Neil deGrasse Tyson, the renowned astrophysicist, said in an interview in 2015, that the first trillionaire would be the person who exploits the natural resources on asteroids. And now numerous entrepreneurs are aiming to be the first to mine asteroids for the minerals or water they contain.
One of the more prominent space-mining startups is Planetary Resources. They were founded in 2012 and feature high-profile investors such as movie director James Cameron and Google co-founder Larry Page.
At the beginning of 2018, Planetary Resources had just launched a brand-new miniature satellite with a proprietary design, one that would use a mid-wave infrared imager to detect sources of water beyond Earth’s atmosphere. It was the first move toward their longer-term goal of mining the first asteroid.
In 2016, Planetary Resources had raised $21 million, and then an additional $28 million via a partnership deal with the government of Luxembourg, a country aiming to position itself as the Earth-based hub for all things interplanetary mining–related.
However, the company based in Redmond, Wash., soon found itself facing some issues: Not being able to raise enough funds caused employee layoffs. It was reported that the staff shrank from approximately 70 workers to only about ten workers. Moreover, Luxembourg sold its 10% stake in the company. By the end of August, CEO Chris Lewicki intended to auction off laptops and other equipment.
Although asteroid mining is a potentially lucrative business, for instance, a report by Goldman Sachs estimated the platinum found on one asteroid could be worth as much as $50 billion, they still need to figure out ways to overcome the technical obstacles of mining them. External observers stated that any company looking at drilling into space rocks had best get ready for a long wait.
George Sowers, a professor in the space resources program at the Colorado School of Mines, explained that there will be many bumps in the road to creating this entirely new field, so any startup company that had these grandiose ambitions has to be pragmatic about setting up a reliable revenue stream.
Another asteroid mining competitor company called Deep Space Industries (DSI), based in San Jose, has given up on their focus to mine asteroids until they can be much more sure that the cost of travelling to those asteroids won’t bankrupt the business.
For the past year and a half, DSI has been working on producing a spacecraft that will cost less than $10 million. CEO Bill Miller explained that there’s a big need for low-cost transportation to deep space and a commercially viable strategy, so that’s what the company is focusing on currently.
This October marked another exciting turn of events for the asteroid-mining industry. They came across another technology vying to define the rest of the century. Planetary Resources’ assets were acquired by ConsenSys, a Brooklyn-based blockchain company founded by Joe Lubin, co-founder of the cryptocurrency Ethereum.
However, no one knows precisely what a blockchain startup wants with a space-mining company. Details surrounding the transaction are confidential, and in a statement, made by Lubin it seemed as if journeying into space is a natural outgrowth for his company, noting that the purchase reflects their belief in democratizing and decentralizing space initiatives. For the broad endeavour of fracking the galaxy for profit, however, the underlying message is a simple one: Find an alternative source of funding, at least for now.
As per University of Arizona professor Dante Lauretta, a principal investigator for NASA’s Osiris-Rex asteroid mission, the concept of space mining within the next ten years seemed like a viable goal, in 2017. However, with 2019 soon approaching, he says, it now feels much loftier.
Lauretta, who serves on Planetary Resources’ scientific advisory board, explained that it takes a long time to get up to an asteroid, to process material, to deliver that material. It’s a prospect that could take many decades to accomplish.
However, that doesn’t mean no one will ever mine asteroids. The Osiris spacecraft is coming close to an asteroid known as Bennu and will try to land on its surface in the summer of 2020 to gather samples to send back to Earth.
Lauretta is confident that the scientific and engineering challenges of asteroid mining will be overcome, stating that there’s nothing they can’t solve it’s just about getting the business case in place.
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