Linked by Thom Holwerda on Tue 24th Apr 2012 08:51 UTC
In the News "A newly unveiled company with some high-profile backers - including filmmaker James Cameron and Google co-founder Larry Page - is set to announce plans to mine near-Earth asteroids for resources such as precious metals and water." Amazingly cool. Even if it never makes a dime of money, at least these people are contributing to space exploration now that the US has pretty much cut NASA to death. Come to think of it, it's pretty sad we've been relying on a single government for much of our space exploration.
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ozonehole
Member since:
2006-01-07

It's a little late for this year's April fools joke, isn't it. I groan every time I hear this "let's mine the moon and/or asteroids".

Mining the moon might be just barely feasible if we ever get fusion to work. Unless that happens, there just isn't anything on the moon that isn't more abundant (and infinitely more accessible) on Earth. The cost of mining anything on the moon will be ridiculously high, and the enormous amount of energy resources needed to establish and operate a mining colony on the moon makes it prohibitive unless the moon can produce energy in abundance.

In other words, build a functioning fusion reactor first. No one has yet been able to do so despite decades of trying. I expect to grow old and die before it happens. If/when controlled fusion is proven feasible, then it might be worth reconsidering moon mining.

But mining asteroids is even more farfetched. Unlike the moon they do not stay in a nice neat orbit around the earth. Rather, they hurl through space at high speed - if anyone thinks NASA can chase one down with the space shuttle and snag it like a cowboy ropes a cow has been watching too many Star Wars movies.

Edited 2012-04-24 21:47 UTC

Reply Score: 3

galvanash Member since:
2006-01-25

Have you actually read up on what they are proposing? It is not nearly as far fetched as you make it sound...

Mining the moon might be just barely feasible if we ever get fusion to work. Unless that happens, there just isn't anything on the moon that isn't more abundant (and infinitely more accessible) on Earth.


I think that is why they are specifically NOT talking about mining the moon - it isn't very interesting from a risk/reward point of view.

But mining asteroids is even more farfetched. Unlike the moon they do not stay in a nice neat orbit around the earth. Rather, they hurl through space at high speed - if anyone thinks NASA can chase one down with the space shuttle and snag it like a cowboy ropes a cow has been watching too many Star Wars movies.


No one is talking about going out and herding cats... The trick is to find an asteroid that:

1. Is small. No bigger than a house.
2. Has a trajectory that will already bring near the earth.
3. Has a velocity that makes it possible to intercept it.
4. Has a combination of trajectory and velocity that would allow for a slight nudge to bring it into a stable orbit around the earth.
5. Has lots of goodies in it that are very rare on earth (like palladium).

Then you just nudge it into a trajectory that will bring it into orbit. Match speed, attach to it, and use a small low power propulsion system (ion thruster maybe) to push it into the right approach.

Frankly I think that realistically this is about as far as they have gotten... This alone would probably take 10 to 20 years to manage and billions of dollars. I'm not saying it is easy or anything, but it is possible with current technology.

Personally, I think what these guys realize that everyone is missing is that if you find the right rock (i.e. one that has billions of dollars worth of goodies in it) and get it into orbit you change the nature of the endeavor completely...

If you can demonstrate with some certainty that the rock you put into stable orbit is worth a mountain of money, funding a mining operation to get it to earth (the real conundrum) becomes a different proposition.

"Look, see that rock right there - its worth 650 billion dollars. Want to invest?"

Reply Parent Score: 3

hashnet Member since:
2005-11-15

a 10 meter cube of pure gold would worth about $914 billions.
Of course, we'd have to wait until one passes in the vicinity. Then bring it in earth orbit, then somehow to the surface.
I salute this enterprise, but on a ROI standpoint, it'd be better to scour the seafloor for metals and rare earth.

Reply Parent Score: 1

zima Member since:
2005-07-06

No one is talking about going out and herding cats... The trick is to find an asteroid that:
[...]

So, from that list, the trick seems to be: dream about a series of highly unlikely occurrences, bordering on fantasising...

1 & 2 - we have a decent idea about the composition of asteroids, plenty of samples. So: either a poorly differentiated pile of rubble, or (somewhat more likely in that size range) a chunk of shattered, largely differentiated body (but without much of any further geological processes, of a kind responsible for many deposits or veins on Earth; hence fairly homogenized, common stuff)

2, 3, 4, & "just nudge it [...] Match speed, attach to it, and use a small low power propulsion system (ion thruster maybe) to push it into the right approach [...] it is possible with current technology" - such orbits are highly unstable naturally, over billions of years such bodies tend be swept clean. Approach speeds of NEA are multi km/s - just matching them a monumental task in delta-V required, with present tech.

Nudging? Yeah, in a decade or two we might do a test (I know of one such ESA project, for example) of changing the orbit of an asteroid, so we'll be better prepared when one comes hurling our way - with minuscule change of orbit accumulating over time.

Intercepting, with feasible tech? Better think in the timescale of centuries, at least.


We'll probably have in-situ manufacturing faster (I'd guess starting actually on the Moon, with some scientists figuring out that by building many structural elements of their upcoming telescope from locally available materials, they can have much better instrument for the same price)

In the meantime we have insanely more hospitable and reachable options, like Sahara (with much more water than this venture can find) - but somehow it's not an industrial powerhouse of the planet, it's in fact quite barren.

Reply Parent Score: 2

zima Member since:
2005-07-06

Mining the moon might be just barely feasible if we ever get fusion to work

If we get fusion to work, mining everything we need from Earth's crust (the extraction no longer constrained by available energy) would still probably win out...
(though of course the fusion itself might possibly need something from the Moon, like Helium-3)

Anyway, with rising sophistication of manufacturing, I'm sure we will be able to do in-situ manufacturing at some point - and then Moon mining will be sensible, for its own needs. But that's probably at least few centuries away.

watching too many Star Wars movies

"Scifi cargo cults" of sorts are frequent, it seems - people don't seem to realize why some things are made in films.
Those things are not tools of space travel, but of cinematography and storytelling ...otherwise any sensible depictions of actually existing and much more wild than fiction universe would be either way too boring, or quite incomprehensible to audiences. And/or much more difficult to write.

So most depictions of "space" actually constrain imagination, try to not be too alien, too dissimilar from our comfy earthly experiences.
Even worse: typical scifi warfare seems to consist of ancient infantry tactics, large vessel tactics from the age of galleons, and small vessel tactics of WW1 airplanes ...all far from even present state of the art.


I suspect similar dynamics even might had some influence on the trainwreck of a project that was the Shuttle...
Consider those airplanes http://goo.gl/9TLhg (Wiki Unicode URL, tends to work weird) from "our" times, as imagined in times of rapid advances in marine tech (and we can even build them! Take a Harrier, remove wings and canopy - still a horrible idea vs. "boring" reality http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Ryanair_Boeing_737-800_appr... ). Consider how the scifi of ~1940s and 50s was dominated by "spaceplanes" ...in the times of rapid advances in airplane tech (I can see a pattern...) - many designers and decision-makers of the Shuttle were undoubtedly raised on those works of fiction. And they gave us an analogue of Catalina, at best (Spruce Goose, at worst) - a project which didn't deliver on any of its points as advertised, was basically obsolete before seriously getting on the drawing boards (with automated docking done already in the 60s), but sucked out the funds. A spacecraft wasting most of its LEO mass on airframe.
Oh, but it looked awesome... kinda like Concorde, but in space!
(not like those "boring" capsules - but nobody seems to remember that they were a relatively late innovation and a surprise: everybody was working on more aerodynamic shapes at first, ~spaceplanes essentially, which proved quite unworkable; capsules appear like the "oldest" approach because, in the days of severe mass constraints in early launchers, the optimal approach was needed to just barely work at all)

Reply Parent Score: 2