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.