The start-up company, Planetary Resources (PR), has the ambitious plan to survey, both by orbital telescope and automated probe nearby asteroids and then harvest those asteroids for natural resources. The concept is nothing new, as it’s been a staple of sci-fi writers for years (Ben Bova’s Asteroid Wars series is a personal favorite). But to see a real-world attempt is nothing short of grand.
The outcry has been equally positive and negative towards PR’s plan. Those against it bring up three major issues:
1. The swarms of robotic equipment will require numerous launches. Only the ISS relied on so many launches and
this caused perpetual delays to the schedule.
2. Technology for such missions is barely being developed.
3. The legality of such an operation is nebulous at best.
These are all very good points, but PR has one major thing going in their favor:
When it comes to space, money is the great equalizer. Even a lousy system can be made workable if enough cash is thrown at it. Let’s address how PR will leverage their pile of startup capital to overcome their major hurdles.
1. If the probes are kept small PR will be able to buy their way onto already planned launches as secondary payloads. This will also help them reduce risk by not relying on a single launch vehicle in case of a failed launch. Falcon 9 heavy may get thrown around a lot in this conversation, but it’s unlikely that rocket will be used by PR for many years to come if ever.
2. With a steady stream of money and a end goal in sight technology can be developed fairly rapidly. Since PR has planned for at least 10 years of surveying using orbital telescopes the requirement of time will be there as well to develop all the tech they will need.
3. I’m going to be a cynic for moment: Politicians and lawyers will fall into line if and when the money is right. Perhaps not all, but enough to make this happen. Additionally, there wouldn’t be any real legal action happening until PR makes their attempt and by then the potential for profit will be so large that no one will try to stop them. Call it capitalism at its best (or worst).
At this point, the real question is, Does PR have the resolve to carry out a single plan of action over the course of twenty years? PR isn’t the first company to announce something like this. Several years ago another spunky start up called “SpaceDev” was attempting the same thing but lost their way and now is invested in developing rocket motors.
The money is there, the right people are there and the technology is there. The question now, as it has been many times before: Is the willpower there?