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.
Each of the first Arkyd 100 series space telescopes will only weigh 20 kilograms
The company intends to begin by launching a series of small satellites into Earth orbit with telescopes and instruments to study near-Earth asteroids and identify the most promising candidates for later prospecting missions. The first of these Arkyd-101 satellites, currently under development, will launch within two years, probably hitching a ride into orbit on a larger satellite’s launch, the company announced at a press conference held at the Museum of Flight in Seattle today.
Backed by a celebrity team of investors, including Larry Page, Eric Schmidt, James Cameron, and Ross Perot Jr., who are putting in undisclosed amounts, Planetary Resources plans to harvest water ice and other volatile chemicals from nearby asteroids and bring them to fuel depots in Earth orbit—essentially, mini space stations that spacecraft could dock to—by 2020. Once there, water could be turned into propellants and sold to fill up the tanks of everything from commercial satellites to NASA deep-space vehicles.
The company’s team includes a number of former NASA Jet Propulsion Lab engineers who “jumped ship to come and really redefine the way robotic space exploration can be done,” said company president Chris Lewicki, himself a veteran of the Mars Exploration Rover and Phoenix Mars Lander missions. The emphasis, he said, will be on small teams and simple, cheap spacecraft; each Arkyd-101 weighs only 20 kilograms. Thanks to new technologies like low-power, high-bandwidth laser communications, these small satellites are expected to be capable of doing what it took a large NASA spacecraft to do a few decades ago.
In terms of extraction, Planetary Resources hopes to go after the platinum-group metals — which include platinum, palladium, osmium, and iridium — highly valuable commodities used in medical devices, renewable energy products, catalytic converters, and potentially in automotive fuel cells.
Platinum alone is worth around $23,000 a pound — nearly the same as gold. Mining the top few feet of a single modestly sized, half-mile-diameter asteroid could yield around 130 tons of platinum, worth roughly $6 billion.
Within the next 18 to 24 months, Planetary Resources hopes to launch between two and five space-based telescopes at an estimated cost of a few million dollars each that will identify potentially valuable asteroids. Other than their size and orbit, little detailed information is available about the current catalog of near-Earth asteroids.
Within five to seven years, the company hopes to send out a small swarm of similar spacecraft for a more detailed prospecting mission, mapping out a valuable asteroid in detail and identifying rich resource veins. They estimate such a mission will cost between $25 and 30 million.
The next step — using robots to remotely mine, possibly refine ore, and return material to Earth safely — is probably the toughest phase, and Planetary Resources is still tight-lipped about its plans here.