Any sci-fi buff has read stories about hardy souls who fly between the asteroids and mine the hurtling chunks of rock for minerals. Usually the heroic asteroid miner-pilot is a gruff, swashbuckling character with a taste for adventure and a heart of gold.
Now the concept of mining the asteroid belt seems to have moved a step closer to reality — except that the mining will be done by robots, not adventurers.
A consortium of wealthy entrepreneurs has announced a plan to use telescopes to identify likely candidates for mining, with a specific focus on gold and platinum. The plans would then move to establishing observation platforms and a fuel depot in orbit, and finally to the mining of asteroids and shipment of minerals back to Earth.
Obviously, we are still far away from commercial exploration of space. Nevertheless, those of us who dream of more robust space exploration must pin our hopes on profit-seeking entities, because our cash-strapped governments are unlikely to do much. If profits can be made, entrepreneurs who are willing to accept risks will figure out a way to realize those profits.
The fact that companies are finally starting to look carefully at space tourism, asteroid mining, and other obvious commercial activities in space is a good sign. Serious efforts will mean a focus on improving the technology, mission planning, delivery systems, and other processes that will make commercial use of space resources increasingly viable.
That means our grandchildren might not be swashbuckling asteroid mining pilots — but they could get a chance to spend some time among the stars.