Planetary Resources seeks to mine asteroids—and develop propellant depots


Illustration of Planetary Resources Inc.'s initial spacecraft, the Arkyd-101 space telescope in Earth orbit. (credit: Planetary Resources, Inc.)

Science-fiction authors and space commercialization advocate alike have dreamed for decades of mining asteroids. So when Seattle-based Planetary Resources, Inc. announced last week it will unveil on Tuesday “a new space venture with a mission to help ensure humanity’s prosperity” that has the backing of an all-star list of investors—Larry Page, Eric Schmidt, James Cameron, and Ross Perot, Jr., among others—the Internet exploded with visions of 21st century ’49ers heading out to the asteroid belt to make trillions of dollars mining gold and platinum.

That vision, as it turns out, is partially correct. Planetary Resources does plan to mine asteroids, eventually, but is taking an incremental approach with a series of robotic missions in Earth orbit and beyond to get there. And once they’re ready to start mining, the first resources they’re interested in are not precious metals but instead volatile compounds like water that can be used for propellant depots, enabling a wide range of commercial and government missions. In short, they’re initially more oil drillers than ore miners.

“Over the next five to ten years, considerable capability will be added in terms of launch vehicles and spacecraft,” company co-founder and co-chairman Eric Anderson said in a telephone interview last week, citing developments in commercial and government crewed and other vehicles. “The ability to use space resources to help explore space is a missing piece.”

Propellant depots have been an area of interest in recent years as a way to lower launch costs by allowing spacecraft to launch “dry”—that is, with empty tanks—and then gas up in space; or, to refuel their tanks to extend their missions. For propellant depots to work, though, the cost of bringing the propellant up separately and operating the depots would have to be less that simply launching fully-fueled spacecraft on larger rockets. Depot advocates in the past have suggested that supplying depots with relatively inexpensive propellants could be an ideal market for new, untried low-cost launch vehicles, particularly reusable launch vehicles.

In Anderson’s vision, obtaining water from near Earth asteroids and hauling it to propellant depots in Earth orbit or in cislunar space (such as one of the Lagrange points) would provide propellant in the form of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen for spacecraft at a tenth of the cost of hauling that water from the Earth. “I think there’s a market that, once the capability is there, will be easy to demonstrate,” Anderson said.

“I think we’ll have propellant depots in operation within the decade, before 2020,” Anderson said. He added that the company is open to either operating the depots itself or selling fuel to other depot operators, who would, in turn, sell propellant to spacecraft that needed it.

The company isn’t forgetting about the potential to mine asteroids for precious metals that are becoming harder and more expensive to mine on Earth, Anderson said. “I’m certainly not shying away from emphasizing that, but it’s a less urgent example,” he said. He said that “certainly within 20 years” there will be a strong, positive case for extracting such metals from asteroids. “I think the near-term driver for the space resources market is volatiles from near Earth objects” for refueling spacecraft and supporting robotic and human exploration beyond low Earth orbit, he said.

Getting to the point of extracting those volatiles and other resources will be a multi-step process. The company plans to launch its first spacecraft within 18 to 24 months that will go into low Earth orbit and carry telescopes and instruments to observe near Earth objects, characterizing them to determine which ones would be most promising to visit by future missions.

The “Arkyd-101″ spacecraft will be small and simple, said company president Chris Lewicki in a separate interview. Each spacecraft will fit into a box 40 centimeters on a side and weigh about 20 kilograms. Planetary Resources will look for secondary launch opportunities—hitching a ride on a larger spacecraft’s launch—to launch these spacecraft, of which several will be flown.

Within a few years of launching those Earth orbiting missions, the company then plans to launch “swarms” of small spacecraft on missions to candidate asteroids to study them in situ. Lewicki said that phase would include missions to rendezvous with near Earth objects as well as “intercept” missions to asteroids passing close to the Earth “in the spirit of the Ranger missions done to the Moon in the 1960s,” although not necessarily impacting the asteroid.

Lewicki said there were several keys to the company’s technical approach, including technology, small teams, simplicity of design, and overall mindset. For example, on the technology side, the company has been doing work on optical, or laser, communications that would enable high-bandwidth communications among the spacecraft and with Earth while requiring only limited power. Arkyd Astronautics, also run by Lewicki, received a $125,000 Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) award from NASA in 2011 for work on “Multi-functional Optical Subsystem Enabling Laser Communication on Small Satellites”.

The company has attracted a number of experienced people from JPL to help develop its spacecraft. Lewicki himself worked on the Mars Exploration Rovers and the Phoenix Mars Lander. “We have many people on my team that I brought from JPL who were as excited about the opportunity as I was that they jumped ship from Mars Science Laboratory and other exciting projects to really redefine the way robotic space exploration can be done,” he said.

Lewicki likened the company’s efforts to perform low-cost planetary exploration—and eventually exploitation—to how Scaled Composites was able to develop a crewed suborbital vehicle, SpaceShipOne, in the early 2000s, an effort that four decades earlier required the resources of a nation. “In a lot of ways, what we’re focused on at Planetary Resources is doing the same for robotic exploration,” he said. “We’re putting forth missions like the Mariners and Rangers and Surveyors of the ’60s.” Now, though, he added, the technologies make such missions possible for a commercial company.

What financial resources that Planetary Resources can bring to bear is uncertain. Anderson did not respond to questions about the level of funding that the company has raised from its billionaire investors. He did indicate that, in the nearer term, the company could generate revenue by selling versions of its Arkyd-101 and other spacecraft to various customers, including for Earth observing applications. Anderson also would only say that they have “a number of thoughts” on how to accomplish the resource extraction missions to near Earth asteroids.

Lewicki was clearly eager to work on this, while understanding it will be a long term effort to extract asteroid resources. “For me, it’s just really exciting,” he said. “It’s just the promise and the hope that we’re actually gotten to a time and place where private resources and technology, and the foundation that NASA has laid,” can enable such an effort. “We are taking what is that first, necessary step.”

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