According to Planetary Resources' Chris Lewicki, an influx of relatively cheap fuel from asteroids could be what finally jump-starts space exploration.
We here at The Escapist's Science & Tech newsroom are pretty big fans of space travel, although we've got a long way to go yet. Even before one thinks about setting up biodomes on other worlds, you need to address pulling together the appropriate resources and funding, not to mention shaking off any lingering public apathy. Chris Lewicki of Planetary Resources, however, believes that most of the above problems will be solved once humanity establishes asteroid mining facilities. According to Lewicki, not only would this jump-start a new age of space travel using scattered fueling stations, it would kick off a trillion-dollar fuel market that would support the entire space economy.
"Have you ever wondered why the space economy hasn't seen exponential growth with Moore's Law like we have witnessed with high-tech industries here on Earth?" Lewicki writes. "The catalyst for rapid expansion into every frontier in history has been access to cheap, local resources. And in space, access to rocket fuel is currently neither cheap, nor local.
"But on asteroids, abundant quantities of hydrogen and oxygen can be used to create rocket fuel, the same stuff used by the Space Shuttle. This allows companies like Vivisat fuel spacetugs that will be used to keep satellites in their Geostationary slots, or fuel up your spacecraft before zooming off to Mars. The possibilities are endless!"
The concept of asteroid harvesting isn't new, and many astrophysicists suspect it will be a necessary part of space travel one day. Ideally, space-based "gas stations" could be located at key junctions (say, in orbit) allowing ships to fuel up before heading to another planetary body. But where NASA addresses scientific pursuits, Planetary Resources' focus largely seems directed at commercial applications, using low-cost robotic spacecraft to gather rare metals and increase Earth's GDP.
As much as I'd love for space travel to be an idealized Star Trek-like pursuit where money doesn't matter, Lewicki raises a fair point. Historically, most efforts to colonize distant lands required some kind of economic incentive, especially if said lands were hostile to human life. That's not to say Planetary Resources' plan is perfect; Professor Henry Hertzfeld of George Washington University notes that it's unclear who the customers of this industry would be, and that's kind of important when trillions of dollars are on the line. On top of that, until we figure out whether asteroids can be treated as private property, their ownership remains a legal grey area.
Do you think asteroid mining and financial incentives will be what pushes humanity into the stars? Or do you think, as we discussed in our latest Science & Tech podcast, we'll explore space because just because it's there?