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Glitter in the dark

24 April 2012 By Kevin Allison

Shady corporation sends robot army into space to mine precious metals from asteroids. That’s the basic setup of Blade Runner, the sci-fi epic that hit cinemas 30 years ago this June. It’s also the business plan for Planetary Resources, a U.S. startup that has outlined its strategy to take the mining industry into near-Earth orbit. The economics look challenging, to say the least. But the idea is not completely bonkers.

The hitherto publicity-shy company’s backers, including Google billionaire Larry Page and Titanic director James Cameron, are hardly the first eccentric technologists to cotton onto the idea. Mining from asteroids has been a staple of futurist thinking since the Russian rocket pioneer Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky first proposed it in the early 1900s.

Fast-forward a century and high commodity prices, a mini-boom in private space flight and miners’ soaring labor and energy costs have combined to reinvigorate interest in tapping the vast resources of outer space. The cost of mining platinum on earth is rising at 16 to 20 percent per year. Anglo American, the world’s biggest platinum producer, estimates that about half the world’s production is unprofitable at today’s price of about $1,500 per ounce.

Assuming they could be economically put into orbit, space-faring robots equipped with solar panels or small nuclear power plants would be largely immune to such cost pressures – and wouldn’t go on strike, either. Peter Diamandis, Planetary Resources’ co-founder, estimates a single asteroid 30 meters in diameter could contain up to $50 billion worth of platinum. There are thought to be hundreds of thousands of such objects within relatively easy reach of Earth.

Launch and recovery costs may be bigger hurdles to a vibrant asteroid mining industry. Planetary Resources says its top priority will be to develop cheaper launch technologies. Yet even if it could land a robot miner on an orbiting rock for a fraction of the current $50 million to $500 million price tag of modern space missions, getting mined material safely back down could prove excessively costly.

Still, there are worse ways for billionaires to spend their money. Even if the project fails to return a single rock to Earth, its backers may still benefit if the company’s technologies find application in space tourism or terrestrial mining – not to mention the odd Hollywood screenplay.


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