Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Mining an Asteroid

Larry Page and James Cameron want to go to an asteroid and mine it. Well, strictly speaking, they want someone else to do it. Someone will set the explosives and wield the pickaxe and Larry and Jim will make the big bucks. Such is capitalism. But first Larry and J.C. have to get their miners there.
Mining asteroids isn’t easy. After all, it’s mostly rocket science. There is also the matter of staying on the asteroid when Newton’s third law of motion is trying to push you away with each strike of your pickaxe. But these are small problems.
Two bigger problems face those who would pursue commerce in space, speed and cost.
 Speed is a problem for two reasons. Firstly, if people are involved, speed matters because people get old, they get bored and they want to do other things than sit in a tin can while it makes imperceptible progress toward Mars or Jupiter or the asteroid belt. For space travel to be more than a scientific trifle, for it to make economic sense or social sense, people must be able to get where they are going fast, or at least subjectively fast.
 The second reason speed is a problem is because it is important to realize a return on your investment as soon as possible. No one is going to invest in a venture that doesn't pay back for fifty years. By the time you've made enough money to invest in space, then waited for the profits to come home, it’s too late to have any fun spending the profits. Speed is also important because stuff changes. If the price of gold is x dollars per ounce when you invest in an automated satellite to extract gold from an asteroid, it may be a fraction of that or a multiple of that when your money comes back to you. Too much risk. You need speed to reduce risk. Of course, you could set your gains up as a college fund for your grandchildren but human beings are notorious for wanting instant gratification and avoiding risk, and a fifty-year return doesn't meet these criteria.
 Cost matters because… well cost always matters. The reason we aren't all building rockets to the Moon is that it is just too darn expensive. The main challenge for private space ventures isn't getting into space, it is doing it cheaply. After the failure of the 'reusable shuttle' to save money, private space entrepreneurs are tackling the issue of reducing cost. And they are succeeding. That is why private space launches are becoming more popular, because they are cheaper. And over the next ten, twenty years, they will continue to become cheaper and more reliable. Once that happens, mining an asteroid is a feasible project.
So where are the stories in all this. Well, I think the speed of travel is already well addressed, mostly in those horrifically morbid movies about trips to Mars, and the more optimistic stories of generation ships. But most science-fiction doesn’t accept the speed, it gets rid of it with hyper-drives and wormholes. But there is still scope for stories about investments gone wrong or returns delayed. Actually, this has also been done I think, just think of those stories of medieval merchants waiting on a boatload of precious metals and rare spices to return from the Americas or the Far East. Just update the technology.
A story around the cost of spaceflight sounds mundane, but I think it could be done. The story would probably be about the technology that makes spaceflight cheaper, technologies such as spaceships grown as crystals, or living creatures, or designed by computer and perfected by evolutionary programs that eliminate unsafe or expensive design features.