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Volume 90 Issue 21 | p. 48 | Newscripts
Issue Date: May 21, 2012

Space Mining, Rubber Chicken Takes Flight

Department: Newscripts
Keywords: google, space exploration, startups, platinum, rubber chicken, solar storm, asteroid mining
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Eye in the sky: Planetary Resources plans to have a telescope (like the one shown in this rendering) in orbit within the next two years.
Credit: Planetary Resources
A gold-colored satellite floats high above the earth, the curvature of the planet is plainly visible behind the boxy object, and a glint of light is seen on the left just off-camera.
 
Eye in the sky: Planetary Resources plans to have a telescope (like the one shown in this rendering) in orbit within the next two years.
Credit: Planetary Resources

Diligent readers should treat some press releases with a greater degree of skepticism than others. For instance, communiqués with headlines that read “Asteroid Mining Plans Revealed by Planetary Resources Inc.” can be regarded as hoaxes until proven otherwise.

But the release in question passed two tests. First, the dateline was April 24, not April 1. And second, Planetary Resources has some high-profile backers, a list that includes Google cofounder Larry Page, Google Chairman Eric E. Schmidt, and Ross Perot Jr., son of the billionaire who twice ran for President.

Furthermore, the founders of Planetary Resources have long track records in the field of privatizing space exploration. Cofounder Eric Anderson heads Space Adventures, which to date has shot a handful of rich people into orbit. Another cofounder, Peter Diamandis, is a figure behind the Ansari X Prize, which yielded the first nongovernmental manned spaceflight back in 2004.

Planetary Resources looks to be a real company—albeit with the imaginative objective of mining precious resources from rocks in outer space. But there is a significant likelihood that the firm is really a form of scientific philanthropy, a hobby meant to give billionaires an excuse to play with spaceships.

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SPACE BUSINESS MODEL
Planetary Resources wants to mine asteroids for platinum and water, as depicted in this rendering.
Credit: Planetary Resources
An artist’s rendering of an asteroid being mined. The grey irregular shape floating through space is inscribed with a grid, and several structures can be seen on the surface.
 
SPACE BUSINESS MODEL
Planetary Resources wants to mine asteroids for platinum and water, as depicted in this rendering.
Credit: Planetary Resources

The company does indeed have a business model: It intends to tap into near-Earth asteroids for platinum-group metals and water. During a recent press event, Anderson noted that most of Earth’s platinum is already derived from fallen asteroids. And platinum, at about $1,500 per troy ounce, could be economical to extract from space, he claimed. “A pound of platinum is actually far more expensive than the cost to put that pound into space,” he said. “And there are only a few things for which that is true.”

Planetary Resources plans to launch within the next 24 months a spacecraft equipped with a space telescope to identify promising asteroids. It would then send up “swarms” of spacecraft for detailed prospecting, followed by the robotic mining of the final candidates.

Despite the business model and plan, Planetary Resources did show a few signs at the recent press event of being an enterprise largely set up for fun. It is as if its founders so adored the worlds created by authors Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein that they wanted to live in them for real. Anderson, who clearly took science fiction seriously as a kid, used the term “grok” while talking about the small scale of a typical asteroid. That word, which means “to comprehend,” was said often by the martian visitor in Heinlein’s sci-fi novel “Stranger in a Strange Land.”

And some folks at the event acknowledged that what Planetary Resources is trying to do is highly speculative. “If I knew my friend and neighbor was mortgaging his home to invest into the company, I would have advised against it,” noted investor Charles Simonyi, chairman of Intentional Software Corp.

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Camilla: Living the dream, braving the solar storm.
Credit: Earth to Sky
The yellow neck of a rubber chicken leads to a head encased in a clear plastic. Behind the chicken, which is floating in space, are the sun and earth.
 
Camilla: Living the dream, braving the solar storm.
Credit: Earth to Sky

Should Planetary Resources succeed, it may have a source of future hires at California’s Bishop Union High School. Back in March, the school’s Earth to Sky team of students twice launched a rubber chicken named Camilla, the mascot of NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, into the stratosphere using a helium balloon.

Camilla had two radiation badges pinned to her space suit to measure the effects of a solar storm. The balloon’s payload also included four cameras, a cryogenic thermometer, seven insects, and two dozen sunflower seeds.

The missions were successful. Camilla parachuted to Earth safely, and the radiation badges have been sent to a lab for evaluation. The seeds are being planted by a group of fifth-graders to see whether they were affected by the solar radiation. None of the insects, sadly, survived.

 

Alex Tullo wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to newscripts@acs.org.

 
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