At the end of April I heard about a company called Planetary Resources. They had just held a press conference announcing their intention to mine near-earth asteroids (extracting water, iron, platinum group metals). Their motivations include accessing the “near limitless” resources available in the form of space rock, setting up interspace refueling stations, driving the development of new technologies necessary for space travel, and adding trillions of dollars to the global GDP.
This isn’t the first private space enterprise (see SpaceX or BlueOrigin). Nor is it the first mission to an asteroid (see NASA’s Dawn mission to Ceres and Vesta, the two most massive asteroids). But when Planetary Resources made this announcement the Internet did a double take. That was my impression. Well I did a double take, a sustained one. I’m doing it right now. It seems Planetary Resources is different from its predecessors in terms of cash (investors include a couple of Google executives and Ross Perot Jr), publicity (director James Cameron is on the board), technique (their long-term plan is built realistically on current technology, and several top-level NASA engineers are involved), and vision (the prophetic entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, creator of the X-Prize Competition, co-founded this whole enterprise). I read coverage by the Economist, Discover Magazine, and several blogs. Everything I read was full of wonder and excitement. How could it not be? It’s outer space. Most of us have had dreams about exploring it during our lifetimes.
My gut reaction however was not wonder but angst. Unaccountable angst. I tried to describe it to my friends, to argue it with fellow scientists. On Monday I decided to be professional and read about the proposal from a couple of angles. How feasible is the plan? Do international treaties speak to this venture? My thoughts kept returning to the theme of resource exploitation in science fiction: take any Earth invasion plot, or better take Cameron’s recent blockbuster. I thought about the content of their proposal, and the tone of their proposal. Then I realized I had a final exam in 3 days, and I hadn’t even eaten dinner. I was exhausted, and I didn’t have a justification for my angst. I went to bed hungry, and I dreamed.
The asteroid came to me in my dream like a giant, moving slow, breathing slow. I was not frightened, only curious. His surface was interesting. He rolled in black space, and he spoke to me as he rolled. How can I describe it? He said, “Do you know me?”
“I do not, sir.”
“In what lies my worth?”
“I do not know, sir.” We paused here and watched one another.
“Think. Though you are a very little rock, and you move about so quickly, I have no doubt you can think.”
“Sir, you contain many precious resources: trillions of dollars of metals, and abundant ice. We humans could carve off chunks of your ice and leave them in strategic locations for our travels throughout the solar system. That would save us millions, maybe billions of dollars of payload expenses.”
“And before these particular resources became valuable to you was I of any particular worth?”
I thought. “Sir, your knowledge has long been valuable to us. Your chemical composition has great scientific import. You may tell us about our early solar system: how it formed, and from what. You are much older than our earth or our moon. And so you can reveal secrets to us that they cannot.”
“And were I to hide such secrets from you, would I have any worth? Or were you to extract this knowledge from me fully, would I then have any worth?”
“Sir,” I said, now stretching my imagination, “perhaps there is a tiny chance that we might discover life on your surface or deep in your caves. You have no atmosphere, and you are very very cold. But perhaps there is a chance. We humans find great value in creaturely life of all kinds.”
He watched me and seemed sad for me. I wondered if he took offense at me pointing out that he wasn’t a creature. I wanted to stay and watch him, his surface was so interesting. But instead I awoke.
I walked to school this morning. It was cold and quiet. Students slept in or studied for exams. I thought of the asteroid. I almost loved him. Can you love an asteroid? What majestic solitude. What patience. He never clamored for attention his whole long life. He watched from the periphery as our little earth grew warm and humid, as the dinosaurs wandered and died. He’s watching now, even as we look up at him with our rockets and our digging machines.
(image from http://www.planetaryresources.com)