Planetary Resources

Crowdfunded satellite an early step towards mining trillions of dollars of platinum from asteroids

Crowdfunded satellite an early step towards mining trillions of dollars of platinum from asteroids

Humans prize rarity, but technology often changes what is valuable, and what is a commodity. It's said that Napoleon III used to provide his most honored guests with aluminum cutlery as a sign of his great wealth, as aluminum was one of the rarest and most expensive metals of his day. Today we fly in aluminum tubes, and the metal is used in everyday objects.

Now we have different metals that are prized for their rarity, including platinum, one of the rarest elements on Earth. Planetary Resources has a solution for that problem, and it’s a little bit more ambitious than simply refining our existing mining operations. The group is hoping to put machinery on asteroids, mine platinum and other metals in enormous quantities, and send them back to Earth.

But first they want to know if you’d like to help pay for a telescope.

This is happening soon

During my recent trip to Iceland I was able to sit down with Chris Lewicki, the president of Planetary Resources. He was there as part of the “Make EVE Real” lecture series, where experts talked about the concepts of EVE Online coming to real life. I told him how excited I was that my children might benefit from his work with asteroids. He interrupted me; this has nothing to do with our children, and everything to do with the present day.

“We’re going to land hardware on an asteroid by the beginning of the next decade,” he said. “We have to find the right one first.” He paused for a moment.

“Actually we probably don’t care if it’s the right one, we’ll land something on it anyway. When it comes to extracting stuff, then that will be the case. This is very close,” he stated.

The scientific and financial backing of Planetary Resources is impressive and substantial. James Cameron is an advisor. Google CEO Larry Page is an investor, as is Ross Perot Jr. The possibilities for for future wealth are near infinite; platinum group metals are rare, and expensive to mine. One 500 meter asteroid rich in platinum group metals could contain more platinum than has been mined in all of human history. There are 2,500 near-Earth asteroids that are larger than 500 meters.

The solutions to the problems on space mining and metal retrieval sound like science fiction. There is existing technology that can provide capsules to send back these slugs of platinum and platinum-group metals, but Planetary Resources is also researching ways to make “platinum wiffle balls,” a way to create balls of platinum with a low ballistic co-efficient. It would hit the atmosphere, slow down rapidly, and land safely.

The near-Earth asteroid 2011 UW158 (sexy name!) is an attractive target for mining, and the group estimates its worth at between $300 billion to $5.4 trillion dollars. Estimated travel time for their equipment to reach the asteroid? Under a year. Lewicki said that the first trillionaire will be made by the collection of space assets.

This is where things get interesting; if Planetary Resources is able to send giant slugs of platinum back to Earth, it would no longer be a rare material, but instead a commodity. The boon to commerce could be huge.

“It allows us to use the right material for the job, all the time. Instead of using a substitute that’s not as nice as the real thing, or only having plating of the material, having platinum-group metals in abundance… we won’t be able to predict what will become of it,” Lewicki told me.

“We couldn’t have predicted having flying tubes of aluminum in the 1850s, or that there would be pocket computers, or even what a computer is,” he continued. “For me it’s the possibility that’s exciting. You need a great catalyst with a high melting temperature? Platinum. Here you go. You don’t have to pay $60,000 a kilogram for it.”

The government, platinum, and the American west

The industrial and scientific benefits of a world made of platinum could be many, and it’s very possible this group could control platinum as a commodity. So once they bring a few trillion dollars worth of platinum onto the Earth… how does that work? Do they owe taxes? Is it income?

“I’m sure that we do,” Lewicki said, laughing. “In the early days of prospecting, and even settling the American west, there was this notion of the Homestead Act. That was about building up the railroads, and building the communities to settle it. The US government said that we’ll give you some land, if you make good use of it, you get to keep it. But after a while, you have to pay some property tax. That cost the government nothing to do, what they’re doing is allowing the frontier people, these settlers, to develop the land and make it a better place.”

Lewicki believes there will be something like a space Homestead act, where the government allows companies to mine asteroids, make a claim on objects in space, and after a time, once those resources are being used, tax the income being made from the effort.

“You can see a case where they say: you go up, find an asteroid, do these certain things, and we will let you have a right to use that asteroid for the next hundred years, fifty years, whatever that might be. And after that we’re going to tax you,” he explained.

These are the end goals, and of course the investors are hoping to get rich while the scientists are happy having funding to get into space and explore… not that they mind the money as well.

For now the group is raising money to launch a space telescope called Arkyd, and anyone can back the project on Kickstarter and gain use of the telescope, or donate time to educational for scientific uses. It’s a clever way to offset the cost of the technology; who doesn’t want to have even a tiny bit of control over a space telescope? Plus, by having our picture taken by the satellite, with the plant in the background, we get a taste of the overview effect, the feeling of understanding that we’re all tied together by this tiny ball in space we call Earth. This could help get more people used to funding, and benefiting from, space travel.

But don't fall into the trap of thinking this is all about finding rogue asteroids, sharing a sense of wonder, and protecting the Earth. This satellite will be used to look for asteroids that are likely to be rich sources of platinum. The fun stuff is just a neat byproduct that helps to make the Kickstarter attractive. The final goal, as it tends to be, is resources.

“This is all about having a slice of the pie,” Lewicki told me of mining asteroids. “The Earth is this pie that we’ve been living on for all our existence, and we’re worried about smaller and smaller pieces. Well, we have a great solution here, we can just get another pie. That’s really what space resources are about.”

I look down at my platinum ring, and I feel like Napoleon.