"Space is big. Really Big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely, mind-bogglingly big," as the Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy once noted. About the only thing nearly as big, it seems safe to say, are today's hopes of making money exploring space.
Which are looking a lot brighter today, for at least two reasons.
The big news, of course, is that the SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule managed to dock with the International Space Station on Friday, marking the first launch and delivery of supplies to the orbiting lab by a privately funded vehicle. "A Dragon by the tail," as station astronaut Don Pettit said, after using the station's robot arm to bring the cargo capsule into a successful berth. The capture puts SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif., on track to earn its $1.6 billion contract to help resupply the station.
But another reason, almost lost amid the excitement over the Dragon mission, offers some comfort to even more ambitious folks, including would-be asteroid miners at the recently-announced start-up Planetary Resources of Bellevue, Wash.
There are about twice as many nearby asteroids whose orbits tilt to match Earth's as previously estimated, it turns out, according to results announced earlier this month from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) spacecraft.
To astronomers such as asteroid survey principal investigator, Amy Mainzer of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., that means more "potentially hazardous asteroids" in Earth's neighborhood to watch. But for asteroid miners, that means twice as many easier-to-reach targets for them to discover.
In a nutshell, Planetary Resources plans to first map nearby asteroids with small, cheap telescopes, spotting the valuable ones loaded with platinum or rare earth metals used in expensive camera lenses and electronics. Those will be mined, with the valuable minerals returned to Earth for a tidy sum.
"We are going to identify the most valuable asteroids closest to Earth, ones with strategic metals, and go out to them. It is an audacious, bold, vision," says Planetary Resources co-founder Peter Diamandis. He is also chairman of the X-Prize Foundation, which offers million-dollar rewards for technological triumphs, and the director of Space Adventures, Ltd, which has shipped eight tourists to the space station.
And with Steven Kotler, Diamandis is the author of this year's Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think. As you might suspect, he has bigger visions than just making money off space platinum, and the book carries a message of optimism about the future that he hopes to help put into action (helped by billionaire backers such as Google tycoons Larry Page and Eric Schmidt) with Planetary Resources. "At the end of the day, one of our goals has been to change people's mindset on how they view scarcity, transforming problems into opportunities," Diamandis says. "So far, interest has been off the charts," he says, since the start-up's April announcement of plans to put dozens of small telescopes into space to map the near-Earth asteroids.