Mining the Sky


The plans of the Planetary Resources company to launch a privatized space mining operation is definitely the stuff of science fiction made reality. It might seem like a radical new concept, but science fiction writers have been toying with the idea of mining the space for natural resources for a very long time now.

Anyone remembers ‘Aliens’ or Sean Connery’s ‘Outland’? As a hint for those who are not particularly loyal science fiction followers, this idea has been so popular in the genre that it is literally a plot point in countless science fiction books and movies; two such movies have been ironically, or perhaps rather predictably, directed by non‑other than Planetary Resources co-founder James Cameron himself!

What is even more amusing, or perhaps a rather bad omen, is that in both said movies, space mining operations do not end so well, with all kinds of cosmic disasters and outer space turmoil breaking loose.

While we are definitely crossing our fingers for James Cameron’s latest efforts with Planetary Resources, let us take a look at how Sci-Fi imagination in both movies and books has fueled the reality. We might even get a glimpse of what might potentially happen, if life continues to imitate art.

The first mention of space mining was probably in ‘Edison’s Conquest of Mars’ by Garrett P. Serviss in 1892. As a sequel to an earlier book, Thomas Edison, who officially endorsed the book, travels to Mars for a little payback on the Martian race. On the way, Edison travels to an asteroid and takes out a bunch of Martians who were, as you might have guessed, mining the asteroid for resources.

Since then, asteroid mining, and space mining in general, has become a staple of the science fiction genre, appearing everywhere from the works of Robert Heinlein to Ben Bova’s series of ‘Asteroid War’ books. Generally speaking, space mining became a metaphor for new frontiers and human expansion; pioneers exploring the outer reaches, risking their lives for monetary gain, competing over resources, and so on. Basically, you get the same kind of stories you would get from a western, just with lasers and space ships instead of six-shooters and horses.

Sounds fun? The movie plots were not all fun and games though; in most cases the writers took the stories down dark, dangerous and often disastrous paths, perhaps to serve as a reality check for those who dare.

In the futuristic movie ‘Outland’, Federal Marshal William O'Niel (Connery) is assigned to a tour of duty in a titanium ore mining outpost on ‘Lo’, a volcanic moon of the planet Jupiter. Conditions on Lo are difficult; gravity is 1/6 that of the Earth with no breathable atmosphere, spacesuits are cumbersome, delirium attacks are often, and death by decompression is the norm.

If ‘Outland’ was not enough warning, a few years later, five to be exact, Mr. Cameron’s foray into space mining with the 1986 ‘Aliens’ sequel should have done the trick. Not technically about asteroid mining, but a decent enough cautionary tale that you wonder how he has not thought twice about investing in Planetary Resources.

In the movie, Hadley’s Hope was a small colony mining the moon of a planet called ‘Archeron  LV-426’. Everything was cool, until a miner stumbled across an alien spacecraft, unleashing the xenomorphs (aliens), wiping out the colony, and eventually forcing Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) to nuke the entire site from orbit, “just to be sure”.

Cameron revisited space mining with ‘Avatar’, also a dark tale set in the mid‑22nd century, when humans are mining a precious mineral called unobtanium on ‘Pandora’, a lush habitable moon in the ‘Alpha Centauri’ star system. The expansion of the mining colony threatens the continued existence of a local tribe of ‘Na'vi’—the blue humanoid species indigenous to Pandora. Following a fierce and epic battle, the triumphant Na’vi expels all humans from Pandora and sends them back to their severely depleted Earth.

Although another cautionary tale, it is unlikely that Planetary Resources will face the ethical dilemma of displacing an indigenous population in order to take their resources, especially on the asteroids they plan to mine that are too small to hold their own atmosphere, let alone their own population.

So that is one less movie plot danger to worry about. But if we rewind back to the 1980’s, we can find a much more promising and highly important piece of science fiction focused on space mining. Perhaps we should not call it fiction at all now, but mere science; it is the prophetic book by John S. Lewis, ‘Mining The Sky: Untold Riches From The Asteroids, Comets, And Planets’.

Although every chapter begins with an excerpt from a fictional “future history” textbook in which the reader “looks back” at how the Solar System was won, this is only meant as a fun touch for Sci-Fi fans, for the book is packed with scientifically backed arguments and detailed explorations of the wide range of minerals, volatiles and other useful materials to be found in all the different types of small bodies we know to be drifting about the Solar System.

John S. Lewis explains in detail how we can mine these precious resources from asteroids, comets, and planets in our own Solar System for our benefit, while exploring the outer space’s endless possibilities. He contemplates milking the moons of Mars for water and hollowing out asteroids for space-bound homesteaders, all the while demonstrating the economic and technical feasibility of plans that were back then considered pure fiction but are now becoming a reality.

So now that we have explored the dangers and the promise of space mining as depicted by the minds of the creative writers of the Sci-Fi genre, let us just say we hope John Lewis, who is by the way one of the major advisors for Planetary Resources, was right all along, and there are no aliens.


*You might also be interested to read "Mining the Sky II".

**The original article was published in the PSC Newsletter2nd School Semester 2012/2013 issue.


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