The world that we live in is seeing a strange thing happen – visionaries are gathering large amounts of money to themselves, and are assuming risks that beforehand would not have been tolerated. Take Elon Musk, perhaps the poster child for all of this. He created Paypal, a company that revolutionized small-scale electronic payments. He then sold it to eBay, but rather than rest on his laurels or develop another software/service product, he decided to throw his entire fortune behind SpaceX and Tesla Motors. Tesla has floundered, but SpaceX may well pave the way for commercial use of space, and it has already become the first commercial entity to ever launch a reusable capsule to space and retrieve it.
And that environment has now spawned the most ambitious of them all – Planetary Resources. They’re going to harvest volatiles and metals from Near-Earth Objects (NEOs), asteroids that swing past the planet. And they’re backed by five or six billionaires, all of them technological visionaries. The business plan that they’re operating under is a multi-step process, first building small observation satellites to study asteroids, then beginning the initial mining phase not by going for high value metals, but for basic necessities such as water and oxygen.
This is a departure from the traditional descriptions of asteroid mining, almost all of which revolved around the extreme value of rare earth metals, gold, platinum, and similar elements. But water goes for $20,000 a litre in space, and if Planetary Resources can get their production costs under that figure, they’ll be able to sell to the ISS, and whatever commercial space stations exist at that time (Bigelow Aerospace, most likely). And demand for water and oxygen will never go away, instead increasing the more that humans use space.
Likewise, iron and nickel might be boring metals, but they’re extremely common in asteroids, and would make for a decent basic construction material for space stations and other structures. After all, one of the primary reasons for not using weighty metals in space construction to date is the cost. When launch costs are in the range of $20,000 a pound, using a lighter weight construction process is extremely important. But if the metal is already there, and relatively easily available (Nickel-Metal asteroids are often 95% nickel and iron), then much of the cost for construction can be reduced. Compared to the construction cost on Earth, it will still be astronomical, but then, that’s the nature of space.
All in all, the hope is that companies like Planetary Resources are able to sufficiently lower the costs of getting to space that corporations that generally thrive in lower margin environments can arrive. Of course, that will take a good long time and a great many risks, but one can hope that the process is now accelerated.