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Beyond dot coms: a space bubble

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Four years ago two lawyers, Alan Wasser and Douglas Jobes, wrote an article for Journal of Air Law and Commerce which seemed like a legal argument in a vacuum:

There appears to be one incentive … that could spark massive private investment leading to the establishment of permanent space settlements on the Moon and beyond with an immediate payback to investors. The concept of “land claims recognition” (developed by author Alan Wasser and others over the last twenty years) seems to be the most powerful economic incentive, much more so than all the other incentives, such as government-funded prizes and corporate tax holidays combined.

The following discussion lays out the argument that current international law, and especially “the Outer Space Treaty,” does appear to permit private property ownership in space and permit nations on Earth to recognize land ownership claims made by private space settlements, without these nations being guilty of national appropriation or any other legal violation.

The abhorrable investment vacuum has just been filled. Forbes reports:

Earlier this year, entrepreneur and X-Prize impresario Peter Diamandis hinted he was about to unveil something amazing: a startup that will mine asteroids for precious metals.

“Since my childhood I’ve wanted to do one thing, be an asteroid miner,” Diamandis told Forbes. “So stay tuned on that one.”

It looks like Diamandis may be about to push the launch button on the idea.

Backed by a group including Google Chief Executive Larry Page, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, filmmaker James Cameron, former Microsoft Chief Architect Charles Simonyi, and Ross Perot Jr., Planetary Ventures will unveil its plans Tuesday at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

To be sure, no one has said publicly — yet — that the new venture Diamandis is involved with will mine asteroids, but there are more than a few clues pointing in that direction.

“He’s not doing what he’s doing for greed,” Zubrin says of Diamandis. “It’s like Columbus selling Ferdinand and Isabella on the spice route to India, I think Columbus just wanted to go sailing; Diamandis is into opening the space frontier because he’s into opening the space frontier.”

WSJ adds:

People listed by Planetary Resources as members of its “investor and advisor group” include Larry Page, Google’s chief executive, and Eric Schmidt, the company’s executive chairman; Mr. Cameron, whose film “Avatar” depicted a corporate venture to extract natural resources from another planet; former Microsoft Corp. executive Charles Simonyi, who has made two trips to space and funded other related activity; Ram Shriram, a Google director and venture capitalist; and Ross Perot Jr., son of the Texas technology entrepreneur and former presidential candidate Ross Perot.

Earlier this month, a study by NASA scientists concluded that, for a cost of $2.6 billion, humans could use robotic spacecraft to capture a 500-ton asteroid seven meters in diameter and bring it into orbit around the moon so that it could be explored and mined. The spacecraft, using a 40-kilowatt solar-electric propulsion system, would have a flight time of between six and 10 years, and humans could accomplish this task by around 2025.

President Obama in 2010 set a goal to send a manned mission to an asteroid by 2025, but the details remain fuzzy and the effort hasn’t generated much public excitement or political traction. However, NASA is working on an unmanned mission called OSIRIS-Rex that would launch in 2016 and land on an asteroid, study it, and bring a tiny amount of it back to earth by 2023. NASA also is calling on amateur astronomers to help the agency find “near-earth” asteroids that could be explored in the future.

In recent years, as NASA has pulled back on space exploration, wealthy entrepreneurs such as Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos, Tesla Motors Inc. creator Elon Musk and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen have tried to fill the void with their personal money. Mr. Musk has pursued commercial rockets and spacecraft to transport cargo and astronauts into orbit, while Messrs. Allen and Bezos have looked to launch tourists to the edge of space and possibly beyond.

Beyond this, the only information comes from Wikipedia.

April 25, 2012

A starry-eyed article from Weird news reports:

Despite the promise of astronomical profits, the long time-scales and uncertain return on asteroid mining has historically driven most investors away from such undertakings. But the new company is also backed by a number of other billionaire luminaries, including Google’s CEO Larry Page and executive chairman Eric Schmidt, former Microsoft chief architect Charles Simonyi, and Ross Perot Jr. The venture also counts on filmmaker James Cameron, former astronaut Tom Jones, former JPL engineer Chris Lewicki, and planetary scientist Sara Seager as advisers.

Still, this new undertaking will be much larger and more ambitious than anything Anderson and Diamandis have attempted before. The hurdles are many and high. While the endeavor is technically feasible, the technology has not yet been developed. And beyond their initial steps, the details of Planetary Resources’ plans remain scarce.

The first hurdle will likely be ensuring that Planetary Resources has covered all its legal bases. While some have argued that governments need to set up specific property rights before investors will make use of space, the majority of space lawyers agree that this isn’t necessary to assure the opportunity for a return on investment, said space policy analyst Henry Hertzfeld at George Washington University in Washington D.C. Mining occurs in international seabeds — even without specific property rights — overseen by a special commission dedicated to the task, he said. A similar arrangement would likely work in space.

In terms of extraction, Planetary Resources hopes to go after the platinum-group metals — which include platinum, palladium, osmium, and iridium — highly valuable commodities used in medical devices, renewable energy products, catalytic converters, and potentially in automotive fuel cells.

Within the next 18 to 24 months, Planetary Resources hopes to launch between two and five space-based telescopes at an estimated cost of a few million dollars each that will identify potentially valuable asteroids. Other than their size and orbit, little detailed information is available about the current catalog of near-Earth asteroids. Planetary Resources’ Arkyd-101 Space Telescopes will figure out whether any are worth the trouble of resource extraction.

Within five to seven years, the company hopes to send out a small swarm of similar spacecraft for a more detailed prospecting mission, mapping out a valuable asteroid in detail and identifying rich resource veins. They estimate such a mission will cost between $25 and 30 million.

The next step — using robots to remotely mine, possibly refine ore, and return material to Earth safely — is probably the toughest phase, and Planetary Resources is still tight-lipped about its plans here.

A sceptical article in the Register says:

So far, so good, and the team obviously have the first designs ready to go. One interesting facet of the press conference was about the design philosophy for the venture’s space vehicles. These won’t be one-off craft, like those carefully assembled and shot into space by NASA. Planetary Resources envisages an assembly line system for building the devices, which will slash build time, lower costs and thus reduce the repercussions of system failures.

Such a system, coupled with some of the advances we’re seeing from companies like SpaceX in bringing down the cost of getting into orbit, should make for a more cost effective mission, but it’s a long way to go before the company achieves its aim of launching asteroid probe missions for the few million dollars it has set as a goal.

As was rightly pointed out, there’s a colossal amount of rare and needed minerals out there just floating around, but mining them will be a tricky business. We don’t know the ore quality that’s likely to be found, and while mining it won’t be too tough, particularly on rubble asteroids, refining it could well be.

Even supposing this could be achieved, you’ve then got the problems of returning the finished materials back to Earth and down the gravity well. Shifting chunks of pure platinum into Earth orbit shouldn’t be too tough, provided a propulsion system can do it economically and reliably. Getting it back down the gravity well would also be doable, if slightly expensive.

But surely this doesn’t matter? After all, platinum is fabulously expensive and the team suggested that one asteroid could generate more of the stuff than has ever been mined in Earth’s history. This is true, up to a point,but once the operation gets going the price of platinum may fall drastically, particularly when the market makers realize what’s heading into orbit.

Interestingly, it is not cheap to drop a rock to earth from high orbit.

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Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

April 22, 2012 at 5:25 pm

One Response

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  1. […] the asteroid hunting corporation, Planetary Resources, understood this new paradigm in space exploration very quickly. Like this:LikeBe the first to like […]


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