Hiring Asteroid Miners

 Posted by at 12:17 pm on May 5, 2013  Moon exploration  No Responses »
May 052013
 

Astrogeologists still have to wait to leave Earth

Astronaut geologist at work

Asteroid miners – still Earthbound for now.
Image courtesy NASA

Recently, I received an email from Planetary Resources with the subject line, “Now hiring asteroid miners.” About time, it seemed to me.

The e-mail said the company was looking for college students for co-op positions, and I thought of forwarding it to my niece studying geology at Michigan Tech. It turned out, however, the company was looking for technology and spacecraft engineer interns. Space geologists will have to wait.

The first space geologist has been waiting 40 years for someone to go back out there. Harrison “Jack” Schmitt was the last man to set foot* on the the Moon in the 20th century. He thinks it’s about time someone went back there before we go too much further into the 21st century.

December 2012 marked 40 years since Schmitt and Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan left the Moon. You could consider Schmitt and the other lunar astronauts the first off-Earth prospectors. But they didn’t strike gold. They struck Helium – Helium-3, that is.

Schmitt and the other geologists didn’t really know what they had at the time, but Helium-3 is a potential fuel for the much sought after but yet to be practically achieved fusion reactor. Helium-3, however, is rare on Earth, so physicists did not actively pursue its use in fusion research. That changed in the mid ’80s when University of Wisconsin researchers, where Schmitt had become a professor, discovered the stuff was relatively common in the moon rocks Schmitt and other astronauts brought back. The solar wind deposits Helium-3 on the surface. Not much of it comes on the wind, but over billions of years, it adds up.

We are seeing the creation of a pubic-private development effort taking shape, originating not in grand speeches and complex legislation, but from the efforts of visionaries who’ve gotten tired of waiting for NASA to go back to the Moon or head for Mars and asked, “Hey, why don’t we do it ourselves?”

Schmitt sees it as a profitable raw material to be mined and brought back to Earth, and building the infrastructure for the mining project establishes a Moon base for other commercial and scientific projects on the moon. Bigelow Aerospace has already proposed a series of inflatable habitats it could place on the Moon for a base, and announced a deal with NASA to send up one of its inflatable pods to attach to the International Space Station.

A fellow researcher at Wisconsin whom I interviewed a few years back sees using the Helium-3 for an interplanetary fusion drive, dramatically cutting the time it takes to reach Mars and beyond with its constant thrust.

Not all the ideas will pan out. Some companies born in an off-Earth enterprise will succeed fantastically. Others with seemingly bright promise will fail dismally. That’s the way capitalism works, even if Republicans conveniently forget that sometimes. But there are a growing number of people and companies willing to risk it all to firmly establish a foothold beyond Earth’s orbit – and make a good profit by doing so.

We are seeing the creation of a pubic-private development effort taking shape, originating not in grand speeches and complex legislation, but from the efforts of visionaries who’ve gotten tired of waiting for NASA to go back to the Moon or head for Mars and asked, “Hey, why don’t we do it ourselves?”

Of course, they won’t do it entirely themselves. But they are establishing a trend and even momentum to advance humanity’s reach to the Moon, Mars and beyond through a commercial impetus. It clearly won’t be all commercial. It will take government research and exploration, public and private seed money, and the drive of a growing number of visionaries to spur a new space race that unlike the one in the ’60s does not have a singular goal. It is a goal to expand humanity’s reach too new worlds, driven by a competitive and cooperative drive, a glorious, messy, sometimes profitable, other times tragic, but ultimately awe inspiring and inevitable drive toward the future.

Resuming the Blog

I’ve been on hiatus for a few months, due to a move to a new apartment, some hectic scrambling for freelance work, and finally taking a full-time writing job. My schedule has settled down, now, so I’ll be writing here more regularly again. That’s about time, too.

 * A bit of splitting hairs, here. As I read the explanation elsewhere, Jack Schmitt, was the last man to set foot on the Moon when he came down the ladder of the lander after mission Apollo 17 mission commander Eugene Cernan. Cernan, of course, was the last man to leave the Moon – so far.

Links

American Scientist: Mining the Moon / book review of Return to the Moon: Exploration, Enterprise, and Energy in the Human Settlement of Space. Harrison H. Schmitt. xvi + 335 pp. Praxis Publishing, 2006. $25.