Rhinegold, Space Cowboys, and “Planetary Resources”

19 04 2012

The internet is alight with rumors concerning the James Cameron/Charles Simonyi/Peter Diamandis/Eric Anderson-backed superproject, not yet more than a speculation-frothing logo, to be announced April 24th:

These rumors go on to speculate that the venture will be a full-fledged asteroid-mining venture, sparked in no small part by the media alert sent by the company yesterday, which stated that it “will overlay two critical sectors — space exploration and natural resources — to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP.”

Let’s just say that’s where I was given pause.  Of course it’ll be extraterrestrial resources, (as if the name isn’t overt enough,) but I agree – they’ll likely be going after nickel-iron asteroid bodies and platinum-group metals, to start.

Why would I say so?  Well, I calculated those very same numbers 13 years ago.

The Rhinegold Project

Set the time machine back to 1999 for a moment.

There, at the University of Wyoming, in the back corner of an undergraduate physics course, you’d find a couple of young, idealistic astrophysics majors ignoring the lecture on frictionless surfaces and discussing the problems that brought us there: Dark Energy, (though it hadn’t been named that, yet; it was the High-Z Problem at that time,) Dark Matter, and Space Colonization.

Rhinegold Project logo. (Credit: Ben McGee/ITD)

Yes, one of these young scientists-to-be was yours truly.  The other was one of my best friends (and future jazz compatriot), Chris Hackman.  And it was there, in the back corner of that lecture hall, that I performed my first back-of-the-envelope calculations on harvesting the material in a single, mile-sized nickel-iron-rich asteroid.

On its face, the number was in the trillions of dollars.

I knew this was a rough number, an overestimate.  -But even accounting for flooding the terrestrial nickel and iron markets, the number was still (literally) astronomical.  It would more than pay for the cost of development, should only someone front the (we calculated) four-to-ten-billion dollars required to get the program running.

Literally trillions of dollars of harvest-able material is waiting, ripe for the plucking, between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars, should someone only figure out how to get to it and bring it back.

So, we decided to try and lay the groundwork ourselves under a non-profit science research institute I founded in 2002, called the Institute of Temporal Dynamics (now retired).  We called the project The Rhinegold Project.

(Being music geeks as well, we liked the metaphor to the Wagner opera.  Like the legend, we planned to harvest the material and forge it into a ring – in this case, a Von-Braun-ian, artificial-gravity space station.)

I rallied friends of mine to the cause: Aspiring chemical engineers; mechanical engineers; other geology students.  We worked out orbital interception scenarios as well as in-situ harvesting architectures.  And as far as we could tell, we were amongst the first to approach the problem seriously.

Space Cowboys

Our Microgravity Centrifugal Smelter NASA proposal, ca. 2004.

Our project matured as did our degree paths.  By 2004, I’d switched to planetary geology and had taken the lead on an interdisciplinary college team to attempt the first in-situ asteroid-mining proof-of-concept for NASA’s KC-135 “Microgravity University” grant program.  Our team?  The UWyo “Space Cowboys,” and our project: the “Microgravity Centrifugal Smelter,” or MCS.

Ultimately, our project was not selected to fly – a devastating blow being that we lost to another University of Wyoming team testing their second year of a resistance exercise machine, something far less ambitious, in our opinion.  (We had a microwave reactor ready to go and breakthrough phase-transition boundary-condition chemical engineering showing that our low-temperature resource-and-matrix analogue asteroid would perform like a real one at lower “smelting” temperatures.)

The UWyo Space Cowboys then graduated and scattered to the wind.

Full Circle – Astrowright and the University of North Dakota

Well, my passions being what they are, I was never content to simply walk away from the concept of asteroid mining or MCS research.  A recent paper for graduate school at UND last semester assessed the validity of the “gold rush” metaphor commonly invoked by proponents of asteroid mining, and at my spaceflight consulting firm, we’ve been trying to find ways to fund more modern incarnations of MCS research.

Coming full circle to my back-of-the-envelope days, it looks to my eyes like the folks at Planetary Resources have finally found a way to identify and/or convince those venture capitalists who are willing accept the risk and take the plunge to go after an asteroid.  (In short, it looks like they beat me to it. *grin*)

The cost, as I mentioned earlier, will be truly astronomical.  However, the reward may be equally as great.

The good news?  The finding of my recent asteroid/Yukon comparison paper is that on the frontier, cooperative competition is necessary for survival, so it seems there is room enough for all.

The final analysis?  Perhaps with Planetary Resources breaking new ground in the resources market, others will be made aware of the tantalizing possibility that asteroid resource operations present and decide to jump in as well.

Maybe this is the start of the “21st-Century Gold Rush” many of us have been waiting for.

I can’t wait to see what these guys are all about.

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2 responses

19 04 2012
Alun

Are there suitable Near-Earth asteroids that could make a better target? Is it feasible to move an asteroid into Lunar orbit? It’s close enough to ship back ore or product and it avoids the political fallout of moving a large rock and potential industrial accident above an unwilling country.

19 04 2012
astrowright

Your questions are spot-on, with non-trivial answers. There are NEOs that could make ideal targets, yes, and I should have mentioned them specifically in my post. (In fact, they make likely first targets; however, compositionally they may not be ideal for resource processing and recovery.)

As far as moving an asteroid into lunar orbit or to Earth-Moon system stable Lagrange points, technically it is feasible, (and as you point out, would be preferred for technical as well as political reasons.) Here’s where we are: we have demonstrated the ability to successfully orbit satellites about asteroids and NEOs, and we have demonstrated an ability to both impact and “dock” (controlled impact) with them. The data gaps left to the fill would be 1) successfully altering the rotation (and/or otherwise prepare) an asteroid for the installation of retrorockets to decelerate an asteroid so that it ‘falls’ toward Earth, and then accelerating it back into a desired orbit, 2) actually demonstrating such a maneuver, and 3) demonstrating the separation of desired material from an asteroid into a more useful form, whatever that might be, whether purification for delivery to Earth, or refinement to create support structures for spacecraft or habitats, etc.

So, the pieces are in place, but work needs to be done. And yes – lunar orbit might be ideal!

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