As NASA explores the Martian landscape with robots and plans a second series of picnics on the Moon, a handful of companies are working toward the goal of turning a profit by mining the asteroids. The idea is of course as old as science fiction, but this NY Times piece on Planetary Resources shows us how their business model comes at it from a different direction:
Company leaders at Planetary Resources said in an interview that their business model would be based on the journey itself. Creating a company that could one day launch ships into the unknown darkness of space, and, rather like the shipping magnates of sailing and whaling days past, wait years for a booty-laden return means selling space technology along the way—much of which will have to be invented—to help finance the dream.
The company is developing its own orbital telescope, for example, geared to survey remote asteroids to figure out what they are made of, with a planned launching within two years. But it also plans to produce the devices commercially, with a price in the single-digit millions, for corporations, governments or individuals. The idea, company officials said, is to finance finding and mining asteroids by selling, in a sense, the shovels and picks.
There will always be a role in space exploration for organizations like NASA. When it comes to scientific exploration, technology R&D, or wildly expensive programs that push our horizons outward to places where we don’t even have an inkling of where there is wealth to be created, large, state-funded programs play an important part. But it is the efforts of companies like Planetary Resources that will ultimately decide if humanity moves into a space in a serious way.
Another thought occurred to us as we read this: No doubt the record low interest rates caused by central banks flooding the world with money have something to do with the availability of capital for projects like this. Even if that’s so, it’s a good thing to see private interests and private capital taking an interest in space.