Spending big in the new space race

Spending big in the new space race



Andrew Horvath
The Big Picture

Since I’m one for big ideas and never saying never, I can’t help but be intrigued by the progress of the space race. Or lack of progress as it often seems.

Not long ago Duncan Steel from the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at the University of New South Wales publicly lamented the fact Australia was cashing in on the resources boom on Earth but was being left for dust on a new frontier – mining in space.

He was speaking after the founders of Google announced plans to invest in Planetary Resources, which claims to be the world’s first ambitious asteroid mining operation.

There’s no doubting the guys from Google don’t shy away from big ideas.

I read an article in the Sydney Morning Herald where Mr Steel, who was involved in seeking out asteroids near Earth back in the 1980s, claimed that Australia was once a frontrunner in the field but slumped to the bottom of the heap after Federal Government funding for asteroid research was cut during the 1990s. Perhaps it was because, as he says, no-one is likely to make any money from asteroid mining for at least a couple of decades.

Is it an idea even worth arguing about? Who knows….aspersions have even been cast on the legality of the idea but the Google crowd aren’t the first to try to cash in on what may or may not be out there.

Planetary Resources believes numerous metals and minerals that are scarce here on Earth may be available in near-infinite quantities in space, and one of the key precious metals they’re keen to mine is platinum. They suggest that the platinum contained in one 500-metre platinum-rich asteroid is equal to the total of all platinum group metals ever mined on Earth, and they anticipate that bringing it back down to Earth will add billions, if not trillions, to the international economy.

Of course it’s going to cost a significant sum to get there, if it’s possible at all. And it’s a long way off with the company first developing technologies to reduce the currently prohibitive cost of robotic space probes. That translates into no actual mining for at least another 10 years.

But the space race is no sprint, and the Google crows aren’t the only ones with time and money on their hands and a passion for cashing in on industries and experiences from out of this world.
In fact, Sergey Brin has been here before. He was an investor in a spaceflight company which has scheduled a mission to the Moon in 2015.

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has tried his hand in the space race a couple of times and is currently supporting Stratolaunch Systems, which is constructing a giant aircraft to carry equipment into space.

Innovators in the technology sphere must be drawn to the idea of achieving what others believe impossible.

PayPal’s Elon Musk set up a space travel company 10 years ago and Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos set up his own private aerospace company in 2000 to battle major players such as Boeing in the race to invent the next generation of spacecraft.

And who could forget Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic which has sold more than 500 tickets for its scheduled space flights at a cost of $200,000 per head.

Who knows which ones will succeed, or whether anyone ever will. Either way, I applaud their courage, their pursuit of innovation and their willingness to carry on in the face of some serious obstacles. History has shown us that’s often the way to achieve great and previously unthinkable things. If space is the next frontier, these are the new pioneers. I wish them all well.