Flush from the successful launch of its first prototype spacecraft, a startup space mining company says it's on track to send robotic prospectors to near-Earth asteroids in as soon as three years.
"This is something that's unfolding quickly, and it's happening faster than people realize," says Chris Lewicki, a former NASA engineer who's currently president and chief engineer of Redmond, Washington-based Planetary Resources. "Most people assume this is something that's 20 to 30 years away that their grandchildren might see. But assuming that everything is successful, we're on a roadmap that could see us exploring our first asteroids by the end of 2018 or 2019."
If the robotic probes are able to find valuable minerals or other resources on the asteroids that they explore, the first test extractions could take place by 2025, Lewicki says.
The six-year-old company is backed by an array of big-name investors that includes Virgin Group chairman Sir Richard Branson and Google execs Eric E. Schmidt and Larry Page. Planetary Resources created a sensation in April 2012 when it revealed its ambitions to build and operate a fleet of robotic mining spacecraft. It was a business plan that seemed like something out of a science fiction movie, as dazzling as the potential of finding a 500-meter hunk of rock that might contain a lode of platinum equal to the entire amount mined in human history.
But in the three-and-a-half years since then, Planetary Resources has made significant progress towards developing and testing the technology needed to make its dream become a reality, according to Lewicki, who served as flight director for NASA's Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers, and surface mission manager for the Phoenix Mars Lander.
That hasn't been without some bumps. In October 2014, Planetary Resources' initial attempt to put its Arkyd 3 probe into space failed when the Orbital Science Corp.'s Antares rocket that was transporting it exploded, seconds after launch. Undaunted, the company launched a second copy of the prototype into space in April aboard a SpaceX rocket, and in July successfully deployed it from the International Space Station. The experimental probe, which weighs just 10 pounds, was designed to test the avionics, control systems and software that are being developed for future generations of robotic mining spacecraft.
In December, Planetary Resources will launch the Arkyd 6, which will provide the first demonstration of the sensing technology that the company plans to use to detect resources on asteroids.
A Pricy Proposition
As Planetary Resources develops its gadgetry, it's also pioneering a new, cost-conscious private-sector approach to space exploration, says Lewicki. "I can describe to you exactly how to build a $1 billion spacecraft to explore asteroids," he says. "The innovation that we're bringing to this is to drive the cost down by orders of magnitude." Planetary Resources aims to do this in part by streamlining the designs of its probes to have fewer parts.
With conventional spacecraft, says Lewicki, "you've got 10,000 little pieces of a puzzle that you need to manage and test and write procedures for, and then verify that those parts work. But if we can just 3D print the majority of those parts into the system, we don't need bolts, screws, brackets, and tubes and plumbing. We now can have a much simpler puzzle, and we can build it much more rapidly and cost-effectively, while still keeping all of the capability of the old design we're replacing."
Planetary Resources is looking to buy other parts from consumer and industrial electronics manufacturers rather than traditional aerospace suppliers, who are accustomed to making a few items custom-designed to fit NASA specifications. And the startup also hopes to achieve greater efficiency by having a lean, vertically-integrated organization, in which its team of 40 engineers and other staffers run the entire operation—from designing, building and testing parts for its robotic probes to mission control—under a single roof.
As a result, "you can spend less than $1 million to build and launch a satellite that would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars 10 to 15 years ago," Lewicki says. Since the spacecraft will cost less, Planetary Resources envisions continually developing new, improved versions of them, "every few months instead of years," almost in the same fashion that software companies churn out updates.
But Planetary Resources' penny-pinching approach doesn't preclude technological innovation. Its mining spacecraft will use lasers to communicate rather than radio transmitters. This will enable them to relay data over the immense distances in space while using less power than existing spacecraft. The company also is working on a propulsion system that uses fuel that is safer, cheaper and easier to handle than the highly toxic hydrazine propellant used since the 1950s. The object is to have a fuel that's so safe that "you can even ship it by FedEx if you want to," Lewicki explains. "It's a modest improvement in technology, but it's a massive improvement in efficiency and costs."
Planetary Resources also has bolstered its efforts by recruiting investors such as 3D Systems, whose manufacturing expertise may help the company in producing its spacecraft, and Bechtel, the global engineering and construction giant, whose expertise at managing sprawling projects could come in handy for mining asteroids.
Asteroids in the Neighborhood
When Planetary Resources actually begins sending its first robotic prospectors to asteroids, the company will concentrate on space rocks that are relatively close to Earth, rather than heading out into the more distant Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter.
Out of the 700,000 asteroids currently being tracked by astronomers, about 4,000 of them are close enough to consider. "They require less energy to get to and come back from than the surface of our own Moon, where you have to climb in and out of its gravity well," Lewicki explains. "An asteroid, in comparison, has very little gravity, so you don't need as much energy."
Once the probes have identified asteroids with valuable resources, other spacecraft will be dispatched to stage small-scale tests of the mining technology. Initially, Planetary Resources will focus not upon precious metals, but easier-to-find resources such as water, oxygen, hydrogen and materials that can be used as fuel. Next on the list will be basic metals used in construction, such as iron, nickel and cobalt.
Most of these commodities may never make their way back to Earth. Instead, Planetary Resources hopes to find customers among government agencies and private companies who could build spacecraft and satellites more cheaply in space, if only they had the materials.
"Just being able to refuel spacecraft in space is going to redefine our relationship with space travel," Lewicki says.
Lewicki thinks the availability of those resources may help create a booming space-based economy, in the same way that access to fertile land, timber, and water helped 19th-century pioneers to make a go of it on the frontier. "They would bring down the cost of other space activity," he says.
Eventually, though, he says the mining robots will also go after prizes such as platinum, which is rare on Earth but abundant in space.