#2. Google Billionaires Want to Mine Asteroids
Space travel sadly turned out to be something of a passing fad -- we got all worked up about the moon landing and then quickly figured out there wasn't anything there. Let's face it: The reason America isn't full of people screaming for a manned trip to the stars is that space just doesn't seem to have anything useful. Well, if Google billionaires Larry Page and Eric Schmidt have their say (and they usually do), we're about to start plundering the living hell out of our solar system's vast trove of riches.
The market for gray dust could spike at any moment.
The dynamic duo, who collectively are worth about $33 billion, teamed up with filmmaker James Cameron and X-Prize founder (and possible Watchmen villain) Peter Diamandis to fund "a venture to survey and eventually extract" valuable minerals from asteroids that pass near the Earth. No strangers to thinking big (Page has been a driving force behind Google Glass, and Schmidt has been helping to launch Kenya, Africa, as a tech center similar to Silicon Valley), mining asteroids is just the latest in a string of interesting innovations.
Why mine precious metals? It's because precious metals are used in just about every technology we enjoy, and are also important accessories to even low-level hip-hop artists. Comets and meteors are full of these metals, as well as water, but the last time one of these space-banks paid us a visit, it added only a little bit of gold and water, and subtracted a whole lot of dinosaurs.
While no one attached to the project volunteered how much was invested, consider that they're ready to do this damn thing way sooner than NASA is. Led by Diamandis' organization, Planetary Resources, they're not only competing with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, they're beating them to the asteroids (although to NASA's credit, they did smash the ever-loving crap out of one with an aimed projectile). Their plan is to use robots for all the mining. A good idea, although imagine how much action one would get if "asteroid miner" was a human job.
"Did you ever see Deep Impact? Would you like to?"
Most interesting of all, this project is well along in development. It met its fundraising goal this summer and will kick off in late 2013 or early 2014, when Planetary Resources plans to launch a few Verne Troyer-size telescopes into orbit. These satellites will survey our immediate cosmic surroundings and catalog different pieces of space rock based on potential value. The probes will ascertain the components of asteroid belt objects so we can target the most metallurgically potent specimens. Water is equally important, as it can be turned into jet fuel upon separation of the hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Once extracted, this water can then be used to power other crafts, as they would be able to refuel at what would be the first ever gas station in space.
As demonstrated by this computer rendering of a tin can and a potato.
And while we're on the subject of rich people beating governments into space ...
#1. Dennis Tito and Sergei Kostenko Are Making Space Tourism Real
Born in Queens, New York, billionaire Dennis Tito is what you'd call a "space enthusiast." How much of a space enthusiast? Enough of one to spend $20 million of his own money in 2001 to become the world's first space tourist.
Sovfoto / Universal Images Group / Getty
Some things money can't buy. For everything else, there's $20 million.
His ticket price earned him a round trip to the International Space Station, and probably a free T-shirt. Since then there hasn't been much in the way of space-faring, and it's been an especially long time since anyone's been anywhere near the moon.
Well, Tito wants to see humans go back into space, and he's fricking tired of waiting. So he's going to fund the farthest expedition humans have ever attempted: He's planning a journey all the way to the red planet.
That's dangerous, though, because Mars is approximately 140 million miles from Earth, and Tito'll be damned if he's getting into that space capsule himself. No, instead he plans to send a couple, and he plans to do it on January 5, 2018. He's sending a couple because he says it most accurately represents humanity, although we think he just wants to watch people bang in space through well-hidden cameras.
"Camera? No, that measures ... space ... rays."
The date is incredibly important and non-negotiable, as it provides the most efficient trajectory to Mars due to the alignment of the planets. If the deadline isn't met, conditions won't be favorable again until 2031 (aka a year after NASA plans to launch its own Mars mission). So kudos to Tito for attempting to jump the gun on NASA by 13 years. The couple won't be able to land and make Mars-angels in the dirt, but they'll get to take the scenic route, as they'll be "slingshotted" around the spinning planet and hurled back toward Earth. The whole shebang will take exactly 501 days.
With the launch date locked in and basically immoveable, all that remains is to complete the fundraising on time and then design and build the entire flipping project. No worries, right? The project has its detractors, who wonder if the initiative will raise enough money (which is estimated at around $1 billion) and overcome technical problems such as the high radiation and the dangerous re-entry speed inherent with this type of trip.
Turns out space is a lot harsher than van murals would have us believe.
OK, so maybe these rich space enthusiasts need to think a bit smaller? That brings us to Sergei Kostenko.
Kostenko has been involved in the space tourism industry for several years and nowadays is the chief executive officer of Moscow-based Orbital Technologies. They, in association with the Russian space agency ROSCOSMOS, announced their intention to build a space hotel, and to do it soon -- the plan is that by 2016, you and up to seven of your closest friends will be able to take a real space-cation. After extensive training, of course -- you don't think they'd just let any chump off the street go up there on a whim, right?
A billion dollars' worth of technology and they still expect you to use your towel twice.
You'll be spending your vacation only 250 miles away, but it will seem much farther because those miles are straight up. At this point you've actually left the planet and therefore temporarily escaped gravity's dominion. Granted, it's not for the claustrophobic, as it's pretty much a one-bedroom, no-bath apartment. Oh, and you can stay as long as six months.
In the comfort of your very own supra-orbital, radiation-shielded womb.
Apart from a recent announcement about some organizational changes at Orbital Technologies, news of progress toward the 2016 completion date has been sparse since 2011 (so unlike Russia to keep secrets like this), but keep in mind, the Russian space program has sent at least seven people to the International Space Station as space tourists -- it really is just a matter of getting them their own room.
It is absolutely doable, so do it, crazy billionaires! What else are you good for?
Related Reading: These aren't the only sci-fi projects getting close to fruition- the freeze ray is totally real. And app scientists are close to a breakthrough that will allow your phone to smell and see disease. If your tastes in sci-fi are more modern and crappy, you'll be glad to know the army is working on making Avatar happen.