A company's plan to harvest off-world minerals is wild and exciting, but could its real promise lie in helping space science regain its footing, i.e. funding?
A lot has been written about the business prospects of Planetary Resources, Inc., the billionaire-backed space venture that recently announced its intention to mine platinum, and other metals, from near-earth asteroids. The firm claims that a single successful mining mission could bring it tens of trillions of dollars in revenue, and could potentially supply the raw materials for generations of computing devices.
These are ambitious goals, but not everyone is convinced that Planetary Resources can muster the technology or the staying power to reach them. The firm's critics have pointed out that flooding the market with asteroid-sized quantities of platinum, which currently sells for over $1,500 an ounce, could reduce its price considerably, endangering the business model of the entire enterprise. But even if Planetary Resources falls flat on its face, a serious (and seriously funded) attempt at asteroid mining could have interesting collateral effects---it could, for instance, entirely remake the way that we do science in space.
Back in April, when Planetary Resources first went public with its plan, it sent out a press release highlighting the big names attached to the project. Scanning through the list of tech luminaries and entrepreneurs---Larry Page! Charles Simonyi! James Cameron!---I noticed that Sara Seager, a Professor of Planetary Science at MIT, had signed on with the firm as a science advisor. I know Seager a bit, having previously interviewed her about her groundbreaking research into exoplanets, planets that orbit other stars. Knowing that exoplanets were a singular focus for Seager, I wondered what enticed her to sign on with an asteroid mining outfit.
It turns out that the technology and expertise you need to observe distant exoplanets overlaps, to some extent, with the tools and know-how you need to observe asteroids. But more than that, Seager was drawn to the idea of building a sustainable business in space, a business that could lay the groundwork for a new leap forward in space science. The notion that space exploration could benefit from the creative force of private industry has been around for decades, but it is newly resonant in our era of slashed budgets at NASA. Space scientists like Seager are starting to look beyond bureaucratically restrained, risk-averse missions funded strictly by the government.
"The bottom line is that NASA is not working the best that it could," Seager told me. "In order for people like me to succeed with my own research goals, the commercial space industry needs to be able to succeed independently of government contracts." Private firms might turn out to be nimble explorers of space, unencumbered by the too-big-to-fail issues that afflict NASA and its overseas equivalents. But first they have to figure out a way to turn a consistent profit. What follows is my conversation with Seager about what asteroid mining might do for commercial space exploration, and what that could mean for the future of space science.
How long have you been involved with this project and what made you sign on? What got you excited about it?
Seager: I've been involved with Planetary Resources for about a year. My involvement is on the advisory board, and in addition, I am specifically involved in developing the technology for one of Planetary Resources business interests, which includes a line of small space telescopes. Some of these small space telescopes will observe asteroids, others will feature new communication capabilities. We have some relevant technology developed for detecting exoplanets around distant stars. So, I share common interests with Planetary Resources in a specific space technology subsector; that's how I first got involved.
But what got me excited about this project was the tie in to the commercial space industry, because I want to help them find a way to have a sustainable imprint in space. The bottom line is that NASA is not working the best that it could for space science right now, and so in order for people like me to succeed with my own research goals, the commercial space industry needs to be able to succeed independently of government contracts. That is my main interest in working with Planetary Resources.
For example, most journalists have focused on the asteroid-mining aspect of what Planetary Resources is trying to do, but that's only the long-term goal. The short-term goal is to have a sustainable business in space. If you look at the Planetary Resources Arkyd Series of spacecraft---the company was called Arkyd before they changed the name to Planetary Resources---you'll se that it wants to first build small space telescopes for private use. That would mean that anyone could have a space telescope on the order of one to ten million dollars. Now that may seem like a lot of money for you personally because you probably don't have that kind of money sitting around, but a space telescope for purchase could be a really useful product for people who want to do astronomy or space science at the level of wealthy individuals or even universities. It's exciting to think that soon there could be a small space telescopes available for a price that is relatively reasonable. That could be a big deal.
Why haven't small space telescopes been used in this way before if they're so cheap to build and deploy?
Seager: That's a good question. I don't think anyone has mass marketed small space telescopes before because they haven't really identified a market for them. The astronomy community has typically gone for custom telescope development based on a specific science goal. For example, if you just want a program where you build space telescopes that are big enough to go look for asteroids, you could have done that, but there are other ways to find asteroids, like ground-based surveys using wide-field telescopes, that astronomers decided where more efficient. But like any business, Planetary Resources has multiple reasons for creating something. Planetary Resources can build telescopes that they can sell, and they can build the same telescopes to use themselves for their own asteroid detection and characterization goals. At the same time, they can build up their capability to develop and launch space missions. Planetary Resources has more than one motivation, and that might not be true of your typical astronomer.
It was really interesting to read about how Planetary Resources hopes to launch these telescopes. I'm used to thinking of a space telescope launch as a pretty big production, but here you just hitch a ride to space on one of these small satellites.
Seager: That's because Planetary Resources has connections with other space companies that happen to build launch vehicles. That's where the business world is very different. Here at MIT, I can't just call up my pal at SpaceX and say, "can you help me with my business by helping me with free or reduced cost launches?" That just doesn't work for me right now. Even if Planetary Resources ends up paying for launch costs, they can probably get what they want, whereas, right now launch costs are prohibitive for the general public or general academia. If you're part and parcel of the commercial space flight world, it appears you can get a lot of interesting things done. I think that in academia we could learn a lot from the business world.
Why aren't Lockheed and Northrop and those guys at the forefront of this stuff? It seems like if anyone were going to be in a position to leverage those kinds of connections it would be the aerospace giants, no?
Seager: Well, remember that NASA also has a mission to go to an asteroid. NASA's OSIRIS-REx is going to launch in 2016. It'll take a few years to get to the near Earth asteroid 1999 RQ36, after which the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will orbit the asteroid for a number of months. After spending 3 weeks in a close orbit identifying a suitable sample site, the spacecraft will venture closer and closer to the asteroid, then reach down and scoop up 2 ounces of material and bring it back to Earth a few years later (by the year 2023). Lockheed Martin plays a role on OSIRIS-REx. At MIT and Harvard we won a student competition to build an instrument called REXIS, which stands for Regolith X-ray Imaging Spectrometer. So NASA and contractors actually do know how to go to an asteroid, but the question to ask is "What's the difference between the large space companies and the small more entrepreneurial private space companies?" That could be worthy of a whole long article unto itself.
Remember, America is the only country where the private human space flight and related entrepreneurial commercial space flight industry is developing. In the private spaceflight world there are focused goals with profit and new capability as priorities. At NASA the motivation for space missions is different. In addition to big and general science goals, the main goal appears to be not to fail. In this sort of culture the bigger space companies and academia are taught that it, the mission, has to work.
Freeman Dyson once told me that in the old days, the public was used to space mission failure. And that's why two of each were built in the past: Pioneer 1, Pioneer 2; Voyager 1, Voyager 2, Viking Lander 1, Viking Lander 2, etc.. The space science missions are government-sponsored so perhaps the large space companies don't have to aim for a long-term investment for a commercially sustainable business. They have to embed in a culture that avoids failure and accepts the concomitant high cost and bureaucracy. But at small space companies, things can fail. Risk is part of developing new technology. Also, for the big space companies the whole competition is just getting the government contract. The competition is not about making something awesomely cool, first to market, and making a ton of money out of it. So in my opinion, the motivation factor and the risk aversion factor make it basically impossible for these larger companies to shift gears. The question that is on the minds of a lot of people is "Can America continue to be competitive in space with the current paradigm?" And the answer is no. That is the reason we have seen the rise of the commercial space flight world---they're trying to start a new paradigm for spaceflight with a sustainable business that doesn't just rely on government contracts.
Speaking of building a sustainable business in space, it seems like space tourism---as an idea or a business plan---has been around for a while now. Is that sustainable?
Seager: I think there is a general consensus that space tourism will not be a sustainable business in space because for the market to work it requires a lot of extremely wealthy people. But we are starting to see space tourism evolve. Virgin Galactic wants to do suborbital flights (3-4 minutes of zero gravity) and people have already paid up to $200,000 to reserve their slots. And, Virgin Galactic believes they can reduce the cost by about a factor of 2. With those numbers, they might have a sustainable business with $100,000 per flight as the very best case scenario. Other private human spaceflight companies are also working toward suborbital flights.
What makes asteroids such attractive targets for mineral extraction? Is there a subset of particularly attractive mineral-rich asteroids?
Seager: Well there are limits to mineral extraction on planets like Earth, because a lot of the heavy elements have sunk deep inside in a process called planetary differentiation that happened during the planet's early, hot existence. An asteroid doesn't have that problem because it either started out as a fragment of something bigger or is a leftover building block of a planet that never fully formed. And so the heavier metals in asteroids didn't sink out of reach. Asteroids are also more accessible than bodies like the Moon and Mars because they have very low gravity, so landing on and taking off with material is easier.
What would be the perfect target asteroid in terms of mineral content, size, orbit---that sort of thing?
Seager: Well there are two ways to mine an asteroid. One is robotic: travel to an asteroid, land on it, mine what you need, and bring the material back to Earth. Mining at the asteroid is essential, because bringing back raw asteroid material would involve too much mass and would be too costly. That's one way. Another way that people are talking about is capturing an asteroid, literally capturing it and bringing it closer to Earth--- so that people could go back and forth to the asteroid, just like they go back and forth to the International
Space Station. Only for safety reasons people are talking about a high lunar orbit for the asteroid, not an Earth orbit, so in the case of any crash the asteroid would hit the moon and not Earth.
As far as mineral composition, the goal is to mine for the highly valuable platinum metals so you're going to want a metal-rich asteroid. Asteroids are categorized by telescope observations of their surfaces tied with lab-based studies of meterorites that have fallen to Earth. One of the other things that Planetary Resources and others have talked about is mining asteroids that are water rich. You could go and extract the water and convert that water to fuel, like in hydrogen fuel cells or you could use the water as life support for manned missions in the future.
As far as the perfect size, there was a whole study on asteroid retrieval done by the Keck Institute for Space Studies. It turns out that if you're going to go and get an asteroid, you don't want the asteroid to be too big, because if you mess up the asteroid could hit Earth and that could have disastrous consequences. Also, transporting a large asteroid is harder than transporting a smaller asteroid. So the study tried to find the sweet spot based on the size of the asteroid, small enough to transport but large (and massive) enough so that the fraction of metal and other resources for extraction is worthwhile. The study favors asteroids that are 7 meters in diameter, which corresponds to a mass in the range of 300,000-700,000 kilograms. 7 meters doesn't seem that big, but I think it would be very cool to bring something of that size back.
I've read that intelligent robots might do the bulk of the on-site mining on these asteroids. Does that assume radical advances in artificial intelligence or are we reasonably close to developing efficient robot miners?
Seager: One thing that I'll say is that significant research and development is still needed to figure out the best way to mine an asteroid. But, remember people are starting to mine at the very bottom of the ocean and it's not people who are down there doing the mining. That's one of the reasons that the time is right for this discussion, the fact that there is robotic mining at the bottom of the ocean going on right now. We know how to get to an asteroid, we know how to orbit an asteroid, we know how to scoop surface material up off an asteroid, and we know how to land on another solar system body. All the ingredients are there, now someone just has to put them all together and figure out how to mine in a low gravity environment.
This is another difference between the private sector and NASA. As a scientific researcher, you could never propose for an ambitious NASA space mission for which you didn't have every single last detail worked out and all the risks assessed. In the business world it's different. You can have a plan to get from A to B, but not all the details worked out, so long as you aren't going to break the laws of physics and the path for the high-risk technology research and development is legitimate.
The next Mars rover, Curiosity, is a great example. The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover is a big mission costing well over 2 billion dollars, and the giant rover has 10 different scientific instruments and an incredibly complicated landing system. The question is why did MSL have to be so complicated? The reason is because it's a general science mission needing a lot of different instruments--and that created a very heavy rover. The MSL is so heavy it can't just have a parachute and some air bags and land. So, that's the opposite of the way that Planetary Resources and other people working in space science are headed, which is to do something small and highly specialized and not something big and multi-purpose. Don't get me wrong. NASA is and will continue to do a great job for big, complicated space science missions. But there is a whole new set of opportunities out there that don't fit under the NASA rubric.
There's been a lot of talk about Planetary Resources setting up fuel depots around the earth, the moon and eventually the entire solar system. Would those be in place to support future mining missions, or are they being set up in anticipation of a new market in space flight logistics? Are these going to be the first service stations for manned missions to Mars and beyond?
Well, one thing you should note is that all the people involved in Planetary Resources, myself included, want to see space open up for more robotic and even human travel. So, the hope is that in addition to mining asteroids, we open up a new frontier in space. It would be great to have a station out in space where one could refuel because mass equals cost, and getting large amounts of material off of earth is really, really hard to do.
The engineering behind mineral extraction here on Earth is some of the most sophisticated on the planet. Is it your hope that a mission like this will have serious innovative spill over effects on space exploration, beyond the fuel depots?
Seager: I'm really enthusiastic about further developing the smaller and cheaper way of doing things, because when Planetary Resources figures out how to sell and launch small space telescopes, how to get to asteroids quickly and investigate them and characterize them, that could be a huge boon for space exploration. If you think about the history of space exploration, the technology from the Apollo missions opened up the possibility of exploring other planets---it revolutionized planetary science. One of my first memories is the Voyager Launch. I was about 6-7 years old. You know how kids like to watch cartoons in the morning? That morning there were no cartoons. Every single TV channel had the same thing on---the launch over and over and over again. I didn't know why it was happening at the time, but that image stuck with me. Something like Voyager wouldn't have been possible without the extraordinary engineering effort that was Apollo. Hopefully Planetary Resources will usher in a similar change for planetary science.
Take methane on Mars for example. Methane gas detection on Mars is still somewhat controversial, but three different observations have shown evidence for it, and this is exciting because methane gas shouldn't be on Mars unless Mars has unexpected geological activity or if there is subsurface life on Mars. So what should we be doing? If we had a way to get to Mars really fast and to get to a lot of different spots on the planet---I'm not talking about human exploration but something that's deployable, small things and a lot of them---we could actually start figuring out the source of methane rather quickly. But that's not how it works, right? Instead, Curiosity (MSL) has to go and that required a huge budget and a very long lead time. You could imagine a scenario where Planetary Resources opens up a new paradigm of building many things that are smaller, and that could be really truly awesome.
You mentioned to me that not all of your colleagues in academia were thrilled to see that you'd signed on with this project.
Seager: It's interesting to think about the different reactions people have had to the Planetary Resources announcement. I mean I read the news, I heard the random public talk about it. I can tell you that pretty much every single young person I knew, especially here at MIT, was extremely excited and came up to me and asked me about it and wanted to know if they could get a job at Planetary Resources and so forth. But that was not the response I got from the older academic community; there was actually quite a negative reaction there. I didn't talk to a lot of people about this, but a few who did contact me were actually not happy about it. Some people told me that they thought any academic associated with Planetary Resources was making a big mistake. I got a comment like that actually from a person that I actually have huge respect for, and I'm getting the impression the negativity is pretty serious and pretty widespread. I think it's a lack of understanding of the business world; in academia we don't operate with a business sense. We have a great idea, we keep it close to our chest, and we work really hard on it and when it's done we publish it and other people follow. In the business world there's a completely different strategy that is needed. As space scientists we have all grown up with the NASA culture where if you're going to have success in getting funding, you're going to have to be accountable at every last level for the money. And rightly so, because taxpayers are paying for it and it's not my own money, or my billionaire friends that are backing the money. I can't just blow money risking it and that means being much more careful.
I guess I could see a person from academia saying "hey, this is a little fast and loose and wild west for me personally," but why should they think that's it's not good for any academic to be involved? Is there some generalized aversion to lending the gravitas of big science to entrepreneur types?
Seager: I keep asking myself why academics have had such a negative reaction to Planetary Resources. I do think the difference in reactions between the students and the more senior, more established people in academia is telling. Why are we so conservative in academia? Are we limiting ourselves by not being more like the business world? All I know for sure is that a future where science is tied into the commercial space industry is exciting---because we're going to need it.
Forget credit hours—in a quest to cut costs, universities are simply asking students to prove their mastery of a subject.
MANCHESTER, Mich.—Had Daniella Kippnick followed in the footsteps of the hundreds of millions of students who have earned university degrees in the past millennium, she might be slumping in a lecture hall somewhere while a professor droned. But Kippnick has no course lectures. She has no courses to attend at all. No classroom, no college quad, no grades. Her university has no deadlines or tenure-track professors.
Instead, Kippnick makes her way through different subject matters on the way to a bachelor’s in accounting. When she feels she’s mastered a certain subject, she takes a test at home, where a proctor watches her from afar by monitoring her computer and watching her over a video feed. If she proves she’s competent—by getting the equivalent of a B—she passes and moves on to the next subject.
Bernie Sanders and Jeb Bush look abroad for inspiration, heralding the end of American exceptionalism.
This election cycle, two candidates have dared to touch a third rail in American politics.
Not Social Security reform. Not Medicare. Not ethanol subsidies. The shibboleth that politicians are suddenly willing to discuss is the idea that America might have something to learn from other countries.
The most notable example is Bernie Sanders, who renewed his praise for Western Europe in a recent interview with Ezra Klein. “Where is the UK? Where is France? Germany is the economic powerhouse in Europe,” Sanders said. “They provide health care to all of their people, they provide free college education to their kids.”
On ABC’s This Week in May, George Stephanopoulos asked Sanders about this sort of rhetoric. “I can hear the Republican attack ad right now: ‘He wants American to look more like Scandinavia,’” the host said. Sanders didn’t flinch:
Even when a dentist kills an adored lion, and everyone is furious, there’s loftier righteousness to be had.
Now is the point in the story of Cecil the lion—amid non-stop news coverage and passionate social-media advocacy—when people get tired of hearing about Cecil the lion. Even if they hesitate to say it.
But Cecil fatigue is only going to get worse. On Friday morning, Zimbabwe’s environment minister, Oppah Muchinguri, called for the extradition of the man who killed him, the Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer. Muchinguri would like Palmer to be “held accountable for his illegal action”—paying a reported $50,000 to kill Cecil with an arrow after luring him away from protected land. And she’s far from alone in demanding accountability. This week, the Internet has served as a bastion of judgment and vigilante justice—just like usual, except that this was a perfect storm directed at a single person. It might be called an outrage singularity.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Who can devise the most convoluted way to wipe out the Islamic State?
Everyone with a stake in Middle Eastern geopolitics publicly declares that ISIS must be defeated. Yet opinions range widely on how this should be achieved.
Saudi Arabia, for example, believes ISIS cannot be defeated unless Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is removed from power. Turkey has just convinced NATO nations that the war against ISIS can only be won if Turkey’s traditional Kurdish opponents are neutralized first. Israel sees only one way to defeat ISIS: destroy Iran’s nuclear program and clip its wings regionally.
So what explains these apparently contradictory aims? The cynical view would be that all these parties are less interested in defeating ISIS than in achieving their own regional goals, and that they’re only pretending to be concerned about wiping out the group. Clearly, however, there is no place for cynicism in Middle Eastern politics. Everyone involved in the region is known to be sincere, albeit in radically different ways.
An alpenhorn performance in Switzerland, a portrait of Vladimir Putin made of spent ammunition from Ukraine, Prince Charles surprised by an eagle, wildfire in California, a sunset in Crimea, and much more.
An alpenhorn performance in Switzerland, a portrait of Vladimir Putin made of spent ammunition from Ukraine, fireworks in North Korea, Prince Charles surprised by an eagle, wildfire in California, protests in the Philippines and Turkey, a sunset in Crimea, and much more.
The IOC’s selection of Beijing as the host of its 2022 games is met with a lukewarm response.
When the International Olympic Committee selected Beijing on Friday as the host for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, the Chinese capital became the first city to have hosted both the Summer and Winter games. This, most likely, isn’t coincidental: Beijing’s hosting of the Summer games in 2008 was generally considered a success, and Almaty, the Kazakh city whose bid placed second, lacks comparable experience.
A closer examination of Beijing’s 2022 bid, though, reveals the selection is far more peculiar than it seems at first glance. One reason: It barely snows in Beijing. China’s northern plain is extremely dry, and what precipitation that falls in the capital tends to occur during the summer. Beijing’s Olympic planners have assured the IOC this won’t be a problem—the country will simply use artificial snow to accommodate events, such as skiing, that require it.
Netflix’s revival of the ensemble cult film does far more than play on nostalgia—it’s an absurd, densely plotted prequel that never forgets to be funny.
At some point, given time, word of mouth, and endless rewatching, a cult classic evolves into a universally beloved media property. Netflix, it seems, has become the arbiter of that transformation—first and most notably by reviving the adored-but-prematurely-canceled Arrested Development for a fourth season. Now the service is continuing this effort by turning the 2001 comedy Wet Hot American Summer, a critical and commercial bomb on its release, into an eight-episode prequel miniseries. Though it all but vanished without a trace on release, Wet Hot’s shaggy, surreal charm and its cast of future stars have helped it endure over the years, and despite its bizarre positioning, the Netflix edition hasn’t missed a beat, even 14 years later.
Most of the big names in futurism are men. What does that mean for the direction we’re all headed?
In the future, everyone’s going to have a robot assistant. That’s the story, at least. And as part of that long-running narrative, Facebook just launched its virtual assistant. They’re calling it Moneypenny—the secretary from the James Bond Films. Which means the symbol of our march forward, once again, ends up being a nod back. In this case, Moneypenny is a send-up to an age when Bond’s womanizing was a symbol of manliness and many women were, no matter what they wanted to be doing, secretaries.
Why can’t people imagine a future without falling into the sexist past? Why does the road ahead keep leading us back to a place that looks like the Tomorrowland of the 1950s? Well, when it comes to Moneypenny, here’s a relevant datapoint: More than two thirds of Facebook employees are men. That’s a ratio reflected among another key group: futurists.
A hawkish senator doesn't apply the lessons of Iraq
Earlier this week, Senator Lindsey Graham, a hawkish Republican from South Carolina, used a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing to stage a theatrical display of his disdain for the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran.
The most telling part of his time in the spotlight came when he pressed Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to declare who would win if the United States and Iran fought a war:
Here’s a transcript of the relevant part:
Graham: Could we win a war with Iran? Who wins the war between us and Iran? Who wins? Do you have any doubt who wins?
Carter: No. The United States.
Graham: We. Win.
Little more than a decade ago, when Senator Graham urged the invasion of Iraq, he may well have asked a general, “Could we win a war against Saddam Hussein? Who wins?” The answer would’ve been the same: “The United States.” And the U.S. did rout Hussein’s army. It drove the dictator into a hole, and he was executed by the government that the United States installed. And yet, the fact that the Iraqi government of 2002 lost the Iraq War didn’t turn out to mean that the U.S. won it. It incurred trillions in costs; thousands of dead Americans; thousands more with missing limbs and post-traumatic stress disorder and years of deployments away from spouses and children; and in the end, a broken Iraq with large swaths of its territory controlled by ISIS, a force the Iraqis cannot seem to defeat. That’s what happened last time a Lindsey Graham-backed war was waged.