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Asteroid Mining Venture Backed by Google Execs, James Cameron Unveiled (space.com)
341 points by peteforde on Apr 24, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 211 comments



My inner ten-year old is leaping up and down with excitement right now. I've got visions of OMNI magazine illustrations from the 1980s in my head, with watercolors of mining ships and stylish orange-suited astronauts.

It's been so long since the future felt like it would match up to the optimistic sci-fi of a few decades ago, that I'd nearly forgotten. I know this is just one announcement of an intention, but I don't care, I'm going to go ahead and start dreaming again about seeing space elevators and terraformed moons and planets in my lifetime.

Great story to read before bed.


Totally with you man. Let the nay sayers nay.

It's activities like these that inspire the Human race as a whole. I don't even care if it's successful. Just to attempt such a grand idea is a great achievement.


I definitely care if it succeeds. If they're successful, then not only will they make a lot of money and make some materials much cheaper, but it will be the thing that funds the commercial space industry and makes large-scale investment in space economically viable. That's huge.


This NY Times article has a lot more information: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/24/science/space/in-pursuit-o....

It's wonderful to see people spending huge amounts of money to expand the reach of humanity instead of our capacity for narcissism. Startups like these give me hope for the future.


"One possibility the company is considering is to nudge a small asteroid, perhaps one as long as a football field, into an orbit around Earth closer than the moon."

I hope they're careful. :-)


This leads to scary thoughts on using this for military purposes


If you're going to bombard something for military purposes, the most effective technique involves using a very large number of nuclear weapons, which is well within the capabilities of anyone who would try to bombard the earth from space.

Back during the Space Race, the idea that the Russians could put something into orbit wasn't just a wound to the national pride, it was a technical demonstration of the fact that they could build ICBM's. If you have the rocket power necessary to lift something into orbit, you have the rocket power necessary to put a warhead on a ballistic trajectory to any point on the earth's surface. So if you can go into space and redirect asteroids, you can obviously launch an ICBM. And at this juncture, it's probably easier to develop the technology for nuclear weapons than the technology to capture asteroids and bombard the earth with them. The only way you could do more damage more cost-effectively with asteroids is if you had an extinction-level asteroid, but there's obviously no strategic value to that.

Bear in mind, I'm only talking about how scary it is, which isn't quite the same as discussing how militarily effective it is. By which I mean--obviously orbital bombardment can be worthwhile, but it would cause no more damage than nuclear weapons, and any magnitude of orbital bombardment that wouldn't trigger a MAD reaction would have to cause strictly less damage.


If nobody noticed it being set up then it could be assumed to be a natural event.


A little late for that, now.

However, it's easier to claim that a mining asteroid crashing into your enemy was an act of sabotage/accident/non-national terrorism than a rain of nukes with your signature on them.


An interesting thing is that ballistic missiles that go through space, like the V2 and Scud, are dramatically easier than getting into orbit. Like 10% of the energy cost. Getting your ballistic missile to the other side of the Earth, though, does seem like it would require only epsilon less energy and precision than putting it in orbit. (I haven't done the math, so I could be wrong.)


> If you're going to bombard something for military purposes, the most effective technique involves using a very large number of nuclear weapons...

Only if you don't intend to occupy that land in the next 500 years, though. I'd imagine a tungsten telephone pole dropped from orbit has better deep-ground penetration than a nuke, too.


Sorry, this is a common misunderstanding. Modern nuclear weapons are generally very fuel efficient, while there are some short lived nucleotides that are brought on by the activation of elements exposed to the gamma ray flux during detonation, unless you actively try to make it 'dirty' (and thus long lived) you can go back to living there in a couple of months. The only cities which were atomically bombed are completely livable today (much less than 500 years).

The dangers of a large nuclear exchange are widespread climate change and economic disruptions brought about by entire supply chains being removed. Not 'wastelands' of bombed out cities too radioactive to visit.


Upvoted for the common sense.

I've spent my life listening to people talk about scary scenarios of uninhabitable wastelands full of radioactive waste.

I don't know if the misunderstanding comes from intentional propaganda from the anti-nuclear folk, or a misunderstanding of what 'half life' means.

Either way, I routinely used to ask people : if nuclear bombs make a place uninhabitable, how come Mazdas are still made in Hiroshima?


Someone has already thought about it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kinetic_bombardment


Just don't forget that rocks are not free, citizen.

http://wh40k.lexicanum.com/wiki/Rocks_Are_Not_Free!#.T5aK4Kf...


Military applications may divert a couple billions into developing the technologies needed for peaceful applications. Even with traditional government inefficiencies, that's the equivalent of a couple hundred millions in private enterprise. Not entirely bad and consider we here at HN are not the first people to think about it.

Don't forget the Redstone and Atlas rockets that carried the Mercury capsules were (not very) modified ICBMs.


This scary thought makes up much of the backdrop for one of my favourite scifi stories, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Definitely worth a (re)read given this latest news!


From the Times article: this one has the distinct advantage in that it has technical savvy and adequate capitalization to get started.

Gotta feel bad for the guys who provided the "inadequate capital" to the earlier companies that never had the "technical savvy" to make it happen.

I see the imaginations of the hackers here burning, and it excites me. I only wonder if the human species as a whole isn't too cynical to try risky space ventures again.


The public might not endorse risk that's Government sponsored, but I doubt we'll ever have a shortage of people willing to take extreme risks in the name of exploration.


"'The company is cash flow positive, already,' Mr. Anderson said."

How is this possible?


Because they haven't hired the engineers yet.

A couple founders raising money and taking pre-orders can be cash flow positive. Then they will build out the team, it likely will be cashflow negative for a while (or else they wouldn't have raised money), and then hopefully it will be cashflow positive again.


No, according to the NY Times article, "the company employs about 25 engineers and has development contracts for technologies like laser communications that it believes it will need for prospecting and mining missions."


Advance orders, I'm guessing. Lots of people would be more than happy to get their hands on a few tons of platinum, even if it takes 15 years.


It's a slightly deceiving statement. A company can be "cash flow positive" as long as they are bringing in more cash (by any means) than they are paying out (for any reason).

A company that gets a $1m loan then spends $100k would be "cash flow positive".


Technology development contracts.


The article specifically mentions laser communications development contracts.


It sounds totally insane, but I read somewhere that the backers just bought a bunch of platinum puts and then announced their plans to mine it from space...


An article that mentions the put options scheme: http://venturebeat.com/2012/04/23/planetary-resources-astero...

It says that Diamandis (the founder of Planetary Resources) may have been joking when he made these plans to buy options.


Yep, that's it. But why wouldn't it work? There are orders of magnitude more platinum-group resources out there than there are down here.


Yeah, that's true. Maybe it will work if they keep their plans secretive until right before they are able deliver large amounts of platinum-group elements? They're only going to make a significant amount on these options if very few people buy these options, otherwise a large rush would shift the market prematurely.


I'm sure I wasn't the only one that was curious about this, so:

> There are very limited laws against "insider trading" in the commodities markets, if, for no other reason, than that the concept of an "insider" is not immediately analogous to commodities themselves (e.g., corn, wheat, steel, etc.). However, analogous activities such as front running are illegal under U.S. commodity and futures trading laws. For example, a commodity broker can be charged with fraud if he or she receives a large purchase order from a client (one likely to affect the price of that commodity) and then purchases that commodity before executing the client's order in order to benefit from the anticipated price increase. [edit]


What makes you think this isn't about narcissism?


What if it is? (I don't think it is, but let's assume for a moment). Does it matter? We will still advance as a species, regardless of the motivation of the original backers.

One of my favourite aspects of capitalism is that it can provide individuals with an incentive to achieve goals that benefit the species as a whole. Sure, the backers will get richer, and they will get loads of personal press out of it. But we will finally be expanding our resource gathering to the near solar system. That is worth feeding someone's ego IMO!


It doesn't. Just pointing out that much of what we do is driven by narcissism and it's better to accept this fact than to pretend that it is otherwise.


By most definitions narcissism is self-love, inwards pointing. Going to space for the betterment of humankind's future doesn't seem to fit.


Well... Someone will get to say "Full impulse power" or play Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride" ;-)

When it finally happens, I'll say it was about time.


Don't they go to space to enrich themselves by mining asteroids?


I'm pretty sure that if these people, with their background, were only looking to get even richer. They would use their time to invest on something here on earth.


I'm surprised at how invigorated this news is making me feel, like a weight has been lifted. SpaceX is great, but until now they've mostly been talking about missions that would have to be paid for by the government and subject to the agonizing budget-cutting that seems to happen every time an exciting mission is planned. If these guys succeed, it will emancipate the future of space exploration from congressional budget meetings forever. I don't think I realized how depressed I was about that whole situation until now. This is almost absurdly audacious and I love them for it.


The interesting thing is, we have those budget cuts to thank for this. In the 50 years since we landed on the moon, we've put a massively expensive and questionably valuable series of tubes a few hundred kilometres from the Earth's surface, and sent a couple robots to Mars. These are both notable accomplishments, but they're hardly enough to give humanity any permanent presence in space. Space exploration has languished under the management of the federal government, and it has only been since the cancellation of the Shuttle that we've seen private enterprise truly step in with any sort of sustainable mission.

I have long argued that the cuts to NASA are short-sighted and a net loss for humanity; perhaps it's time to re-evaluate that notion. They may well have been short-sighted, but the hole left by the fading government monopoly is opening up some incredibly interesting opportunities.


All it would take to get governments back into the game is some private firm proving the value of resources that can be mined there.

If governments get a clue of how valuable space real estate, energy and resources can be. Expect a space race, like weapons race.

In fact you can expect wars on the basis of who controls which asteroids and who gets to stay where on mars.


I can see perhaps the Chinese and maybe the Russians looking to own asteroids, but that would require they pull out of several international treaties (not that big of a deal). For the West, their model has always been government-backed private monopolies (Hudson's Bay Company, East India Company, United Fruit, modern oil companies, etc). The American government would be more than happy to let Planetary resources do their own exploitation, while throwing its military weight behind them "to protect American interests". I'd be surprised if Europe makes much of an effort.


Huh? They would have to pull out of treaties to own asteroids, but there's nothing preventing them from mining them.


Two words : United Nations.

Given the ever growing need for money I can bet a tax would be put in place to where it might not even be profitable after all the regulation and such got put into position.

Think about it. They can lay levies for everything from managing the movement of objects in space to the environmental damage and insurance against such for returning materials gained in space. Then comes the whole "it belongs to all and none" type spiel that will surely follow.


You've outlined why the Secretary General of the UN might like this idea, but why on Earth would any of the space capable nations go along with this plan?


But it's hard for governments to have its sight range longer than the election cycle. Private companies can aim for longer than 4 years without worrying about not being reelected when it's time to collect the spoils of their hard work.


That's especially true if they're controlled and funded by people with long-term vision who care more about getting important things done than they care about short-term profits. That's how SpaceX could spend so long burning money out of Elon Musk's pocket before they started turning a profit. This company has the same kind of backing: some very rich people who really want to see asteroid mining happen, and don't give a damn which congressional district gets to manufacture the hardware for it.


I'd come to a point where I honestly thought I'd be dead before this kind of thing happened.

It really is a powerful feeling to know the push to space is back on.


Yeah, that might be it - the thought that I could live another 80 years and we'd still be doing the same old shit with different paint (now with more VR!) on Earth has been somewhat banished. It might be that I'm just too used to the results of the internet and telecom revolution to make it seem futuristic since I grew up with it, and that I haven't seen the big thing that completely separates the world of my adolescence and the world of my adulthood. This seems like it could be that big thing.


It really bugs me when billionaires do the same thing I would do with billions of dollars before I have billions of dollars to do them with.

Seriously. Space mining and pressure from environmentalism is going to turn this whole field into rivers of gold ... in the sky.


If you get billions of dollars, you'll be happy that the asteroid mining guys put the space infrastructure in place to allow you to do really cool things.


Agreed. I've been pondering ways to bootstrap space-based mining and manufacturing for a long, long time and while I believe that I have some solid ideas, I just don't have the capital to do anything about it in the least.


They'll probably be looking to hire engineers in the next few years tho. If you've got some skills and knowledge that could be helpful. Then there's still time. :-)


I know right.

If I had a few billion dollars I'd (like to think I'd) happily plonk my cash into space mining. Even if I was unlikely to see a return before I died.


Cannot explain how much this excites me... but can somebody familiar with the matter please elaborate on the economics of this? How, exactly, do they intend to make money?

I was under the impression (from previous articles) that the raw minerals from the asteroids were worth tens or hundreds of thousands $$, while the process of bringing them to Earth would be orders of magnitude higher (millions or billions). Wouldn't it be more economical to use the materials for space ventures/stations/etc? Or are the asteroids composed of some high value materials that can be hugely profitable?

Edit: this is not to say that the venture isn't utterly amazing - but there does seem to be quite a bit of focus on profit, and that confuses me.


The raw materials are potentially worth trillions.

Economic growth in China and India has caused a huge increase the the price of many commodities, and economists have been projecting gloom and doom because he future looks to be resource-constrained.

But they weren't taking into account the one million asteroids in the solar system, many of which contain billions of tons of resources each.

This can really reshape fundamental assumptions about the future. Of course, it will happen slowly over the course of decades, and by the time we see results we'll all feel jaded about it.

But tonight I feel positively thrilled.


FTA:

"A single platinum-rich space rock 1,650 feet (500 meters) wide contains the equivalent of all the platinum-group metals ever mined throughout human history, company officials said."

Quick Wikipedia/Google math:

1 cubic foot of Platinum = 1330 pounds [1]

Total platinum mined ever = ~25 cubic feet [1] * 1330 lbs = 33250 lbs = 532,000 oz

Current price of platinum = $1,560/oz [2]

Total value of platinum in an asteroid = $829M

And that's just the one metal, which is not the only thing they're mining. Throw the water in there for the space station(s) and it's not impossible to assume that one asteroid can gross well over $1bn -- we're not talking $trillions yet, but I bet they've modeled this out to make it a profitable venture...

[1] - http://www.gold-eagle.com/analysis/platinum.html [2] - http://www.kitco.com/market/

(of course this doesn't account for the fact that if you suddenly double the worldwide supply of platinum overnight, the price likely won't stay at $1560/oz....but still...)


Wow! I can't believe we've only ever mined 25 cubic feet of plat. Reading your source I'm not sure it's right, "The annual supply of platinum is only about 130 tons" "one cubic foot weighs a little more than 1,330 pounds"

23*1330lb = 13,875kg ever

130tons = 117,934kg per year

"basement of less than 25 cubic feet" Maybe them meant basement of 25 square feet or 250cuft which is still tiny basement.


It's definitely wrong.

According to [1], 614,631 kg were mined in South Africa (which accounts for about 80% of world production) between 2002 and 2009.

Density of platinum = 21.45g/cm^3 = 21.45 * 10^6 g/m^3 = 21.45 * 10^3 kg/m^3

=> total volume mined 2002 - 2009 = 614631 / 21450 = 28.65 m^3 approx.

So that's about 28.65 * 35.29 = 1011 cubic feet, JUST in South Africa and JUST between those years.

Other estimates visualise the total ever mined as a cube of 20 feet per SIDE ([2]), which sounds a bit more like it, given the numbers above - but still feels a little bit low.

[1] http://www.indexmundi.com/minerals/?country=za&product=p...

[2] http://money.howstuffworks.com/question213.htm


people screw up "x cubed" and "cubic x" so often....


Well apparently I was very wrong! Thanks for clearing this up. Amazing.

So, for $1BN you could have: Instagram, SpaceX, or small asteroid. Ha!


A billion -- whoa, we're talking Instagram money here.


lulz - I think I'll use "one instagram" instead of "one billion" from now on...


I'm not saying I don't believe any of this (I certainly do), but this whole business has HUGE bubble or even scam potential. Think those damn "moon-plots" but on a larger, perhaps government scale. Imagine some of the poor smaller governments trying to invest in the future only to find out that whoops, our data was wrong and you can only make $500k on that giant rock...


Its more than that. Merely the technologies that will get developed to build such a venture can patented and billions can be made out of them.

Also they are talking of water, that means resources for the next permanent space stations. Building oxygen gardens in space and space colonies. Stuff and resources that require maintaining large space colonies.

Considering projects of such big ambitions, the investments and associated risks we are taking is chicken feed.


And that's for a tiny, tiny asteroid.


The intent is to use the material in orbit. It costs loads of money to send stuff to orbit (e.g. for the ISS) and this could be cheaper, especially for bulky stuff.

Bringing it all the way back to the surface is not worth the energy required.


The intent is to use the water in orbit, but they're saying they'll bring the platinum down here. If you're already in earth orbit, going back to the surface doesn't take much energy.


If we want to move stuff around in space what matters is the delta v or change in velocity. Fortunately since we are de orbiting a satellite, we can use aerobraking http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aerobraking. So we just need to slow down the craft and a make fall with a parachute. If we had to lift the mass off the moon or mars we would have to spend a lot of money. Just getting it to the surface of the earth from orbit is much much cheaper.


But don't you need to spend a lot of money to prepare the material for reentry without losing most of it?


No. You only need to use special technology if you have to limit the g-forces for humans.


Wow. Second the comments about feeling about ten years old again. I hope beyond all hope that this is actually happening in my lifetime.

Questions for those in the know:

1. Is there any legal precedent on whether or not they're even allowed to mine the asteroids? From what I understand the Moon can't be exploited by any one country or corporation. Does any similar law apply to asteroids?

2. How are they going to get the platinum back to Earth? Re-entry strikes me as needing a really effing big parachutes for the hauls they're going to be bringing back.


1. Law seems to be undecided. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/47151745/ns/technology_and_scien.... Presumably once someone starts to do some actual mining there will be some pressure to move on this.

2. Drop it in small bundles (a few tons?) over the ocean with a flotation device and a large reusable parachute. Preferable avoiding areas with significant pirate populations.


Who's going to stop you, the Space Police?


If you're trying to make some dollars, you sort of have to take into account the firm grip that governments have on earth-side markets.


Ultimately the goal here is to increment values in US based bank accounts. Even if "the space police" couldn't stop them the US government could deny them the fruits of their labor, unless they really wanted to go rogue, but that's unlikely.


They could just throw the mined metals to the moon. Refine it, and manufacture stuff there. Where energy is cheaper. Then just ship the moonphones back to earth, with a lower cost of reentry shipment per value sent.

Now that would be cool.


The next space race will be between Google and Paypal.


Hardly surprising.

The seas and oceans were explored by merchants. Entities like British East India trading company.

The space might be explored by business men too!

Ironic, but true.


"Larry's fighting Elon!" is the new "Morpheus is fighting Neo!".


Perhaps we'll see "Google Moon", the first settlement requiring a Google Account to live in...


I would totally apply for a beta. I also expect it to be free, inline with all the other google services, in return for giving away all my data about my personal life, so they can put ads on my walls.


I don't know, companies seems to act more ratinal, than people or countries.

Isn't it more rational to collaborate, when there is almost infinite potential profit and huge risk?


I think this sort of stuff is natural progression in the time scale of evolution of a species. Its called exploration.

People in the middle ages got equally excited when somebody invented a ship that could sail the seas and a compass that could point where they wanted to go. And then when they actually went there, they found some surprises. They figured that they are not the only ones to exist.

Space exploration will be similar. We have gone from a boat to sail in a small lake, to making ships that can sail and mine resources for surviving a prolonged exploration campaign.

The only thing that can throw spanner in the wheels now is this things going down and projects like these getting dropped. We are on the right track and give the direct and a little more speed. Privatization in this domain is the way forward.I think permanent space colonies very much look to be practical realities in some decades to come.


I agree, I just hope we don't let quality of life and health here on Earth diminish more and more. Imagine if everyone was healthy, happy, and being as productive as they can be, doing what they enjoy most - imagine how much more energy could go into projects like these from productivity that won't be lost due to crime, too much turmoil from transition periods, etc.. Everyone would be able to on a daily basis have as much excitement as OP has. Exciting.


> Planetary Resources wants to identify and characterize these top targets before it does anything else. To that end, it has designed a high-performance, low-cost space telescope that Anderson said should launch to low-Earth orbit within the next 18 to 24 months.

Wow, they are not wasting time. Last week, the idea of an asteroid mining company was still in the realm of science fiction. Today, an asteroid mining company announces that they are launching a survey telescope within two years. It feels like we are entering a new era of technological progress. It makes me wonder what other surprising announcements are coming over the next few years in other fields.


I'm a little surprised that billionaires haven't already done things like launched a couple more Hubble telescopes. The design is already done and debugged, just clone it, and launch it.

The same for several other successful interplanetary probes - build a (relatively) cheap fleet of clones of successful designs, and send them out to explore the solar system fully.

Heck, you don't even have to come up with all the money yourself. Sell advertising on the mission. Having a logo on the rocket, and logos on the returned pix, etc., are all fantastic opportunities for advertising.


In fact, a lot of the exploration journeys of the 1800s were financed by advertisers and newspapers looking to sell newspapers.


It's hard to imagine that newspapers were once that rich.


Is it? Being society's primary information nexus is pretty damn profitable; just ask Google.


Well yeah, it makes sense when you work it out; every fact makes sense once you work it out. And there's a certain pleasing symmetry in that control over information, and the business model of attaching advertising to that information, has made the Google execs rich enough to invest in mining asteroids. I was just reflecting on how big a change it was.


So was the Tour de France, for that matter.


It's actually not so easy to operate a space telescope, let alone build one. More so, billionaires that would look to astronomical investments would usually be better served by merely investing in ground based instruments, which they do.

The Keck telescopes are named after the W.M. Keck foundation, and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey is named after the Alfred P. Sloan foundation, for example.

Space based observatories are still an enormously expensive (billion dollar) endeavor and are generally quite risky.


I suspect that the cost could be cut quite a bit, especially since the design is already done.

Also, the Mars landers cost $250M, well within the budget of a billionare investor.


Even if you had blueprints that said "here's exactly how to build a space telescope" just building it and going through all the proper testing would be quite expensive. Certainly you could just privately fund, say, Johns Hopkins University's APL to build a spacecraft for you, but it would still cost hundreds of millions of dollars and still be a comparatively risky endeavor. More so when you consider that the operations side would run to the millions of dollars a month level, and require a substantial build out of infrastructure.

That sort of thing will happen, but it'll probably take until after launch costs have dropped a fair bit.

I'm not sure which Mars landers you're referring to, I'm not aware of any that were so cheap. The Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity rover) cost $2.5 billion. The total cost of the MER rovers (Spirit and Opportunity) was $820 million. The Mars Phoenix mission cost $420 million. The Mars Pathfinder mission cost $280 million in 1996 dollars, or $380 million adjusted for inflation. There have been no other successful Mars landers within the last 2 decades.


> Even if you had blueprints that said "here's exactly how to build a space telescope" just building it and going through all the proper testing would be quite expensive.

As launch costs go down, the cost of experimentation is going to go down, leading to faster turnaround and less on-the-ground testing. Rapid iteration will eventually be the norm.


Oh yes, definitely. I'm just explaining why there hasn't been a privately funded space telescope yet.


Even using your figures, it's quite within reach.


No doubt with SpaceX leading the way to lower launch costs we'll see more private ventures and public/private partnerships.

However, more than likely there will need to be new designs purpose built: The manufacture of new telescopes and probes from old designs is not really practical. These craft were mostly "one offs"; their supply chains, tooling, and work groups are not waiting and ready to go. Their optical, structural, guidance, and computational technology is no longer state of the art, so you'd have to kludge together new systems based on old design docs and specifications. Not the kind of efficiency a privately funded venture would aspire to.

Far better to start anew, using the cumulative data of previous missions as a stepping stone, and employing lean design-build techniques such as SpaceX, Scaled Composites, and others have done.

I'm aware of one new generation of lean-manufactured, government-contracted observational satellites that are designed to be cheaper and replicable, but they're tactical in mission: they point towards targets on earth.


SpaceX has dramatically reduced the cost of launching payloads into space, and that will make this and many other ventures possible.


More hubble telescopes have a limited use. We can learn mysteries of the universe, sure, but they aren't great for finding readily-mineable asteroids.

Even with the James Webb telescope discovering habitable planets, we're centuries away from doing anything particularly useful at scale.

We need to focus on the the inner-solar system, the asteroid belt and a few outer moons. There are trillions of dollars in immediately-useful research to be done locally. None of which needs a deep space telescope to succeed.


As much as I dislike Goog for it's terrible costumer service, but these kind of investments make Goog as a company -- as well as it's founders -- so different from other corporations. Autonomous cars, Google earth/sky/moon/mars, Google glass, asteroid mining. Having some crazy idea and just doing it, even though it could fail, but at least trying it.


And two credible co-founders behind the giant names:

- Peter H. Diamandis (Founder of the X PRIZE)

- Eric Anderson (Founder of Space Adventures,

Rounding out the entire list of backers:

- Larry Page (goog)

- Eric Schmidt (goog)

- James Cameron (goog)

- Charles Simonyi (Billionaire via MSFT, oversaw creation of office)

- K. Ram Shriram (Billionaire via goog)

- Ross Perot, Jr (Perot's son)

via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planetary_Resources


> - James Cameron (goog)

I don't think Cameron is involved in Google, is he?


No. This is James Cameron the director. Same guy that funded Deepsea Challenger. This guy is doing some pretty cool stuff with his money.


Funded AND piloted the Deepsea Challenger to the deepest point on Earth. Cameron is legit.


Now I feel much better about paying $17 to see Avatar in 3D.


Yes, the very same guy that stole my dream life.


Now seriously, as a software developer, what would be the best skill set to help these guys... As soon as I can afford it I would knock at their door and work for them for free. What would be most usefull for them (or spaceX)... A lot of C, C++, knowing NASA's open source repos in and out, doing MIT online courses on robotics and astrophysics... ?


Read up on Armadillo Aerospaceā€¦


Hear hear. I think the same thing every time I read about SpaceX, and yes, now this.


Why don't you write to SpaceX and ask them what skills they are looking for? Once you work for one kind of space company, you can probably get into another one quite easily.


Here's to the crazy ones.

As a scientist, I am so thrilled about this idea.


Finally, extraordinary concentration of capital has an upside.


Apparently, billionaires who made their money by inventing things people want have a tendency to do other cool things that benefit people.

Billionaires who got there by, say, making giant bets with the downside backed by the public purse, tend to be absent from these sorts of ventures.


It's too soon to tell - so far it's all pie in the sky. And a pie in the sky upside is not enough to counterbalance the quite obvious, very real downsides to enormous concentration of wealth in the hands of private individuals.

(My suspicion is that I'm happy with wealth concentrated into the hands of people who agree with me.)


I thought I'd echo your comment here and note that this is the third extraordinary concentration of capital I'm familiar with... a) gates foundation b) the give-my-billions-away-pledge c) this

There is an underlying theme here, that tech/valley-generated wealth is causing a level of change we are only barely beginning to comprehend as the $ are pooled and focused. Now that is exciting. And that will create a brave new world.


But if today's attitudes give us any indication of future behavior, then I think the outcome is sad.

A century from now, those who had the vision, and the willingness to risk so much for something that would benefit all of mankind so much, will be even more fabulously wealthy (if it goes as planned). Yet the masses will be shouting that it's unfair that those few should have such unimaginable wealth, just because they made a lucky bet a few years back.

I picture "Occupy Cape Canaveral" protesters pillorying those who took the risks and made the future possible -- all while those same protesters are wearing platinum jewelry and using electronics that the iridium, rubidium, etc., made possible.


Reading through this thread makes me realize there is no shortage of people who want to contribute either financially or through engineering talents.

Prior to now, I didn't even realize it was conceivably feasible to do asteroid mining... but if it is, why doesn't someone start a massive open source track? A classic space race, though it would between a private company, and a non government public effort. I'll contribute money and time :D


I wouldn't normally post song lyrics to HN, but this just seemed too appropriate:

  *And I want it so much.
  Close my eyes, I can taste the Mars dust in the air.
  In the darkness the space stations shimmer in orbits that I will not share.

  But I'll teach the student
  Who'll manage the fact'ry
  That tempers the steel that makes colonies strong.
  And I'll write the program that runs the computer
  That charts out the stars where our rockets belong.
  It will never get easy to wake from my dream
  When the future I dream of is so far away.
  But I am willing to sacrifice
  something I don't have For something I won't have
  but somebody will someday.*


You should probably mention that this is the song Somebody Will by Sassafrass. You can find more info and purcahse it here: http://www.sassafrassmusic.com/?page_id=15


What will be the shovels of the future gold rush? Maybe it would be a good time to develop mining robots? Rockets are completely out of my reach...


How about prospectors maps?


tents...er I mean solar shielding.


I hate to admit it, but my brain initially processed the headline as:

"Google execs have backed an asteroid mining venture. In other news, James Cameron has been unveiled."

Then, after that horrendous attempt at comprehension, it came up with this, which was only slightly better:

"James Cameron has unveiled an asteroid mining venture that is backed by Google execs."


There was this nice piece by the NYT about the history and traditions of comma placement recently. Interesting read.

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/09/fanfare-for-...


Replace "," with "and".


This is actually one thing I've always been wondering about as a non-native speaker when reading English headlines. Is there any reason newspapers prefer this style? It sounds weird to me.


It's weird for us native speakers too, don't worry.

My guess is that it puts the information in the title in order from the most eye-grabbing to the least. (The more readable "Google Execs and James Cameron unveil Asteroid Mining Venture" puts the holy shit part of the title at the end.)


It's very much an American newspaper thing--I've never seen it in the British press, but it seems to be house style at the New York Times and its ilk.


I am tremendously excited to hear about this project; it's exactly what I want(ed) to do, these billionaires have just gotten the jump on me by a few (dozen) zeroes of net worth.

If any of them are reading, or anyone here knows them, I would do anything to get involved in this effort; the development and exploration of space is the most important mission in human history, and I'd love to put to work my business expertise, youthful energy, and eagerness to contribute... I'm well credentialed but more importantly extremely passionate!


> [...] I would do anything to get involved in this effort; [...]

Have you applied for a job at SpaceX, yet? That's one way to get involved with modern space faring.


It's an interesting proposition, but my intention has always been to find where I can be of greatest leverage. SpaceX is at a place in time / life / hiring that I think I wouldn't really be able to contribute to its mission (and mine) as much as I might by doing something else first. That plus I doubt I'd be of terrible appeal. The following are also true:

a) SpaceX appears more specifically to be looking for rocket engineers, etc, a background I do not have. (Good business / analytics / etc, but, a rocket engineer I am not). This problem likely applies to Planetary Resources as well. However...

b) Planetary Resources is more directly aligned with the mission I find most important - SpaceX is doing great things, and Elon Musk is super cool for insisting on his goal of making humans a multi-planetary species, but that's still a ways out. I don't know that I'd have as much ability to contribute. It's for this reason I've been trying to gain skills that would be of greater value down the line (business ones, in particular) in order to do what's necessary to help run and grow a commercial space venture.

c) I actually asked Elon Musk something on the subject - 'What advice do you have for people interested in getting involved early in these kinds of capital-intensive but world-changing businesses' and his answer was that, of course, it's helpful to have a few $100MMs from something like an internet company first :)


Indeed. I guess I just took the "I'd do everything." a bit too literal.


This is so unreal my brain has trouble deciding it's not a prank.


If we suddenly have large amounts of previously expensive (rare or difficult to extract) metals available, what will this do to commodity markets? Would prices be driven down?

If the price of $mineral goes down below a certain level, demand has to go up for continued asteroid mining to be viable. What future activities (apart from the obvious, like catalytic converters) might provide this demand?


It's just a question of efficiency, if the cheapest way to get platinum is asteroid mining then once it starts it can out compete traditional platinum mining.(1) Generally speaking as the price for a commodity drops the market for that commodity increases more than the price drop. AKA, if gold costs X, and you can produce gold for 1/2 the price then expect to sell more than 2x as much gold. With Oil being a classic example, it's used to make roads because it's so cheap vs. being a better road surface.

1) Not that anyone directly mines for just platinum it tends to be a byproduct of the refining process for things like nickel, copper or gold. Even 'platinum' mines end up producing platinum, palladium, rhodium, ruthenium, iridium and osmium rather than just platinum. Still, it significantly influence the profitability of such mining operations to the point where if the price drops many mines will slow down production.


Thank you. Very interesting.

Generally speaking as the price for a commodity drops the market for that commodity increases more than the price drop.

I know almost nothing about economics. Is there a general mechanism that explains this?


Substitution. What materials you use to build something is a function of their property's and their costs. AKA, you can use timber frame or steel to build a house which one you chose depends on their costs not just their inherent property's because either one will meet the same basic needs (strength, durability, toxicity, etc.)

Also, economy's are complex enough that there are a wide range of cost/benefit trade-offs going on. Electrically silver is a better conductor than copper which is better than Aluminum. While silver costs to much to be used for most wiring copper and aluminum tend to trade off based on weight strength issues. So, high tension power wires tend to use aluminum due to it's physical property's outweighing electrical issues after costs are taken into consideration.

Again this is just the size of the market in nominal value. AKA if the price drops to 1/2 and you sell 2.1 times as much the total market increased even if everyone's margins where squeezed.


I'm by no means an expert on the topic, and I don't have any specific examples to cite, but it seems like an almost weekly occurrence to read about some cool new technology that will 'never' be economically viable, due to the cost of the 'unobtanium' required to mass produce it (holy long sentence batman...).

It seems likely that the end result of a massive influx of rare materials would simply make 'never' happen a whole lot sooner. While the price would obviously fall (likely by quite a significant amount, that's kinda the point), I doubt it would fall to the point of being 'worthless.'


So then this is basically a bet on being able to "make 'never' happen a whole lot sooner". Or maybe they have someone in the background saying "sure, we can build the antigravity device / FTL drive but we'll need an mega-ton of platinum to make it work". The other alternative is that they believe all the "future of mankind" stuff...


Who do asteroids belong to? Can they just claim them and sell the material they extract?

Don't get me wrong, I would love to have my own asteroid mining company. Just need a couple billion dollars first. But what happens once there are two or more competing corporations? Who has the power to say which part of space belongs to whom? Will there be space battles?


Nobody owns or can own any celestial body according to the Outer Space Treaty[1]. Basically you can do whatever peaceful activity you want but you don't get to own anything in space except what you brought there. There is some legal question as to whether you own what you bring back, but you can certainly do whatever you want with it, including selling it.

Corporations operating in space are still subject to the laws of whatever national flag they're flying under, so I presume that the court system can come to some decision if more than one company wants to grab the same hunk of rock and metal. It'll probably be based on who launches their mission first, or something like that.


This has so much potential. Could this be the proper bootstrapping of us up there? (Thanks NASA for all the early scouting!)


I'm curious about how they plan to bring these materials here. I assume changing the trajectory of the asteroid towards Earth wouldn't be a very good idea, considering the potential risk of impact. Maybe small chunks of material brought by numerous cheap reentry capsules are the way to go.


I'd crash them into the moon (no atmosphere, so they wouldn't burn up on entry) for about a decade, then send ore-processing robots to smelt them down, then figure out later how to bring the results back.


Good idea at first look, but it would be tricky to get the trajectory right, though. The Moon's sphere of influence is tiny compared to the Earth's. You would need a guidance package and, perhaps more importantly in terms of cost, onboard rockets to change delta-v (and only one-use because they would be destroyed on impact).


How do I get a job as a space miner?


I think the comment about becoming a robot is accurate in its way, the 'pick' of a space miner is likely a semi-autonomous front loader equivalent which can process for a particular mineral/substance.

However, if you read the article (either the parent or the NYTimes one) you will see that there is some thought about bringing an asteroid to one of the Lagrange points or into a Lunar orbit (something that would make the chance of it getting away and hitting Earth unlikely). In that scenario one could imagine living in one of those inflatable habitats where you worked while you operated your remote mining pick.

Getting to and from that point would probably involve a 'loan' from the mining company, which you could pay off by mining the asteroid. Of course while you lived up there you would need things like food and stuff but you could get that at the company store. And rather than actually charge you for it they will just put it on your tab. You know, you load 16 tons, and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. :-)

As part of one of the lunar exploration projects I was looking at various ideas for processing lunar regolith into something more useful than just dirt. Water is pretty straight forward, basically it sublimates off stuff in a vacuum and you collect it and store it. Platinum is a different story, some sort of chemical/catalyzing process is required that does not require re-charging the chemical packs either at all or very often.


If you're bringing an object that close to home, I don't know why you'd need someone up there just to teleoperate the equipment. At that distance, the lightspeed delay gets low enough that the person with the joystick could work from earth.


It might be worth having someone up there to fix the equipment when something goes wrong... unless by that time we've developed teleoperated robots with the flexibility and dexterity and sensitivity needed to make arbitrary on-site repairs. You might remember from the Hubble repair missions [1] that these relatively simple tasks you might expect to take a few hours in an Earth-based lab took /days/ of EVA time. Imagine how much more difficult such things would be when you have to squint at the job through a camera (not as good as an eyeball), use clumsy manipulators instead of your fingers (you'll have force-feedback if you're lucky, but forget about feeling textures), and with some lightspeed delay on top of that. Don't underestimate the value of other human senses, either; often the first indication of a machine failing is that it sounds or smells wrong.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/STS-125#Extra-vehicular_activi...


I suspect this would be the likely case, and there would be repairs / refueling / retooling. If asteroid mining was anything like planet mining the ability to adapt tools on the spot and evolve quickly was a huge boon.

One of the places I like to camp is Plumas-Eureka State Park [1] which is the site of an old gold mine. The stamping mill is kind of still there. One of the things the blacksmith docent talked about was that there was a competitive advantage at a mine to having a creative blacksmith, since they could build tools well suited to the kinds of rock and conditions rather than relying on 'off the shelf' sort of designs.

[1] http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=507


> You know, you load 16 tons, and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. :-)

It's hard to be satirical about the future when all this stuff keeps coming true. ;)


Step 1: Become a robot.


Not an uncommon Science Fiction theme. And at the moment seems much more likely than a FTL drive.


I love the first picture of the drum about to "eat" the rock. Reminds me of the furnaces in the book "Higher Education"

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Higher_Education_(novel)



We've had discussions on HN before about NASA and man vs robotic space exploration. It's really hard to convince people that NASA should not be going to Mars and not be going back to the moon with people at this time. The best way for NASA to spend its money is to build LOTS of robotic explorers/surveyors and learn as much about the solar system as possible. When we find something of value then it'll be time to send humans, which should take more than 15-25 years once we survey the solar system. At that point we'll have a VC bubble with people trying to extract whatever resources we find.


This sounds awesome, but I couldn't help but think that once they've built a fleet of robots capable of moving entire asteroids around, there's another viable backup business model to which they could easily 'pivot':

1. Assemble several dozen (hundred?) of the non-platinum-bearing asteroids with your robots and aim them on a slingshot-accelerated path towards Earth.

2. Threaten the entire world (or at least rich countries) with massive kinetic orbital bombardment.

3. ... profit!

Brought to you by the guy who coined "Nuke them from orbit - it's the only way to be sure."


Wouldn't it be cheaper/easier to just buy/steal some nukes?


I almost upvoted all of your comments - its incredible - as if someone was reading our mind and finally said, let's just do what all of us ever wanted to do!


If this becomes commonplace in the future I wonder how much it will affect the Earth, wouldn't more mass cause changes in the Earth's rotation or orbit?

I know tonnes of crap from space falls to Earth each day or year, whatever the number is, but mining may bring more material back possibly denser metals rather than just rock dust and in a shorter period of time.

Interesting to ponder.


The mass of the entire asteroid belt is only about 0.05% of the Earth's, and the metallic (M-type) ones only 10% of that, so not much effect.

Interestingly, Ceres alone is 1/3 of the total mass, and the big four make up half.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asteroid_belt#Characteristics


Has anyone considered that this may be PR for the upcoming Prometheus? They have a TED talk on youtube, so it wouldn't surprise me.


This seems unlikely as Prometheus is being directly by Ridley Scott, not James Cameron.


Incredible, and kudos to everyone involved. I wish I'll live long enough to see the fruits of such efforts harvested.


Neat.

So I wonder where this puts us on the hockey stick curve of space exploration? Are we at the point of the spinning jenny or more towards the cotton gin in humanity's space timeline? Probably doesn't matter if you are sufficiently far enough into the future and have to squint backwards.


Still way, way over on the left side. We don't even have off-Earth colonies yet. We're on the cusp of being able to support cities in orbit, colonies on Mars, the Moon, and asteroids, etc. It'll be a fun ride.


If mines are such ugly, destructive things, why is it that I find this development so beautiful?


Mines are ugly and destructive because they fuck up habitable crust and life. There's none of that on an asteroid.


Because, real wealth creation (not fake skimming or wealth transfer) =

1. extract raw materials

2. apply labor + capital + innovation + time

3. sell final product for more than cost of inputs

4. Profit!!!

This announcement takes #1 literally out of this world. Still dirty perhaps, but beautiful.


Because if it's cheaper to get iron from an asteroid than Minnesota, we can stop tearing up Minnesota for iron.


Is it because asteroids are already ugly?


I'm not sure that's it. I don't hear of wrecking crews smashing up a derelict corporate wasteland (arguably far uglier than any natural shape) and feel some peaceful, "all is right" sensation.

Maybe something to do with the serenity of the void.

But probably more related to this being a step forward? A sense of progression? Could come from growing up reading and imagining anything to do with space exploration.

How many people on HN want to grab their colleagues right now, shake them, and yell "Why aren't you currently amazed? We're going to be mining IN FRICKIN' SPACE within our lifetimes?"


I'm supposed to be teaching a class on introductory Python (students are doing their exercises now) and I want to scrap the rest of the day to talk about how phenomenally awesome this news is.

I'll settle for a strange, quiet sense of elation.


"strange, quiet sense of elation" - good way of describing it. Pretty similar to how I felt after reading the article.


Are they considering also sources of energy (gases for example) to mine? I mean, metals are good, but we will need more energy too. Also, what metals can they mine? Can they mine lithium (maybe we can ship 'batteries' to charge on the moon or asteroids?)?

Cool stuff anyway.


Solar is a better bet for energy in near earth space as opposed to batteries. That changes as you go out to the Belt and Mars, but even then a radio thermal generator (RTG) is probably better.

If you want to ship energy to Earth surface you want solar again. Generate electricity from panels, convert to microwave, beam to receivers on Earth, convert back to electricity, problem solved. And no, the beam density would not high enough to cook anyone.

Google "space based solar power" for more.


You're going to burn a lot more energy getting to and from the asteroid than what you'd be able to bring back.


If you need energy on earth, fission thorium.


Get Bruce Willis involved and put up the Kickstarter page. Take my money.


I wouldn't say that there's much of a funding barrier in this, many of the people involved have more money than has been transmitted over kickstarter in its entire history :-). I think if you want to really help with this, you should offer to work on the project with them. I'm sure they're going to need a large amount of code written, research done, mechanical widgets made, and so on, depending on your specialty.


What are the property implications? Does a company "own" an asteroid simply by being the first to land on it, or do companies need to bid on asteroids to mine from (and who is in charge of that)?


I would assume space is just like the Wild West. Whatever you claim is yours, so long as you can defend it.


Link to their live public announcement :: Tuesday April 24 at 10:30 AM PDT :: http://www.spacevidcast.com/live/


> "at 1:30 p.m. EDT (1730 GMT) Tuesday (April 24) during a news conference at Seattle's Museum of Flight."

I'm not in America. Does anyone know where I can see this live online?



Build yourself a rocket ship,

Blast off on an ego trip.

Can this really be the end?

Back to work you go again.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I6IQ_FOCE6I


If sci-fi has taught us anything, it's that this can only lead to a dystopian future where mankind is ruled by warring mega-corporations. Also, space pirates.


I can't help but feel that Asimov would be proud.


Asimov would probably start kvetching about how long it took, but otherwise, probably.

The one who'd really be chortling, though, would be Heinlein, who was (almost) always a terrific proponent of privatized (almost) everything, especially space exploration.


Ads like this in the center of the article really detract from the read =(

http://wsld.me/G4q5


I heard Mr. Cameron is already suiting up for the mission. I wonder where is secret door is this time...


So what happened at the press conference at 1pm? Were more details released?


Genius idea. It'll be like playing Homeworld again :)


I wouldn't drink water from a heavy-metal rich asteroid.


Right now, here on Earth, heavy metals are being extracted from water to make it drinkable. If you've ever drank water that wasn't straight from a well, you've had water that has had heavy metals filtered from it.


How much is the Unobtainium gonna go for?


ALL HAIL OUR NEW OVERLORDS.


Wow, wow, wow, wow, what can I do to support this adventure? Buying more android phones?


I love the optimism I naturally want to jump on the band wagon and I doubt my comment will get a single up vote but here it goes:

What about:

1) Biological issues (space viruses etc.)

2) Accidents (opps the orbit changed it's heading for Chicago)

3) More AI for robots, Skynet finally has a good resource base

4) "Today in the news global markets failed as PRI announced capturing a 1 billion metric ton astroid with 80% gold and platinum content"

I am actually super excited just thought it was interesting to think about the counter issues.


#1 'Andromeda strain' I'm sure that scientists will the first to study anything returned from the first mined asteroid.

#2 The asteroid they are returning will weigh less than the ISS and be parked further away. Tackling the control/direction of asteroids is something we want to learn anyway.

#3 We are a long way from strong AI. If strong AI is created, asteroid mining would be the smallest footnote in its capabilities.

#4 There are abundant industrial uses for PGMs so there is a high floor price and continuing demand. Markets have established systems for dealing with periodic resource delivery (futures).


  1)  Any theoretical space viruses can already get to Earth just fine.  We're pretty sure they don't exist though.
  2)  Yup, a real concern.  I'm glad they're starting with a reasonably sized asteroid.
  3)  An AI rebellion probably won't look like what Hollywood says it will.
  4) Awesome!  There are so many cool things that you can do with gold and platinum that we don't because they're so damn expensive.


Probability of PR stunt rather than truth - 99%, but if it is true we can definitely say we are in a new era.


Larry Page doesn't really strike me as someone that needs to do a lot of PR stunts.


Time will tell, my money is on PR stunt.


The calibre of the backers leaves me certain that this is not a PR stunt. Does the founder of one of the world's best known companies need any additional PR? How about the director of one of the all-time top grossing movies?

Seriously, the chances of this being just a PR stunt are practically nil. If they did want to get some individual PR, there would be cheaper ways to do it - e.g. buying a popular TV network and broadcasting PageNews 24/7, while paying people to watch it.


Safe to say that we agree. Best not feed the conspiracy trolls. :)


Do you want to bet? Your 99% certainty seems to imply that you offer 1:99 offers? At those rates I am more than happy to bet 100 GBP on the other side.


What is the math behind mining resources on asteroids?

Assume it takes 50 billion to get to the point where you can mine your first asteroid, how much of what resource is in that asteroid that they can resell to terrestrial earth dwellers who need it for profit?

Or does this not matter at this point?

Further, what will the harvested resources be used to build? Military hardware? If so then I am very unimpressed with what this would mean to our civilization.

While I think it is "cool" - there are so freaking many problems with humans on earth that I feel we largely ignore our core issues and focus on shiny objects.

Every government on the planet is broken, we a a slave species to debt and we kill, exploit and oppress ourselves.

Now, what would be interesting if the took these resources to build a huge floating city-state in the middle of the ocean (or orbit) however, this would just be future-feudalism as it would be living in the corporation.

EDIT: I love how people on HN downvote without any comment. My point is completely valid, it is also my opinion - you don't need to agree, but it would be nice if you attempted to address my question regarding the economics of this effort.


OK I'll feed the troll. You got downvoted because your comment makes it seem like you didn't read the article, or any of the supplemental articles linked to in this thread. A few quick examples of why I think this - Why did you assume 50 billion - that is not supported at all by the article. Why are you asking what resources are in the asteroid when the article answers that? Why are you assuming they want to resell those to "earth dwellers" when the article mentions applications involving resupplying other space missions? TL;DR - if we criticized every poorly researched post in detail instead of just downvoting, we'd have no time left in our day to do anything else.




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