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Mining the heavens

November 27th, 2015

It could be 10 years away, with water as the first commodity

by Greg Klein

How best to describe the asteroid mining act that the U.S. signed into law on November 26? A skeptic might say, “One small penstroke for POTUS, one giant leap of fantasy.” But to Eric Anderson, it’s “the single greatest recognition of property rights in history.” The co-founder/co-chairperson of Planetary Resources added, “This legislation establishes the same supportive framework that created the great economies of history and will encourage the sustained development of space.”

While the law doesn’t actually grant Americans extraterrestrial property rights, it does say they can keep anything they find out there. Maybe other earthlings will follow through with their own finders-keepers laws. And there’s a hell of a lot to be found, according to enthusiasts of asteroid mining.

It might happen in 10 years, with water as the first commodity

A simulated image shows Planetary’s next satellite.
Image: Planetary Resources

A 500-metre asteroid “can contain more platinum group metals than have ever been mined in human history,” according to Anderson’s company, perhaps alluding to the possibility of non-humans mining elsewhere. Not-quite 43-101 estimates bandied about for asteroid 2012 DA14 range from $195 billion to $20 trillion.

To put the last figure in perspective, that’s about 20 Afghanistans, according to an oft-repeated but completely unsubstantiated estimate for another difficult-to-access part of the universe.

Visionaries see the market for off-planet resources not so much on Earth but in outer space, helping colonize beyond the continents exploited during our Age of Exploration. In fact Moon Express refers to its hoped-for robotic mining location as Earth’s “eighth continent.” But asteroids remain the destinations of choice for companies like Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources.

Chris Lewicki, the latter company’s president/chief engineer, foresees asteroid mining within 10 years.

Speaking to ResourceClips.com, he says Planetary now has a “very small, very innovative spacecraft” circling Earth. “It’s about the size of a loaf of bread. It uses a new, advanced form of computer processing to automate and reduce data. When we’re that far from Earth the phone bill can get very expensive, so we want to do a lot of those computations locally.”

The company lost an earlier spacecraft last year with the explosion of a commercial rocket, which would have carried the satellite to the International Space Station prior to re-launch into orbit.

Arkyd 6, another spacecraft scheduled for launch in spring, will orbit with an infrared imager to determine asteroid content, including water. “We’ll be the first commercial company to put one of those into space. A few more satellites are planned after that, then we plan on heading out to our asteroid of choice.”

That’s anticipated to happen by 2020, even though the company states there are 11,000 near-Earth asteroids, with about three new ones being discovered every day.

Once we’ve identified the asteroid, it will probably be a year or two before we can go back to it. I would expect that in the first half of the 2020s we’d have a mission that would begin the first small-scale extraction …—Chris Lewicki,
president/chief engineer
of Planetary Resources

“Once we’ve identified the asteroid, it will probably be a year or two before we can go back to it. I would expect that in the first half of the 2020s we’d have a mission that would begin the first small-scale extraction, demonstrating that we can extract water, hydrogen and oxygen from asteroids.”

As the first priority, water would be the easiest commodity to pull out and one already with a relatively local market. Out there, it costs as much as $50 million a tonne, Lewicki says. “So if we can get it in space, that really helps us establish an industry in space. Water of course supports human life, but it’s also oxygen and hydrogen, which are rocket fuel.”

Technology has progressed further than most people realize, he insists. Formerly with NASA, he took part in Mars missions as flight director for the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, and as surface mission manager for Phoenix. He even has an asteroid named after him, 13609 Lewicki.

Among lessons learned at NASA, he says “there are cheaper ways to do things if the goals are simpler, especially if you can incorporate some commercial innovations. But when we get to the mining and resource extraction, many of those technologies have already been developed. Things that can concentrate sunlight in space have been tested on the Space Shuttle in the 1990s. Things you can use to contain that energy are commercially available.”

Enthusiasts point out advantages of mining the heavens. The primitive evolutionary state of asteroids simplifies geology. There’s no atmosphere or weather getting in the way. Nobody’s saying so out loud, but there’s no permitting to bother with. And, unless there are surprises in store, no indigenous communities either.

It might happen in 10 years, with water as the first commodity

The Arkyd 3, now in Earth orbit, poses with some of its creators.
Photo: Planetary Resources

“It’s not necessarily harder or easier to do things than on Earth, it’s just different,” Lewicki maintains. “Free energy from the sun 24 hours a day is a great advantage and you’d be able to move tonnes and tonnes of material around with only very light structures because you don’t have to fight gravity.”

Still, such ambitions don’t come cheaply. Planetary gets revenue from contracts with NASA, the U.S. Defense Department and private companies. The endeavour also has deep-pocketed backing from the likes of Google founder/Alphabet CEO Larry Page, Ross Perot Jr and Richard Branson, among other “well-known entrepreneurs who understand how important it is to develop this industry.” But the company keeps its financials confidential.

Getting back to those supposedly bountiful resources, Lewicki says there are three main ways to assess asteroids. “Just as we use astronomy and spectroscopy to determine the make-up of a star light years away, we can use the same techniques to understand the rock composition of asteroids.”

Scientists also have some 50,000 bits of those rocks that fell to Earth.

“Perhaps the best way, and this has been done several times now, is to go out with a spacecraft and take that instrumentation right out to the asteroids, and even bring pieces back, as the Japanese did almost 10 years ago. We can actually know more about asteroids than we can about many things mined on Earth that are a kilometre below our feet because there’s nothing between you and it but the vast emptiness of space.”

Wondrous as all this seems, it comes from a soft-spoken NASA veteran. “A lot of people think this is way far off in the future, but it’s actually something we’ve been working on for several years.”

Who knows, maybe one day companies trying to crack Ontario’s Ring of Fire might look on in envy.