By Micah Hanks
Dispatches from the future, in which astronauts farm the blackened mare plains on our Moon’s dark side for rich Helium-3 isotopes to be used in advanced fuel cells back on terra firma, sound far more like science fiction than anything we’re capable of right now (unless, of course, Newt Gingrich were to be elected… but I digress). Then again, potential candidates in the present U.S. election may not be the only ones with their eyes on the stars.
In fact, shortly after his historic solo descent to the depths of the Mariana Trench, filmmaker James Cameron has been named along with such names as Ross Perot Jr. in an alliance with the uber-company Google Inc, in a project that could seek to make not only galactic mining operations a reality, but which could move us ever more close to the privatization of space travel.
The Wall Street Journal reported this weekend that the new company,to be called Planetary Resources Inc., has said very little at the outset of their venture. A few things were made clear, however, in stating that the company planned to explore ways to “overlay two critical sectors—space exploration and natural resources—to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP”
Indeed, there could be a lot of potential outside our humble little mudball; this article’s nut graph describes the harvesting of what I referred to as “Helium-3 isotopes,” which, rather than being a snazzy-sounding reference to something sci fi sounding, is an actual radioactive isotope that, while abundant on Earth’s Moon, is seldom found here on our planet. At least since the presidency of George W. Bush, there has been legitimate discussion (if not merely hopeful for the time being) regarding the potentials for utilizing the space program to harvest such substances to further nuclear fusion research and providing clean, efficient energy sources.
However, the Moon is hardly the only place where valuable celestial commodities might be located. As reported by WSJ online, asteroids and their potential for supplying rare elements has been discussed with certain promise as of late:
The possibility of extracting raw materials such as iron and nickel from asteroids has been discussed for decades, but the cost, scientific expertise and technical prowess of fulfilling such as feat have remained an obstacle. NASA experts have projected it could cost tens of billions of dollars and take well over a decade to land astronauts on an asteroid.
Of course, economic conditions presently have cast dark shadows over the future of the American Space Program, causing many to question this sort of projected goal, at least so far as it coming to fruition any time in the next decade. Hence, the notion of private industry taking interest in space exploration has become, for some, particularly appealing.
This isn’t always the case, of course. During a brief chat I had with a former contractor who, during the 1960s, had worked on electrical circuitry for missile systems, he described the notion of private space endeavors as “terribly frightening,” citing the multitude of details that must be cared for in the circumstances surrounding a space launch. Will this indeed be an industry that will serve in furthering humankind, or is the privatization of space as an industry unto itself really just a dangerous gamble? Of course, it will be a few years, no doubt, before such projects really get “off the ground” (pun intended), and therefore, the emergence of better technologies suited for spaceflight could still help ensure the safety, precision, and ultimately, the success of such operations… one day, at least.
(The images used in this post are for illustration purposes only)