I just came across the latest update from a startup aimed at mining asteroids for commercial profit. The company, Planetary Resources, Inc. (PRI), is certainly a long way from actually retrieving anything from an asteroid, but they seem to be making progress on what will become their fleet of prospecting craft. Their approach is much more Silicon Valley than it is traditional aerospace, a paradigm that seems to be increasingly popular.
In order to find asteroids rich in rare elements, PRI plans to send a fleet of tiny spacecraft out to various nearby asteroids. These craft will make basic measurements of the asteroids, helping the company distinguish rich asteroids from poor ones. A flotilla of traditional spacecraft would cost a fortune, both in construction and launch costs, so the company has been forced to try and construct a smaller, simpler product. The result can be seen in video accompanying this post. To me, it looks basically like a small telescope bolted to some solar panels. The reality probably isn't that different.
What is different is the approach that companies like PRI, SpaceX, and Armadillo Aerospace seem to be taking. If you watch the video, you'll hear phrases which seem more at home n the smartphone industry: daring, elegant, inexpensive, mass-produceable, exciting., miniaturized This is the language of the startup, not the established corporation. Even the notion of rapid innovation with no short-term business plan (SpaceX is the exception here) seems straight out of Silicon Valley. So is the focus on cutting-edge technology: new materials, laser communications, miniaturized components.
Will this approach work? I don't know; the vacuum of space is probably more unforgiving than bad cell reception, but many of the challenges are the same. What I do know, however, is that the Silicon Valley mentality has given us an unparalleled period of technological growth. Fifteen years ago, there was no mass-market e-paper, voice recognition, or video communication. Today I can talk with Siri, carry thousands of books on my Kindle, and Skype with my sister halfway across the globe.
Silicon Valley has made yesteryear's science fiction a reality. Perhaps it's time to do the same with our actual science.
Source: Planetary Resources, Inc.