Seeking El Dorado in space
By Richard Stenger
(CNN) -- A handful of entrepreneurs have set their sights on some heavenly dividends, whether by strip mining the moon for energy, extracting platinum from asteroid mountains or distilling water from dormant comets.
In the past those hoping to transform the final frontier into cosmic cash have drawn mostly snickers. But in recent years such mavericks have elicited something else -- respect and funding from major industries and governments in the usually exclusive club of space exploration.
The assortment of scientists, investors and bureaucrats pushing for mining in space envision an incredibly wide range of ventures. Naturally many would like first to exploit the moon, the Earth's nearest celestial neighbor.
Jim Lewis, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona, thinks the moon could help Earth whet its voracious energy appetite. It possesses all the raw materials necessary to construct simple solar arrays.
"If we build them on the moon, we can extract all the materials from the lunar dirt. With a small factory on the moon, we could churn out enormous solar arrays from the materials," Lewis said.
"Most of the mass is simple stuff, just wires and beams, nuts and bolts. There's just no reason to launch this stuff from the space shuttle. (The expense) would kill a program dead."
Lewis derides the shuttle "as the most expensive way to put a pound of cargo into orbit devised by the human mind." Each pound costs $10,000. Lewis and others suggest private alternatives could do the job at a fraction of the cost.
Striking lunar pay dirt
But building this particular infrastructure on the moon would avoid the cost of an Earth launch altogether. By collecting solar rays on the lunar surface and beaming them to Earth receivers, it also would avoid the environmental consequences of burning fossil fuels.
Lewis acknowledges it would have staggering up-front costs, but argues that it could provide electricity cheaper than conventional means.
"We can at least meet or undercut price of energy in the industrialized world."
Others think they can coax energy from the moon another way. Harrison Schmitt, who walked on the moon in 1972, wants to mine an unusual form of helium from his former stomping grounds.
Helium 3, nearly absent on Earth but common on the moon, could serve as rocket fuel for deep space vessels, according to the former Apollo astronaut.
Others are not so sure. "I can't make the numbers work out economically. You would have to mine 100 million tons of lunar dirt for 1 ton of helium 3," said Lewis, the target of skeptics himself for his solar space ideas.
"I still can't make the case in my mind to collect energy in space and beam it back down on Earth. It would be better to collect it on the ground," said Jim Bensen, founder of SpaceDev, a California-based company seeking to turn a profit in space by any means necessary.
Space capitalists view each other like artists perusing the work of their peers. They share the same dreams, inspirations and tools of the trade. But each is convinced his vision is correct while all others are blurry.
Jim Muncy, an aerospace consultant, considers the rivalry healthy.
"We don't know how space is going to unfold as a frontier," he said. "It's good to have a competition of ideas, all contributing their different ideas of how we're getting into space."
Mother lodes dwarf U.S. GNP
The first places where humans could strike it rich in space are a handful of asteroids near Earth, composed almost completely of valuable metals: iron, nickel, gold, platinum.
In particular, the asteroid Amun, a mountain of natural stainless steel mixed with precious metals, contains 30 times as much metal as humans have mined and processed throughout history, Lewis said. The smallest of dozens of known metallic asteroids, it would be worth at least an estimated $20 trillion based on current market prices.
"We should view this asteroid as a resource instead of a threat," he said.
Bensen does. He had originally hoped to send a probe this year to check mining prospects on a heavy metal asteroid. But finding investors for this specific journey has been a challenge, as has figuring a way to bring back the goods.
"How do you chip a piece of a one-mile mountain of steel? I haven't solved that one in my mind," Bensen said.
Yet the former Internet mogul is upbeat. "The natural resources in near-Earth space are unimaginable. All these asteroids have untold wealth and they are easy to get to."
A prospecting mission to an asteroid would access the economic value, establish an ownership claim and cost under $50 million, Bensen said.
"Anyone who owns a mega-yacht or large jet can afford their own planetary deep space mission."
Such a mission has in fact already been undertaken. In February, a NASA probe settled onto the dusty surface of the asteroid Eros. Although composed mostly of rock, the 21-mile-long potato-shaped lump contains a lode of precious metal comparable to Amun.
Space mining enthusiasts concede that political and economic realities likely will delay the ambitions for decades. Yet most remain optimistic.
"It's going to take a long time, but I'm not going to be a skeptic. I think it's going to happen sometime in the future," Muncy said.
Economics will necessitate it. Most of the Earth's valuable metals remain locked far below the surface in the unimaginably hot and dense core.
Only a small fraction has bubbled close enough to the surface through volcanic cracks and fissures to be extracted through mining, which will deplete the available metals within an estimated three centuries.
In the meantime, prospective space miners contemplate other ways to make space pay. Some asteroids in our neighborhood are thought to be dormant comets, primordial icebergs coated with layers of rocky debris.
Elusive Holy Grail in space
Whoever can tap them would have at their fingertips the most precious substance in space travel.
"If we can get to the water inside, that's the secret to opening space. And that is my personal Holy Grail," Bensen said.
Any serious ventures beyond Earth would require using resources in space. The cost of blasting them, including water, beyond the reach of Earth's gravity would make such trips economically unfeasible.
"When we get to Earth orbit, we are running out of gas. The energy of getting us to Earth orbit is roughly the same as getting us to anywhere in the solar system," Bensen said.
Besides supporting human life, water in space could power spacecraft. Split water into hydrogen and oxygen and what does one have? The two main propellants that boost the space shuttle into orbit. If future spacecraft gas up after they leave Earth, they would save a fortune in transportation costs.
Some space entrepreneurs have changed their strategies in the near future. Bensen has placed emphasis on a lunar prospector mission rather than an asteroid one, which he predicts will launch within years.
Fearful of rivals, he declined to comment on what he would do there. "That's a competitive and proprietary area," he said.
Bensen wants to keep ahead of the pack. SpaceDev has recently inked deals with aerospace giant Boeing and the U.S. government to collaborate on upcoming space missions.
Advancing the idea that space travel can take place cheaply, SpaceDev won a NASA contract to design and manage an orbiter that will measure hot interstellar plasma.
"We're a real company, building a real satellite. It's NASA's cheapest ever and we're building it next year," Bensen beamed.
Not quite lining one's pockets with millions of tons of platinum. But Bensen has not lost sight of his dream. He likens himself to a sailor, tacking his ship back and forth in the wind, but always heading toward the horizon.
"Our goal hasn't changed one iota. We just decided we must take smaller practical steps to reach it," he said.
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