By Phil Plait – an astronomer, lecturer, author, and the creator of Bad Astronomy
Planetary Resources, Inc. is not your average startup: its mission is to investigate and eventually mine asteroids in space!
Last week, the company issued a somewhat cryptic announcement saying they “will overlay two critical sectors – space exploration and natural resources – to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP”. I predicted this meant they wanted to mine asteroids, and yes, I will toot my own horn: I was right. They’re holding a press conference Tuesday morning to officially announce they’re going asteroid hunting.
The company had a pretty fierce amount of credibility right off the bat, with several ex-NASA engineers, an astronaut, and planetary scientists involved, as well as the backing of not one but several billionaires, including a few from Google… not to mention James Cameron. The co-founders of Planetary Resources are Peter Diamandis — he created the highly-successful X-Prize Foundation, to give cash awards to incremental accomplishments that will help achieve technological breakthroughs, including those for space travel — and Eric Anderson, X-Prize board member and Chairman of the Board of the Space Spaceflight Federation.
These are very, very heavy hitters. Clearly, they’re not screwing around.
So what’s the deal?
I spoke with Planetary Resources President and Chief Engineer Chris Lewicki on the phone Monday. He has an excellent pedigree: Lewicki was Flight Director for the NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity Mars rover missions, and also Mission Manager for the Mars Phoenix lander surface operations. So when he says he’s confident the company can and will succeed, I’m willing to listen.
“This is an attempt to make a permanent foothold in space,” he said. “We’re going to enable this piece of human exploration and the settlement of space, and develop the resources that are out there.”
The plan structure is reminiscent of that of Apollo: have a big goal in mind, but make sure the steps along the way are practical.
The key point is that their plan is not to simply mine precious metals and make millions or billions of dollars– though that’s a long-range goal. If that were the only goal, it would cost too much, be too difficult, and probably not be attainable.
Instead, they’ll make a series of calculated smaller missions that will grow in size and scope. The first is to make a series of small space telescopes to observe and characterize asteroids. Lewicki said the first of these is the Arkyd 101, a 22 cm (9″) telescope in low-Earth orbit that will be aboard a tiny spacecraft just 40 x 40 cm (16″) in size. It can hitch a ride with other satellites being placed in orbit, sharing launch costs and saving money (an idea that will come up again and again in their plans). This telescope will be used both to look for and observe known Near-Earth asteroids, and can also be pointed down to Earth for remote sensing operations.
I’ll note Lewicki said they expect to launch the first of these telescopes by the end of next year, 2013. They’re already building them (what’s referred to as “cutting metal”). They could launch on already-existing rockets — an Atlas or Delta, for example, Europe’s Ariane, India’s GSLV, or Space X’s Falcon 9.
After that, once they’re flight-tested, more of these small spacecraft can be launched equipped with rocket motors. If they hitch a ride with a satellite destined for a 40,000 km (24,000 mile) geosynchronous orbit, the motor can be used to take the telescope — now a space probe — out of Earth orbit and set on course for a pre-determined asteroid destination. Technical bit: orbital velocity at geosync is about 3 km/sec, so only about an additional 1 km/sec is needed to send a probe away from Earth, easily within the capability of a small motor attached to a light-weight probe.
Many asteroids pass close to the Earth with a low enough velocity that one of these probes could reach them. Heck, some are easier to reach in that sense than the Moon! Any asteroid-directed probe can be equipped with sensors to make detailed observations, including composition. It could even be designed to land on the asteroid and return samples back to Earth, or leave when the observations are complete and head off to observe more asteroids up close and personal.
Once a suitable asteroid is found, the idea is not to mine it right away for precious metals to return to Earth, Lewicki told me, but instead to tap it for volatiles — materials with low boiling points such as water, oxygen, nitrogen, and so on, which also happen to be critical supplies for use in space.
The idea behind this is to gather these materials up and create in situ space supply depots. Water is very heavy and incompressible, so it’s very difficult to launch from Earth into space (Lewicki quoted a current price of roughly $20,000 per liter to get water into space). But water should be abundant on some asteroids, locked up in minerals or even as ice, and in theory it shouldn’t be difficult to collect it and create a depot. Future astronauts can then use these supplies to enable longer stays in space — the depots could be put in Earthbound trajectories for astronauts, or could be placed in strategic orbits for future crewed missions to asteroids. Lewicki didn’t say specifically, but these supplies could be sold to NASA — Planetary Resources would make quite a bit money while saving NASA quite a bit. Win-win.
The details of exactly how they’ll collect these resources and store them may be revealed in the press conference Tuesday. If I can, I’ll ask.
The last step is to actually get the precious minerals from the asteroids and bring them to Earth. The exact setup for this isn’t clear at this time — again, the press conference should reveal that — but for the moment it may not really need to be. There are several options. One way would be to launch equipment to a distant asteroid already explored previously by a souped-up Arkyd. Another might be to use the small spacecraft to bring a smallish asteroid near the Earth — a study of this was just released, in fact [Note: two of the authors on that study were from Planetary Resources, including Lewicki]. A rock could be brought into an orbit around the Moon (that’s easiest to do in terms of fuel) where it could then be mined. Or it could be both: a small operation could start work while the asteroid is being towed to Earth, getting a few years head start.
Step 4: Profit???
I asked Lewicki specifically about how this will make money. Some asteroids may be rich in precious metals — some may hold tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars in platinum-group metals — but it will cost billions and take many years, most likely, to mine them before any samples can be returned. Why not just do it here on Earth? In other words, what’s the incentive for profit for the investors? This is probably the idea over which most people are skeptical, including several people I know active in the asteroid science community.
I have to admit, Lewicki’s answer surprised me. “The investors aren’t making decisions based on a business plan or a return on investment,” he told me. “They’re basing their decisions on our vision.”
On further reflection, I realized this made sense. Not every wealthy investor pumps money into a project in order to make more… at least right away. Elon Musk, for example, has spent hundreds of millions of his own fortune on his company Space X. Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos is doing likewise for his own space company, Blue Origin. Examples abound. And it’ll be years before either turns a respectable profit, but that’s not what motivates Musk and Bezos to do this. They want to explore space.
The vision of Planetary Resources is in their name: they want to make sure there are available resources in place to ensure a permanent future in space. And it’s not just physical resources with which they’re concerned. Their missions will support not just mining asteroids for volatiles and metals, but also to extend our understanding of asteroids and hopefully increase our ability to deflect one should it be headed our way.
This again was a topic I discussed with Lewicki specifically. He agreed with my proposition that all three topics — science, deflection, and resource use — are tied together. After all, we need to understand asteroids scientifically if we want to use them or prevent them from hitting us. We can use them for depots to establish better exploration of them, and sometime in the future we may need to deflect one to prevent all this from being a moot point anyway.
My opinion on all this
The beauty of being me (among other things) is that I don’t always have to be objective. So I’ll say this: I love this idea. Love it.
Mind you, that’s different than saying I think they can do it. But, in theory at least, I think they can. Their step-wise plan makes sense to me, and they don’t need huge rockets and huge money to get things started. By the time operations ramp up to something truly ambitious they should already have in place the pieces necessary for it, including the track record. In other words, by the time they’re ready to mine an asteroid, they’ll have in place all the infrastructure needed to actually do it. I still want to see some engineering plans and a timeline, but in general what I’ve heard sounds good.
My biggest initial skepticism would be the investors — with no hope of profit for years, would they really stick with it?
But look at the investors: Film maker James Cameron. Google executives Larry Page & Eric Schmidt, and Google investor K. Ram Shriram. Software pioneer Charles Simonyi. Ross Perot, Jr. These are all billionaires, some of them adventurers, and all of them have proven to have patience in developing new ventures. I don’t think they’ll turn tail and run at the first setback.
Lewicki said much the same thing. “I was a harsh skeptic at first, but [when the company founders Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson] approached me we talked about a plan on how to create a company and pursue this.” Soon after, he came to the conclusion this was a logical plan and the group was capable of doing it. In the press release, he said, “Not only is our mission to expand the world’s resource base, but we want to expand people’s access to, and understanding of, our planet and solar system by developing capable and cost-efficient systems.”
That sounds like a great idea to me. And I am strongly of the opinion that private industry is the way to make that happen. The Saturn V was incredible, but not terribly cost effective; that wasn’t its point. And when NASA tried to make a cost-effective machine, they came up with the Space Shuttle, which was terribly expensive, inefficient, and — let’s face it — dangerous. The government is good for a lot of things, but political machinations can really impede innovation when it comes to making things easier and less costly. As many people involved with NASA used to joke: “Faster, better, cheaper: pick two.”
I still strongly support NASA, of course; don’t get me wrong. It should still do what it does best: the things private industry can’t, like breaking new ground. That’s what NASA has been doing in space for 50 years, and now that paved way is being taken up by private companies. I think it’s just that combination of government support and private innovation that will get us to the stars. And for now, just for now, you know what?
Getting to the asteroids will do just fine.