“I shall never forget the sight, nor the exclamations of wonder that broke forth from all of us standing around, when the yellow gleam of the precious metal appeared under the ‘star dust’."
This passage, in Garrett Serviss' 1898 story Edison's Conquest of Mars, describes the moment when a band of spacefaring humans realise they are literally standing on a goldmine. The explorers are part of an armada which is on its way to attack Mars, in revenge for a Martian assault on Earth. Along the way they discover an outpost on an asteroid set up to mine precious metals.
“Evidently the planet was not a solid ball of gold, formed like a bullet run in a mould, but was composed of nuggets of various sizes, which had come together here under the influence of their mutual gravitation, and formed a little metallic planet.”
The excerpt – regarded as the first mention of asteroid mining in science fiction – took on new relevance last week when a small California company called Deep Space Industries announced its plan to kick start a new gold rush in space by mining asteroids for “nuggets” of precious metals.
"More than 900 new asteroids that pass near Earth are discovered every year. They can be like the Iron Range of Minnesota was for the Detroit car industry last century – a key resource located near where it was needed. In this case, metals and fuel from asteroids can expand the in-space industries of this century," said the company's chief executive David Gump announcing the venture.
The company intends to build a small fleet of spacecraft called Fireflies to mine asteroids for precious minerals, which could include gold, platinum and rare-Earth metals. The company says it will test the craft in 2015 and – all things being well – launch an exploratory round-trip mission as early as 2016 to bring back samples weighing as much as 70kg (150lbs) pounds. Eventually the firm hopes to mine asteroids regularly for profit.
The announcement follows a similar one from April 2012, when a company called Planetary Resources – backed by high-profile investors company’s such as Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, film director James Cameron and X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis – claimed it too wanted to kick start the asteroid mining business.
Both announcements have been met with excitement and scepticism in equal measure: excitement because of the boldness of the visions; scepticism because for many observers the economics just don’t work. But, as Serviss’ book shows, the idea of mining asteroids for their precious contents is nothing new.
In 1962, for example, US Vice President Lyndon Johnson floated the idea to a crowd at the Seattle World’s Fair.
“Someday we will be able to bring an asteroid containing billions of dollars worth of critically needed metals close to Earth to provide a vast source of mineral wealth to our factories,” he was reported to have said.
This focus on the economic benefits of asteroid mining – and the constant references to a “new gold rush” dominates most subsequent coverage. But around the same time as Johnson’s speech, the Sunday newspaper comics sections were hyping a similar notion which had a broader view of the potential benefits of asteroid mining.
The 15 April 1962 edition of Arthur Radebaugh’s Closer Than We Think (which appeared just one week before the opening of the Seattle World’s Fair) was titled Asteroid Arrester. The comic explained that officials at the US space agency Nasa would one day use large rockets to capture asteroids and put them to use for both pure science and practical industrial purposes: “This would make it possible to study the origins of the solar system, possibly increase our store of minerals and even learn about the beginnings of life.”