I had the great pleasure of attending a presentation by Chris Lewicki, President and Chief Engineer of Planetary Resources. He shared the companies vision of mining the resources on Near Earth Asteroids (NEA’s) and utilizing them for furthering humanities exploration, development and even settlement of space as well as using the precious metals extracted back here on Earth.
Asteroids are composed of the materials left over from the formation of the Solar System that didn’t coalesce into planets. They are found throughout the Solar System some pass close to the Sun, others are found out beyond the orbit of Neptune. Most of them have been herded by Jupiter’s gravity into a band between Jupiter and Mars, an area we call the Main Belt. However there are many that instead pass near Earths orbit. In fact around 9000 of these have been discovered to date with almost a thousand more discovered annually.
Many of these can be easily reached from the Earth. And they hold vast quantities of valuable resources.More than 1500 of these asteroids are as easy to reach as the Lunar surface. They are also in orbit around the Sun and have weak gravities making them easier to approach, land on and leave from.
Another especially great feature of asteroids, at least from a mining standpoint, is that unlike the Earth where heavier metals are concentrated close to the core, metals in asteroids are distributed throughout their body, making them easier to extract.
Water is a vital resource for furthering human interests in space. Not only is it a necessity of life (drinking water and for irrigation) it also makes an excellent radiation shield. As well water can be broken down into its constituent atoms (Oxygen and Hydrogen) to create rocket fuel to power further exploration.
They are going forward with their plans in a phased attack.
Phase One is the Arkyd Series 100 – Leo Space Telescope
The goal here is to develop core systems and technology that will be required for prospecting and mining asteroids. This will be the first private space telescope and It will include an arc-second imaging system, difraction limited optics, fine guidance systems all to offer spectacular (and scientifically valuable) images of deep space, the Earths surface, the Sun, planets, or anything else between.
And all for a cost that will be in the range of affordability for universities or private companies.
Phase two is the Arkyd Series 200 – Interceptor
Here propulsion systems as well as more scientific and guidance instruments will be added to facilitate travel to and interception of a near earth asteroid. These Interceptor missions will allow Planetary Resources to quickly acquire data on several near-Earth asteroids.
Phase three is the Arkyd Series 300 – Rendezvous Prospector
Deep space laser communication capabilities will be added to the Interceptor Series to allow for communications with an asteroid at a further distance from the Earth. The craft will go into orbit around the body and its sensors will collect data on the asteroid’s shape, rotation, density, and surface and sub-surface composition. Multiple craft will be deployed which spread the risk amongst many craft (one failure won’t lose the entire mission) and allow for large mission functionality among the multiple craft. This will also demonstrate the functionality of a low-cost interplanetary craft to potential customers such as NASA, ESO, other science agencies, or even university consortia or private companies.
The final goal is of course Asteroid Mining. The initial mining will concentrate on water rich bodies. Water can supply hydration (drinking water and for food growth), breathable air, radiation shielding, etc. And the water can also be used to create rocket fuel to power further exploration and even colonization of the Solar System.
Eventually the platinum group rare metals and other heavy elements will also be mined.This was an incredibly entertaining and educational presentation. Mr. Lewicki is an excellent speaker, if you ever get the chance to attend one of his talks I can highly recommend you attend.
More on Mr. Lewicki:
Mr. Lewicki has been intimately involved with the lifecycle of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers and the Phoenix Mars Lander.Lewicki performed system engineering development and participated in assembly, test and launch operations for both Mars missions. He was Flight Director for the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, and the Surface Mission Manager for Phoenix. The recipient of two NASA Exceptional Achievement Medals,
Lewicki has an asteroid named in his honor: 13609 Lewicki. Chris holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Arizona. At Planetary Resources, Mr. Lewicki is responsible for the strategic development of the company’s mission and vision, engagement with customers and the scientific community, serves as technical compass, and leads day to day operation.
Here are a few pictures I took during the talk: