Tuesday’s announcement by startup Planetary Resources that they have plans to start a privatized asteroid mining operation seems the stuff of science fiction made reality. This is literally a plot point in countless science fiction books and movies, usually to get the protagonists in an out of the way location so all kinds of space chaos can break loose. It’s funny, because one of Planetary Resources’ financial partners, James Cameron, has made two movies about space mining operations, both of which went wrong in two very different ways.
So today, we are taking a little look at how imagination has fueled reality and what might potentially happen if life continues to imitate art.
The first mention of asteroid mining was probably in Edison’s Conquest of Mars by Garrett P. Serviss in 1892. A sequel to Fighters from Mars, a knockoff version of H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds rewritten to take place in Boston, Thomas Edison (who officially endorsed the book) travels to Mars for a little payback on the Martian race. On the way, Edison takes out a bunch of Martians on an asteroid the extraterrestrials mine for gold.
Since then, asteroid mining has become a staple of the science fiction genre, appearing everywhere from the works of Isaac Asimov to Robert Heinlein to Ben Bova’s series of Asteroid Wars books. Generally speaking, asteroid mining becomes a metaphor for new frontiers and human expansion — pioneers exploring the outer reaches, risking their lives for monetary gain, isolation, factions competing over resources, etc. Basically, you get the same kind of stories you get from a western, just with lasers and space ships instead of six shooters and horses.
A good example of the potential mundane life of space mining was seen in the BBC comedy series Red Dwarf. The Red Dwarf was a mining ship, a massive space vessel with a collector web in the front. It would ram an asteroid, pulverize it, separate out all the materials and move on. Life for the crew was about as exciting as working for any other corporate entity — at least until a radiation leak killed all of the crew except for Dave Lister, who was in suspended animation for three million years, making him the last human in existence, trying to keep his sanity with the ship’s computer, the hologram of his bunk mate/dead boss/friend, and the hyper-evolved progeny of his house cat. And even then, most of the early adventures were just the crew trying to kill time.
On the other hand, the Japanese anime series Gundam makes asteroid mining a lot more exciting, with larger mining asteroids used as hidden fortresses, the settings for giant battles between giant robots for the fate of the universe.
Cameron’s foray into space mining started with the 1986 sequel Aliens. Not technically asteroid mining, but a decent enough cautionary tale that you wonder if the King of the World thought twice about investing in Planetary Resources because of it. Hadley’s Hope was a small colony mining the moon of Archeron LV-426. Everything was cool, until a miner stumbled across an alien spacecraft, unleashing the xenomorphs, wiping out the colony, and eventually forcing Ellen Ripley to nuke the entire site from orbit, “just to be sure.”
Cameron revisited space mining with Avatar. Fortunately, it’s unlikely the ethical issues of displacing an indigenous population to take their resources are unlikely to happen on an asteroid too small to hold its own atmosphere. On the other hand, we don’t get a chance to try out giant blue alien sex.
Perhaps the most famous asteroid and space mining operation is in The Empire Strikes Back. The science behind the asteroid field chase was terrible — C3PO was about as wrong as you could get when he said that the odds of successfully navigating an asteroid field are 3,720 to 1. Maybe the real reason Han didn’t want C3PO to tell him the odds is that the actual odds are about a billion to one to ever hitting an asteroid, because they are so far apart in reality. Then again, Han and crew did leave their ship to run around in the belly of a giant space worm in the next scene without pressure suits, so it’s not like you could ever accuse Star Wars of being scientifically accurate. On the other hand, ever since Empire, I’ve never trusted caves the same way.
The other problem with space mining is mining executives. Sure, it might seem like a good idea to hide out at the tibanna gas mines of Bespin, but you know that rat bastard traitor Lando Calrissian is going to sell you out to the Empire the first chance he gets.