Thursday, May 03, 2012

Resources from Space?

Last week a company called Planetary Resources, Inc. announced its intention to develop the means of exploiting minerals from near-earth asteroids on a for-profit basis.  This news got some attention for its novelty, particularly at a time when the concerns of most companies are distinctly earthbound.  It also attracted sneers from some in the financial press, though the author of a particularly scathing analysis in the Financial Times seems to have confused recovering material on the scale of a NASA space probe with the kind of large-scale mining that Planetary Resources contemplates.  I don't know whether there's a pony in there or not, somewhere down the road, but there's certainly a larger message to be gleaned: The company's announcement serves as a useful reminder that the earth we live on is not a closed system.  Anyone interested in truly long-term sustainability must take account of that. 

Every aspect of our lives is affected by energy received from outside the earth's atmosphere.  Other than nuclear, geothermal and tidal power, all our energy sources make direct or indirect use of sunlight that has been stored via photosynthesis or redistributed by the atmosphere and the hydrolologic cycle.  And at least some of the resources we use arrived here during the bombardment this planet received from space in its early stages.  You can carry that logic all the way to Carl Sagan's memorable comment that we are "made of star stuff." However, my main interest in this--and apparently that of the impressive list of staff and investors in Planetary Resources, Inc.--is on a practical, rather than philosophical level.     

Start with the negative side of the ledger, which reminds us that although greatly diminished, the bombardment of earth from space still continues.  A chapter in Neil deGrasse Tyson's latest book, "Space Chronicles", includes a sobering chart on the scale, relative damage, and frequency of impacts large enough to merit a comparison to nuclear weapons.  As the Spacewatch project has documented, the volume of space through which we orbit the sun is not nearly as empty as we'd wish.  Sooner or later we or our descendants will need capabilities such as those the Planetary Resources folks hope to develop--not for mining but to move a big rock like Apophis out of our way.  Tackling climate change won't matter much if a nasty like that drops into the Pacific Ocean or turns part of a continent into dust.  Dealing with low-probability, high-consequence risks is never easy, as we've learned to our regret in the last few years.

On a more positive note, the resources available in space are enormous, though at this point the cost of capitalizing on them is even larger.  If that gap is ever to narrow, it will happen through the efforts of groups like Planetary Resources.  Pure science only takes you so far, and building defenses against a global threat that might not materialize for a thousand or a million years is unlikely to galvanize governments that aren't even sure how to navigate the next year or decade, yet.  But getting rich remains a pretty reliable motivation. If someone succeeds in overcoming the numerous obstacles that an effort such as that described on the company's website faces, rich won't begin to describe them.

Pursuing an opportunity like this isn't a substitute for addressing our present challenges on earth.  My long-time readers know that I'm very interested in--and was even briefly involved in--space solar power. Its potential  is also enormous, but that doesn't mean we should stop drilling for the hydrocarbons we'll need for the next several decades, while developing the renewable energy sources and other technologies that will help to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Space solar power isn't a bridge to a future energy technology; it's the kind of technology toward which we need a bridge.  I view space resources in much the same light.  We talk a lot about the impact on the climate a century from now of the emissions we're producing today.  Why wouldn't we also plan for the resource base that the world of the late 21st century might need, unless we expect our descendants to be many fewer in number and so frugal that they consume less per person than the citizens of today's least developed countries?  That vision might appeal to some environmentalists, but it doesn't appeal to me.

Planetary Resources faces huge risks, not the least of which are the customary ones faced by any startup.  MIT's Technology Review has a thought-providing article on the difficulties that energy startups face today, and many of the points it makes would also apply to a space development company. It's not entirely irrelevant that the company's announcement came in the same month that one of our last space shuttles was flown to its new home in the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy aerospace museum not far from where I live. In order to succeed they must do something no one else has done before, in an environment as unforgiving as any that humanity has faced.  Yet while I'm not in a position to bet my retirement savings on an idea like this, I'm very glad that some of those who have made their fortunes starting companies in other industries are willing to wager a portion of their wealth on this proposition.  In the slim chance that they win their bet, it will change the world.