When people talk about "sustainability" it's a safe bet that they're talking in a strictly terrestrial manner. Harnessing the power of the sun with solar panels, harnessing the power of the wind with windmills, replacing this type of light bulb with that type of light bulb that lasts X times longer and uses X times less energy... But there are some people who set their sights a little higher. Enter Planetary Resources, co-founded by Eric Anderson and Peter H. Diamandis.
No strangers to space, Diamandis and Anderson are what is commonly known as "space entrepreneurs." Diamandis is the chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation, which runs competitions awarding the development of low-cost private spaceflight, as well as competitions for various other types of scientific breakthroughs. Anderson is an aerospace engineer and is the co-founder of Space Adventures, a commercial space flight company.
The aim of Planetary Resources is a bold, even romantic one. The company aims to fuel the future prosperity of mankind via the mining of near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) for various natural resources that are scarce down here on Earth. Asteroids, being largely made of the same stuff as our planet, contain many of these resources in abundance. Space, in turn, contains a nearly unlimited number of asteroids, which, if mined, could equal an incredibly lucrative venture.
An asteroid a third the size of a football field may contain anywhere from $25 billion to $50 billion dollars worth of platinum in today's prices. Easy access to nearly unlimited quantities of platinum and other rare metals, like palladium, could have a significant impact on the development and price of microelectronics, energy, and information storage, not to mention the innovations that a sudden surplus of materials could lead to.
But rare metals are the end game. There are many water-rich asteroids floating around in that great beyond, just waiting to be sucked dry. Easy access to water in space means renewable sources of extraterrestrial water and, when the hydrogen and oxygen molecules are separated, easily synthesized rocket fuel and breathable air, making large-scale space exploration that much easier.
The company's first move would be to launch mass-produced 9-inch space telescopes, dubbed the Arkyd Series 100, to identify NEAs that are smaller than 50 meters (or nearly 55 yards) and suitable for retrieval back to Earth orbit. The Arkyd Series 100 would be followed by launchings of an Arkyd Series 200 and Series 300 to gather more detailed information on the asteroids, with mining scheduled to begin in 2025.
Despite investments by some heavy hitters -- namely, Google executives Larry Page and Eric E. Schmidt, former Microsoft software chief Charles Simonyi, and film maker James Cameron -- some concerns have been raised about the project.
Like, for example, do we really want to bring asteroids into Earth's orbit, where they can, by some unhappy miscalculation, come hurtling towards the good cities of Earth? Or, do we even have the technology to refine these materials in space, or to bring them to Earth for refinement in a cost-effective manner?
There's also the consequence of flooding the Earth with cheap gold and platinum. I'm no economist, but I'm fairly certain a planet of people sitting on piles of gold won't work wonders for the market. People are antsy with today's gold prices. But I'm sure Planetary Resources will have it all ironed out before 2025.