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July 06, 2012

Could mining asteroids become a trillion dollar industry?

There are approximately 1500 asteroids that are close to the earth and relatively easy to access. These asteroids contain substantial quantities of water, as well as precious metals such as platinum. The company Planetary Resources has been operating since 2010 with the primary mission of exploiting these asteroids natural resources. Planetary Resources believes that a combination of robots and satellites can be effectively used to extract both water and metals from these satellites within the next two decades. In an interview with Sander Olson for Next Big Future, Planetary Resources President and Chief Engineer Chris Lewicki discusses the plans for launching a series of satellites during the next decade to discover and analyze these satellites, with the ultimate aim of large-scale harvesting of asteroids.

Chris Lewicki

Question: How long has Planetary Resources been operating in Stealth mode?

The company has been operating since 2010, and we have been expanding and analyzing the optimum way to mine asteroids. Our mission is to apply commercial, innovative technologies that will facilitate the exploration of space.



Question: Planetary Resources plans on launching the ARKYD series 100 satellite into earth orbit. What are the capabilities of this satellite?

The ARKYD-100 is a very small satellite weighing only 30 kilograms. It will have arc-second resolution, which will allow us to survey the near-earth asteroids in detail. The ARKYD-200 series telescopes will be similar, but will also have propulsion capabilities as well as additional scientific instrumentation.

Question: How many targetable asteroids are currently close to earth?

Although the term "targetable" is subjective, there are about half a million asteroids in the solar system. About 9,000 of those are in an orbit similar to earth. Of those 9,000, about 1500 are as easy to access as landing on the moon. We are confident that there are hundreds of asteroids that we could profitably mine for water, volatiles, and minerals.

Question: What fraction of the asteroids should contain significant amounts of water?

Given the meteorites that landed on earth, we can confidently assert that most carbonaceous meteorites have a water density of between 2% and 20%. Some extinct comets may have water concentrations as high as 50%. So a single asteroid could potentially provide millions of liters of water.

Question: Would the water be used for both propulsion and human consumption?

Besides being vital for human operations, water can be electrolyzed into breathing air, and when heated to steam it can be directly used as a propellant. Hydrogen/oxygen is the most efficient chemical rocket fuel that is used, and water can also be used as radiation shielding. So we will definitely harvest all of the water that we can from the asteroids.

Question: How many satellites are currently under development?

We are currently focused on launching the ARKYD-100 series LEO space telescope, which should launch within the next two years. We are testing many of the technologies that will be used on the more sophisticated ARKYD-300 telescope on the ARKYD-100. The ARKYD-100 will be a low cost, proof-of-concept vehicle that we hope will discover the first harvestable asteroids. After that, comes the ARKYD-200 and the ARKYD-300 will actually travel to the asteroids for close inspection.

Question: How much of the technology necessary to mine asteroids already exists?

Much of the technology needed to do this has been available for the past 50 years. Thanks to Moore's law, the cost for the necessary computing and electronics is now low enough that a private corporation can develop the necessary hardware by itself. We don't require any technological breakthroughs in order to pursue this business plan.

Question: How much will it cost to harvest the first asteroid?

The cost will probably be into the billions of dollars, similar to large resource projects here on Earth. But given that a single asteroid could easily contain billions of dollars of platinum group metals alone, we are confident that these efforts will be profitable. Planetary Resources will finance our missions using the structures and systems already in place within the resource industry for funding exploration.

Question: What will you extract first from the asteroids?

The first thing that we will extract will be the water. Water is relatively easy to extract, and could be easily used as fuel. Later on, we will harvest the platinum group metals. We also want to mine the iron, nickel, and cobalt that exist in abundance within asteroids. We will probably never return the iron, nickel, and cobalt to earth, but rather we will use those metals to support activities in space.

Question: How difficult will it be to mine asteroids in a zero g environment?

Mining in zero-g will be quite difficult at first. There will be a learning curve, and we will start by returning small samples. Over time we will develop an expertise in asteroid mining, and as we do the efficiency, productivity, and cost-effectiveness of our operations will increase.

Question: Could Planetary Resources expand its operations to mining the Moon?

The primary mission of Planetary Resources is to extend the economic sphere of influence of humans into the solar system. We would like to see space tourism flourish, as well as the eventual exploration and colonization of the Moon and Mars. But for the foreseeable future we are concentrating our efforts on asteroid mining.

Question: What are you plans for Planetary Resources by 2022?

By 2022, we want to have begun the process of recovering resources from asteroids. During the next decade, we will learn quite a bit about the nature and composition of asteroids, not only from Planetary Resources but also from NASA and other organizations. I think we will also see many people taking trips into space as tourists, and there will increasingly be a requirement for an infrastructure to service these space activities. The 2020s will be the decade that the push into space begins in earnest.







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