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Private Spaces: Google Goes to Outer Space for New Business Idea

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)

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  • Jumpjumpdie

    Bonus points for Eve Online pic.

  • Glorfindel

    This buzz around He3 is most assuredly not deserved.  He3 is a possible source of aneutronic fusion, but we obviously have a long way to go in controlling plasma’s and deciding which route to take for commercial production of energy (tokamaks, piston fusion, laser moderated fusion) so flying to the moon and sucking He3 out of the regolith sounds a little far fetched, especially when we have other sources of nuclear power such as the thorium fuel cycle that have not been fully explored and exploited.

    Mining the Asteroids is probably more feasible in terms of the return for investment; but the technical problems are still there about mining in space/micro/zero-gravity.

    It’s good that people are thinking about this but we still have to find cheap, effective and reliable ways of getting craft into space – the chemical rocket route will always be expensive and dumb, we need non-rocket methods such as, rail launch systems, laser propulsion or some other method that doesn’t rely on chemical rockets.

    Finally about the private space industry, this is just ideology trumping practicality.  There are things that governments can do (building roads, bridges, sending stuff into space) because the private sector doesn’t want to/need to engage in these things because they can’t recoup the investment – unless of course they ask you to pay a toll for your use of their bridge/road.  LEO (low earth orbit) is about as far as the space industry will go because it will start to commercialise the science that NASA and other governments have already done (the private sector may do it cheaper) like solar power generation, creating medicines and other products that require/favour a zero-G environment (e.g. artificial meat can be grown best in zero-G) but they will not venture to the moon/asteroid until the governments have worked out the protocols and standards to safely do all the things the private companies want to do…so we will have to wait a long time before any of this stuff happens.

    So as the US and other Capitalist countries are concerned, the Chinese/Russians and others may just leap ahead with their curious mix of State Capitalism…