Monday, April 23, 2012

There's Nickle in Them There Asteroids

"Google and James Cameron to hunt for natural resources on asteroids"
The Wall Street Journal, via (April 21, 2012)

"A new company backed by two Google Inc. billionaires, film director James Cameron and other space exploration proponents is aiming high in the hunt for natural resources—with mining asteroids the possible target.

"The venture, called Planetary Resources Inc., revealed little in a press release this week except to say that it would 'overlay two critical sectors—space exploration and natural resources—to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP' and 'help ensure humanity's prosperity.' The company is formally unveiling its plans at an event Tuesday in Seattle.

"While the announcement may cause some people to snicker at what could be a page out of a sci-fi novel or a Hollywood movie scene, Planetary Resources is making its debut just as scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and other groups are embracing the notion of mining 'near-Earth asteroids' and providing blueprints for how such a feat would be accomplished.

"The possibility of extracting raw materials such as iron and nickel from asteroids has been discussed for decades, but the cost, scientific expertise and technical prowess of fulfilling such as feat have remained an obstacle. NASA experts have projected it could cost tens of billions of dollars and take well over a decade to land astronauts on an asteroid...."

Those snickers won't come from the Lemming. A NASA study, published in the mid-70s, outlined how building orbital power stations, mostly with material mined on the Moon, could start showing a profit in several years. Nobody got around to using that design study, but recently someone got the go-ahead to start building orbiting power stations. (December 2, 2009)

One reason the Lemming takes asteroid mining seriously is that robots turned out to be pretty good at getting jobs done more-or-less on their own. The Mars rover Spirit, for example, wound up in the Columbia Hills of Mars: almost five miles from its landing point. Along the way, Spirit collected and analyzed soil samples. (May 26, 2011)

What Spirit did was more like prospecting, than mining. But the Lemming doesn't see why a robot miner couldn't do pretty much the same thing, on a larger scale, and bring 'samples' back.

Maybe artificial intelligence isn't up to the task of finding some specific mineral, picking it out of an asteroid, storing it, and repeating that task until there's enough to justify hauling the stuff back to Earth. But even if humans have to tell the robots what to do, the Lemming's guess is that it'll be easier, less expensive, and safer, to send robots to an asteroid. Humans are pretty good at solving problems, and fairly good at moving rocks around: but humans also need big, heavy, complicated, life support systems. And they get bored easily.

No offense: but there's no point in sending a human, when a robot can get the job done. And do the job at lower cost. There's the 'safety' angle, too: from the human point of view. And that's another topic. Topics.

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1 comment:

Terence said...

I concur with the predictions of NASA experts.

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