Could asteroid mining be next step in space exploration?

The US space shuttle program may be over, but space exploration hasn’t stopped completely. The ESA, the Russians, and the Chinese space programs are still putting technology and humans into orbit, and NASA continues to throw things at Mars and the other planets. Now some visionaries say that it is time for the next step:  to explore space for its resources, not just science.

Planetary Resources, whose investors include movie mogul James Cameron, Ross Perot Jr., and Google co-founder Larry Page, intends to mine asteroids for water and metal resources.

The logistics involved in such an endeavor are mind-boggling. Although the company calls asteroids “the low-hanging fruit” of the solar system, that doesn’t mean it will be easy. Planetary Resources is first building a telescope that it will put into orbit in the next couple of years, the better to identify asteroid targets.  Then it has to build and send equipment to a prospective asteroid and drag the asteroid closer to Earth to make mining more efficient. (But not too close, as any disaster movie fan knows. Bruce Willis might not be able to save us if something goes wrong.)

As a science fiction fan and author my first thought, after Whee! Asteroid mining! is to wonder — is this too soon? Will Planetary Resources be a visionary whose reach exceeds its grasp? The capital is one thing, but is the technology sufficiently advanced for the company to succeed? The investors are taking the long view and no one expects to start mining any time soon.

Even before the end of the shuttle program, the privatization of space exploration was capturing the attention of captains of industry who ranged from starry-eyed to pragmatic to both. Richard Garriott became one of the first space tourists (Dennis Tito was the first). Burt Rutan is building rockets. Richard Branson has established Virgin Galactic.

Now Planetary Resources is planning to mine asteroids. Can colonies on Mars be far behind?

Patrice Sarath

Patrice Sarath is a writer and editor for First Research, covering the health care, insurance, and construction industries.

Read more articles by Patrice Sarath.

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