Planetary Resources is making cool stuff happen.

Via BlagHag, Phil Plait shares the news with us about the upcoming endeavors of space startup Planetary Resources, which has every intention of mining outer space for natural resources. Are we about to live in a science fiction novel? Oh yes. It appears we are, and it will be fierce.

THE PLAYERS INCLUDE but are not limited to James Cameron (yes, that one), Peter Diamandis of the X-Prize Foundation, and Eric Anderson, Chairman of the Board of the Spaceflight Federation. Basically, it sounds like these guys are serious about what they’re doing.

SO WHAT ARE THEY GOING TO DO?

In roughly sequential order, their grand plans are:

First, they’re not going to try to jump straight to digging minerals and precious metals out of asteroids, but rather…

Instead, they’ll make a series of calculated smaller missions that will grow in size and scope. The first is to make a series of small space telescopes to observe and characterize asteroids. Lewicki said the first of these is the Arkyd 101, a 22 cm (9″) telescope in low-Earth orbit that will be aboard a tiny spacecraft just 40 x 40 cm (16″) in size. It can hitch a ride with other satellites being placed in orbit, sharing launch costs and saving money (an idea that will come up again and again in their plans). This telescope will be used both to look for and observe known Near-Earth asteroids, and can also be pointed down to Earth for remote sensing operations.

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After that, once they’re flight-tested, more of these small spacecraft can be launched equipped with rocket motors. If they hitch a ride with a satellite destined for a 40,000 km (24,000 mile) geosynchronous orbit, the motor can be used to take the telescope — now a space probe — out of Earth orbit and set on course for a pre-determined asteroid destination. Technical bit: orbital velocity at geosync is about 3 km/sec, so only about an additional 1 km/sec is needed to send a probe away from Earth, easily within the capability of a small motor attached to a light-weight probe.

Many asteroids pass close to the Earth with a low enough velocity that one of these probes could reach them. Heck, some are easier to reach in that sense than the Moon! Any asteroid-directed probe can be equipped with sensors to make detailed observations, including composition. It could even be designed to land on the asteroid and return samples back to Earth, or leave when the observations are complete and head off to observe more asteroids up close and personal.

This stage does not sound very profitable, but this is what sets this group apart from a sci-fi villain of cartoon capitalism: they’re looking at the long game. The first stage is about figuring out what they’re dealing with, so that when they move on to more ambitious, more expensive, more invasive operations, they’ll know what they’re doing.

Next step is to make space exploration sustainable:

Once a suitable asteroid is found, the idea is not to mine it right away for precious metals to return to Earth, Lewicki told me, but instead to tap it for volatiles — materials with low boiling points such as water, oxygen, nitrogen, and so on, which also happen to be critical supplies for use in space.

The idea behind this is to gather these materials up and create in situ space supply depots. Water is very heavy and incompressible, so it’s very difficult to launch from Earth into space (Lewicki quoted a current price of roughly $20,000 per liter to get water into space). But water should be abundant on some asteroids, locked up in minerals or even as ice, and in theory it shouldn’t be difficult to collect it and create a depot. Future astronauts can then use these supplies to enable longer stays in space — the depots could be put in Earthbound trajectories for astronauts, or could be placed in strategic orbits for future crewed missions to asteroids. Lewicki didn’t say specifically, but these supplies could be sold to NASA — Planetary Resources would make quite a bit money while saving NASA quite a bit. Win-win.

$20k/liter to get water from Earth into space? Yikes.

I quite like the idea of using asteroids for space supplies, because we’re running kind of low on nice things like water and oxygen here on Earth. If we can dig up more of those things from places that aren’t trying to sustain life, then that both helps space exploration pay for itself, thus making it more viable, and makes the effort less ecologically expensive for the planet that’s arranging space travel. As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, the concept of “sustainability” is very important to me, and this is an example of something very big and expensive practicing sustainability.

Third stage is effectively making our planet bigger:

The last step is to actually get the precious minerals from the asteroids and bring them to Earth. The exact setup for this isn’t clear at this time — again, the press conference should reveal that — but for the moment it may not really need to be. There are several options.

I’m sure that in the ensuing years of sending small spacecraft around to piggyback on satellites, they will figure out efficient ways of getting minerals down here.

I, for one, look forward to the era when I can buy electronics made from raw materials that weren’t mined from conflict-ridden sections of Africa.

Finally, what is their motivation, if this is going to cost so much up front and take so long to turn a profit?

The vision of Planetary Resources is in their name: they want to make sure there are available resources in place to ensure a permanent future in space. And it’s not just physical resources with which they’re concerned. Their missions will support not just mining asteroids for volatiles and metals, but also to extend our understanding of asteroids and hopefully increase our ability to deflect one should it be headed our way.

This again was a topic I discussed with Lewicki specifically. He agreed with my proposition that all three topics — science, deflection, and resource use — are tied together. After all, we need to understand asteroids scientifically if we want to use them or prevent them from hitting us. We can use them for depots to establish better exploration of them, and sometime in the future we may need to deflect one to prevent all this from being a moot point anyway.

 To put it in fictional terms again: they want to give us a chance to live in a hopeful, triumphant sort of sci-fi novel, and minimize the risk of having to face the sci-fi apocalypse.