Recently-formed company Planetary Resources Inc. announced its plans to mine asteroids for precious metals and water at a conference in Seattle on Tuesday. Andy Howell, adjunct profes- sor of physics at UCSB, talked with the Daily Nexus about the practicality and implementation of the proposal.

Planetary Resources Inc. — a relatively small team of rocket scien- tists with billionaire backers such as Google co-founder Larry Page and film director James Cameron — has committed to send a lightweight, rela- tively inexpensive spacecraft to aster- oids within earth’s proximity to evalu- ate their potential for providing water and valuable metals like platinum.

Although details such as the model of spacecraft to be used and methods for extracting the resources have not yet been determined, the company expects the concept to become reality by 2020. Asteroids could conceivably provide a near-infinite supply of valu- able resources but the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of procuring and transporting such materials have long outweighed any potential benefits.

According to Howell, the plan has barely commenced its preliminary stages and a viable method for access- ing these abundant resources has yet to be found.

“We do know that asteroids are full of metals that are relatively rare on earth and so there is billions of dollars worth of material waiting to be mined in asteroids,” Howell said. “But it is very difficult to do that at this point. … It’s going to be a long time before

we can really mine that material.” Despite the extreme cost the opera- tion will demand upfront, Howell said Planetary Resources has the funding capabilities to work for a long period of time without concern about turning a profit. “In the long term, asteroid mining will be a viable business,” Howell said. “I think that they’re taking good steps to go about this process; I don’t think they’re going to be making money off of asteroid mining right away, but that’s not what they’re claiming they’ll do.”

According to Howell, the first step will be to survey asteroids orbiting Earth with a small satellite and tar- get the ones with potential resources. He said the company then hopes to launch spacecrafts that are consider- ably cheaper and lighter than typical rockets to mine and explore, a task he says is more ambitious than feasible.

“Once you get into the real-world difficulties of launching rockets, it’s not so easy,” Howell said. “You can have things go wrong. Designs might not work exactly as anticipated; you can have accidents; things always cost more than you think they will … It’s important that, at least initial- ly, they’re not really trying to make money.”

The mission’s other component — finding alternate sources of water on space rocks — would provide a stable platform for further space exploration and interaction, Howell said.

“Water is one of the most valuable things in space, especially if you’re talking about the prospect of human space life,” Howell said. “Humans need water but there’s just not very much and it costs a huge amount of money to put water in space.”

The discovery of water could also allow fueling stations to be established in space that would split hydrogen and oxygen atoms to create fuel.

“[Fueling stations] could ultimate- ly allow the exploration of our solar system in the far future,” Howell said. “So now we’re not talking about 10 years away or 20 years away, maybe, but several decades away. These guys are thinking big and long-term. It’s the right kind of dream to have.”

Howell said although Planetary Resources is one of the most promising privatized space programs to date, its privatization presents challenges that institutions like NASA do not contend with.

“I think sometimes businesspeople can oversell the advantages of private industry in this area,” Howell said, “but I do have some confidence that this isn’t just some dreamer theory — they’re people with some real experi- ence.”

Howell, who personally spoke with Cameron about the project, said the director possesses the ambition and mental prowess to succeed in a range of disciplines outside film.

“He could’ve been an astrophysi- cistifhehadputhismindtoit,orhe could’ve been an astronaut,” Howell said. “Now we know he’s been down there exploring the sea f loor so he’s got the right kind of vision but he’s also got the sort of impeccable know-how and knows how to ask the right questions. It’s very inter- esting to see him as an advisor on this project.”

Cameron has touched on similar premises in his directing career, such as in his 2009 film “Avatar.” The box office hit explores the United States’ exploitation of the population of a newly discovered planet for its mineral resources.

“Let’s just hope there aren’t any native aliens on these asteroids,” Howell said.