It’s Time for Robots to Mine the Asteroids

Phil Metzger at University of Central Florida has just published an important and compelling article titled Space Development and Space Science Together, an Historic Opportunity about the need to develop a Self-sufficient Replicating Space Industry that uses robots to harvest space-based resources . The article is detailed, well-cited and fully attentive to the objections often raised.

Metzger calculates that it would take only a third of Earth’s national space program budgets over the coming decades to deploy and complete the industrial infrastructure we need for harvesting resources from space that address major challenges we face in economic development, science, climate change, energy needs and other dwindling mineral resources.

Metzger specifically prescribes an initial focus on mining water for the purpose of fueling steam-based propulsion systems. Robust water deposits on the moon, asteroids, Europa, and elsewhere in the solar system promise bountiful supplies that will propel us to the stars. Another benefit of hydro-propulsion, explained to me this week by Deep Space Industries (@GoDeepSpace) CEO Dan Faber, is that water would be easy and safe for entrepreneurs integrating propulsion into their satellites today. While Metzger has focused his attention and efforts on developing a lunar mine, Faber’s company looks to mine water from Near Earth asteroids since their negligible gravity makes it easier to extract the water without escaping lunar gravity. (See DSI design, right.)

Metzger outlines other important projects as well, such as a Space-Based Solar Power system and extraterrestrial compute facilities, sorely needed infrastructure that we simply cannot scale on Earth: “The primary benefit of space is real estate that biology does not need. Earth is the one special place in the solar system required by life, but machines can function anywhere else.”

Why now? Metzger argues that AI has reached the points of maturity and acceleration that we need to pull it off, citing Bill Gates that robotics “is developing in much the same way that the computer business did 20 years ago.”

Counter intuitively, the primary obstacles are not technical. Rather it is government inaction, in both funding and regulation. Peter Diamandis’ startup Planetary Resources employs JPL veterans who know how to prospect Near earth asteroids today, but PR’s mission awaits space-faring nations to legally recognize asteroid mining rights (other than the U.S. which did so last year). And government funding is hard to come by for what the Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on NASA dismissed as a “nutty fantasy.” Metzger lays out strategies for overcoming these obstacles.

Enough said. Click through and read Metzger’s important, fascinating paper.

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