In recent weeks, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX, Hawthorne, Calif.) has ushered in a new era of commercial space exploration — sending their Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon spacecraft through orbit to the International Space Station — something only a few countries have ever accomplished.
“There is so much hope riding on that rocket. When it worked … for us it is like winning the Super Bowl,” says SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk. Now, with the validity of space exploration via commercial enterprise proven, the next SpaceX goal is to accelerate innovation in aeronautical transportation.
In a somewhat similar effort, Planetary Resources Inc., Seattle, aims to mine Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs) for raw materials within the next decade. Leading the company is a lineup of outer-space heavy-hitters, including entrepreneur Eric Anderson, plus a stable of PhDs and retired NASA astronauts as consultants. Funding the organization is a cadre of billionaires bordering on the eccentric, including director (and deep-sea diver) James Cameron, Google CEO Larry Page, Ross Perot, Jr., Microsoft's Charles Simonyi, and X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis. In fact, Diamandis recently stated, “Since my early teenage years, I've wanted to be an asteroid miner,” a comment greeted with some derision: Hey buddy, why not see how you like being an Earth miner?
Two facts have chilled public reception of Planetary Resources. First, the organization has not yet executed a high-profile launch. Second, its for-profit status is more blatant than that of SpaceX. To be fair, the two companies share similarities, and may even partner to launch Planetary Resources' scout Arkyd-100 telescope spacecraft in the near future. That said, private resource collection in space smacks of something disquieting — adulteration of ideals — as if space were the New World, until now governed only by peaceful, loosey-goosey property rights akin to those attributed to Native American society. Cameron's Avatar has no doubt stoked such sentiment.
In any case, the objective is not so far-fetched: Roughly 1,500 NEAs are energetically as easy to reach as the Moon. Planetary Resources currently plans to send Arkyd-100 spacecraft into low-Earth orbit to prioritize these NEA targets for subsequent swarm expeditions.
The argument is that tapping precious-metal concentrations on these asteroids will benefit the ever-growing Earth population: “Not only will the cost of everything from microelectronics to energy storage be reduced, but new applications for these abundant elements will result in important and novel applications,” says Diamandis. What's more, water-rich NEAs could one day serve as valuable rest stops for deep space exploration — making space travel dramatically more economical. “In addition to supporting life, water will also be separated into oxygen and hydrogen for breathable air and rocket propellant,” predicts Anderson.
We engineers can respect the immense complexity of aeronautical undertakings in space — and will cheer loudest when the SpaceX Dragon detaches from the ISS and safely returns to Earth. Let us maintain earnest and active interest in these new private space entities, their target objectives, and actual effects.
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