On a Mote of Dust, Suspended in a Sunbeam

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Abhimanyu Roy's picture

On a Mote of Dust, Suspended in a Sunbeam

As a child, I was enthralled by science and growing up in the 90’s only furthered my obsession. NASA, unhindered by the financial turbulence that would beset it during the coming decade, explored unchartered reaches of space. The Dot-com boom fueled ever more fantastical visions of the future. Even the box office was dominated by science fiction films like Independence Day and Jurassic Park. As I grew older though, I became disenchanted – science gave way to business and dreams were replaced by reality. However, this is not a private story of self-discovery. There are many parallels between that young boy’s disillusionment and that of the mass cynicism that we as a society exhibit about space travel today.

Houston, we have a problem

The year 1983 bears no special watershed moment in the timeline of space exploration, but it should. In the 31years since then, never have we had as many orbital launches in a single year.[1] So, what happened?

Cost was one problem.[2] After the end of the cold war, space exploration was delinked from national security. It’s easier to justify spending a billion dollars when lives are at stake than when the missions are thought of as frivolous lunar dalliances. Safety was another issue.[3] Three percent of all astronauts have died flying – to put that into perspective, wounded US soldiers in Afghanistan had a 5% fatality rate. Finally, an oft overlooked aspect is revenue generation.[4] Scientific endeavors in space are analogous to the pharmaceutical industry – any new knowledge will take a while to manifest itself into commercial applications. Much like the boy who switched from engineering to business upon discovering banks pay more, we chose the Earth over space. An industry with high costs, low supply of labor and uncertain revenue streams is not going to attract investment. That’s just simple economics…or is it?

As wonderful a discipline as economics is, it fails to account for human curiosity. There was no money to be made from voyages to the Arctic and the Antarctic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet, those intrepid explorers always found their funding. In much the same way, tech billionaires flush with cash from their internet ventures created aviation companies that picked up where governments were starting to leave off. Billionaires like Paypal founder Elon Musk and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos spearhead the new generation of space exploration.[5] While space tourism has been the most associated revenue model with these companies, in my opinion the greatest promise is held out by another project – Planetary Resources, an asteroid mining company backed by Google and Virgin Galactic.[6]

A Small Step, a Giant Leap

To understand why asteroid mining can revolutionize space exploration, one needs to address the historical problems with space travel in the context of the present. Let’s start with cost. The main cost components for space travel are disposable launch systems and fuel.

Disposable launch systems are akin to building a new airplane every time you want to take a flight.[7] The sight of astronauts landing in the ocean might have captured the public’s imagination but the wasted millions behind rockets that can only be used once has kept space flight prohibitively expensive. That is set to change with several private companies experimenting with reusable rockets. One of them – SpaceX – even tested one of its prototypes earlier this month. The test deemed a partial success by the company (the rocket crashed into the landing zone) brings the technology one step closer to complete realization.

While reusable launch systems are an industry-wide trend towards cost-effectiveness, innovations in fuel utilization are specific to Planetary Resources.[8] In order to reach asteroids farther away in our solar system, the company is looking at methods to refuel their space-crafts while they are en-route to their destinations. The idea they are exploring is finding celestial bodies that have water and splitting that into its constituent elements – hydrogen and oxygen – to create a viable propulsion fuel. If successful, this would radically alter the economics of space travel – not only would the payload carried by the ships decrease but the costs associated with reaching escape velocity would also be changed.

The next point to consider is safety. Of course, the simplest way to reduce death rates is not to send people up and Planetary Resources proposes exactly this by using robots to carry out mining operations.[9] Admittedly, that sounds like science fiction. Unless, you consider the current happenings in robotics. NASA’s Robonaut 2 is a humanoid robot that has displayed the capabilities of grasping tools and moving payload.[10] Most interestingly though, it uses an open-source operating system – the Robot Operating System (ROS). ROS, dubbed as the ‘android for robots’ is also being used by the R&D departments of Boeing and Airbus. The anticipated upgrade (ROS 2.0) is due out in summer of this year and promises greater maneuverability and dexterity.[11] In all likelihood, this frontier would be the quickest to be conquered in finding feasible solutions to asteroid mining.

Lastly, we have revenue generation, which is where asteroid mining trumps other likely business models like space tourism and scientific experimentation. The financial impact of Planetary Resources is immediate. It is not contingent upon the marketing prowess of the organization in getting High Net-Worth Individuals to sign up for the service nor on the uncertain future commercial outcomes of experiments. NASA and the ESA both confirm that there are near-Earth objects that contain an abundance of rare metals like Rhodium and Iridium as well are enough iron ore to satisfy our needs for eons.[12] Projected revenues for a mining organization with access to such resources would be in the billions. All that is required is the pioneering spirit to get them here.

You have to know the Past to Understand the Present

Pioneering Spirit. If there are two words that encapsulate human zeal and the power of perseverance that would be them. Great cities like New York and Los Angeles owe their existence to the indomitable courage exhibited by explorers in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Asteroid Mining and the corresponding advances in technology would have a similar impact on human civilization. The lowering of cost barriers would lead to space no longer being an exclusive domain of the ultra-rich. The knowledge gained by putting robots in space would facilitate greater safety during voyages and the promise of greater revenue from asteroids that are located farther away would eventually lead to the establishment of manned outposts in space.

This is not fantasy and the seeds to this end are being sown right now. Planetary Resources is developing small toaster-sized space telescopes for surveying near-Earth asteroids for possible mining prospects.[13] However, once the long-term is factored into this one can expect human settlements in space that can control space-crafts as far away as the asteroid belt that separates the inner and outer planets of our solar system.

An advancement along similar lines comes from the Mars One project that seeks to establish a human colony on Mars by 2025. Currently in its initial stages, Mars One’s audacious goal is being backed by Lockheed Martin.[14] Whatever its result though, most scientists agree that for humanity’s advancement it is necessary to explore and colonize new worlds.[15] For that to happen, we need a reason to go these new worlds and asteroid mining provides that reason.

Pale Blue Dot

It was in the heady 90’s while searching for more Jules Verne novels in the school library that I came across a brand new tome in the new arrivals section. It had an orange planet on the cover and purported to tell the tale of humanity’s future in space. It was the first non-fiction book that I ever read. The title of this essay comes from Carl Sagan’s ‘Pale Blue Dot’. In it, he muses on the insignificance of the Earth upon seeing a picture of our planet taken from the Voyager space probe.

For all the wisdom that we have accumulated over the centuries, we are merely a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. Our knowledge is far outweighed by the infinite unknown of the enveloping darkness of space.

In this day, every scientific breakthrough must have commercial implications to warrant future research. Asteroid Mining does that. But it’s so much more. It can be the key to future space expeditions and from there onwards the cornerstone upon which build our own future as a species.