Monday, October 24, 2005

Hunting Asteroids For Profit And The Benefit Of All Humankind.

Yesterday we reported on Michael A'Hearn's talk about the Deep Impact mission at the Space Frontier Foundation's annual conference. Today we report on Thomas Matula's (resume here) proposal for private commercial missions to Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) for profit, and, by the way, to save humanity from the fate of the dinosaurs.

Probably the biggest question facing private space entrepreneurs is how to make money in space. What's the market for space entrepreneurs? The trend for suborbital rocketeers seems to be tourism. Virgin Galactic and others are moving forward with their plans to fly tourists on roller coaster-like flights into space. But beyond sub-orbit what's the market?

To some, a major threat facing humanity is the risk of extinction from a collision by an uncharted asteroid. How do we protect ourselves when we haven't mapped many of the NEAs and we don't know enough about them to deflect or destroy one headed our way, even if we knew it was coming?

Thomas Matula has thought about both these questions and come up with a solution: bounty hunters in the sky.

Matula's proposal would have the United States Congress appropriate money for a program to pay bounties for data about NEAs. The bounties would be open to any company in the United States who would fly a scouting mission to an NEA and send back data about the rock. The program would be modeled after the bounties paid to hunters in the 19th Century American frontier who killed predators of cows and sheep. The government paid bounties for results and only with proof of the kill.

For the NEA program, the federal government would pay a bounty for information about the asteroids. There would be a fixed price for different kinds of data: composition of the asteroid, rotational periods, density, orbits, and so on, up to $40 million total for one asteroid. There would be a 20 percent premium for information about an NEA found to be a hazard to Earth. The bounty would not be paid for sending a mission. It would only be paid upon delivery of the data.

Matula touted several benefits to this program. It likely would have popular support. Matula said that in surveys of public opinion the two most popular reasons given for a space program are obtaining solar energy from space and defending Earth from Near Earth Asteroids. It would be a relatively inexpensive program. It would externalize costs because payment would be contingent on performance. It would create a market for space entrepreneurs that would encourage commercial space missions. It would provide needed information about NEAs that otherwise might not be obtained. And, although he didn't put it this way, it just might save humanity from extinction. With apologies to those who view people as a virus on the face of the Earth, that is perhaps the greatest benefit of them all.


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