in a big way are up in the air.

    Yes, as much of this as possible will be done with robots, A good thing, but even if men are only in low-earth orbit there are still huge risks. Accident will happen.

    How do we interpret these press releases? Exactly how much serious study and planning has been done? Is this the serious investment of tens of millions of dollars it would take to seriously study the issue, or is this just a bunch of rich clown drawing pictures on napkins after a four martini lunch?

    It sounds like it has progressed past the napkin stage but, then again, the reports have been filtered through, toned up, and tweaked by several layers of executive assistants, and public relation droids. Given a fair bit of professionalism and talent on their part drunken ramblings might sound like high art and engineering genius. That they don’t sound like high art and engineering genius might be a clue as to the sort of raw material they started with.

    If this is a serious effort I wish them well. It still could just be an investment scam. Or it may end up as a massive failure requiring a huge taxpayer financed effort to clean up. It took decades of massive government research ,investment, and continuous subsidies to build a technological and organizational base for commercial aviation. It is still taxpayers who build airports, maintain and run air-traffic control, establish engineering and maintenance standards, and investigate crashes. But even with this massive leg up and continuous subsidy commercial airlines have trouble showing a profit.

    If you can’t get it done in the earth’s atmosphere how is this going to work outside it? The odds of this turning into a huge physical and financial crater seems much higher than it turning into a going commercial concern that can stand on its own. I won’t be investing in it but have laid in a supply of popcorn to munch on while I spectate.

  10. #10 John Novak
    May 1, 2012

    To be fair, their plan relies on robotic craft, not on human beings with pick-axes on asteroids. So the rescue issue is moot. Likewise, they’re not talking about IPOs, so their pack of angry investors is small, not large.

    They’re also pretty up front about the notion that they’re going to screw up now and again– not so much with the catastrophic consequences, but with the loss of equipment, etc. Insurance and liability contracts are good tools to work that angle, too. SpaceX payloads are insured, too, so it’s not completely unheard of.

  11. #11 Art
    May 1, 2012

    John Novak @10 – Sorry, but you are wrong. As many of the jobs as possible are planned as being done by robot but we are still talking about people in earth orbit and, if they later go with orbiting the moon as a processing station, people on the moon. Last I looked launching people into earth orbit wasn’t without risk.

    Also the idea you can neutralize risk with insurance is simply false. Credit default swaps were going to protect the housing sector from mortgage defaults. Worked out great. Consider the costs and liabilities we are talking about. Consider the major risks private insurance companies won’t touch.

    Flood insurance is all taxpayer money. Increasingly hurricane insurance in Florida is only available through government run insurance programs. When the chips are down and costs are high private insurance bravely runs away.

    SpaceX hasn’t done more than show it can build and fire a couple of rockets without payloads. This may change on May 7 when they launch their Dragon capsule, if they don’t have another delay. Both Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are long on image and short on substance.

    With asteroid mining we are into the billions in costs and liability for failure. Possibly tens of billions as the program grows. This is going to end up, at the very least, as a government backed insurance program. Count on it. Odds are the entire program will end up with smiling ‘free market’ faces up front while the back end is taxpayer funded. Look for this to be obscured as tax breaks and hidden subsides.

    Profits privatized; liabilities socialized. Same as it ever was. It is impossible to be too cynical about this. One day I hope to be proved wrong. I’ve become old and tired waiting for these sorts of free-market cornucopias to rain down their fruits.

  12. #12 Paul
    May 2, 2012

    There’s barely any hope for a human future on earth at the moment.

    Things are looking pretty good for increasing numbers of people around the world, even in Africa. But I realize it’s hip to be all gloomy.

  13. #13 Povinne Ruceni
    May 2, 2012

    It is vision of future

  14. #14 Matt Bright
    May 3, 2012

    Things are looking pretty good for increasing numbers of people around the world, even in Africa. But I realize it’s hip to be all gloomy.

    They will get considerably worse if, say, a small cartel of billionaires from a single country has control of what may end up as the world’s primary water supply. Our currently dominant mode of social organisation, in power terms, is quite conspicuously failing a large portion of the human race. It needs replacing, not expanding.

    And if it can’t be replaced – if it is, indeed, a deep function of our primate natures to which, as the propagandists say, There Is No Alternative, then I’m not sure we have sufficient value to the universe to bother making such strenuous efforts to avoid our near-inevitable extinction.

  15. #15 John Novak
    May 3, 2012

    …Wait, what?

    You think there is a possibility that asteroid mining is going to end up as the world’s primary water supply?

  16. #16 Matt Bright
    May 3, 2012

    If climate change has anything to do with it then yes, quite possibly. Or at least, it will end up tipping the balance in the inevitable water wars – if successful.

    Of course, it’s not going to be successful for all of the reasons eloquently stated in earlier posts. But if it is, the moral consequences are going to be largely negative. If our expansion beyond the planet is going to be done on a basis of market capitalism, it’s possibly better if it weren’t done at all.

  17. #17 papabear
    May 5, 2012

    john novak keep your partisan fanboy attitude out of the discussion jeez.Im so sick of every one turning every single damn topic into who they have a hard on for politically.

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