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Grand plans for asteroid mining unveiled by Planetary Resources

By

April 25, 2012

Artists impression of an Arkyd-200 series interceptor passing a candidate asteroid for min...

Artists impression of an Arkyd-200 series interceptor passing a candidate asteroid for mining

Image Gallery (10 images)

“I’m Chris Lewicki, and I’m an asteroid miner!” These were the opening words spoken by the President and Chief Engineer of Planetary Resources Inc., as the asteroid mining company emerged from three years of silent running to outline its plans to begin mining Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs) within the decade.

Asteroid mining has been a standard of science fiction since E.E. Smith’s Lensman series was published in the 1930s. Planetary Resources (PRI - previously known as Arkyd Astronautics), a start-up company with high-profile backers and strong technical depth, announced its space mining plans at a press conference on Tuesday. Its goal, as expressed by co-founder and co-chairman Peter Diamandis, is to "make the resources of space available to humanity."

The following video outlines why and how PRI intends to mine the asteroids.

The whys of asteroid mining

“Many of the scarce metals and minerals on Earth are in near-infinite quantities in space. As access to these materials increases, not only will the cost of everything from microelectronics to energy storage be reduced, but new applications for these abundant elements will result in important and novel applications,” said Peter H. Diamandis, M.D., Co-Founder and Co-Chairman of PRI.

The north polar region of near-Earth asteroid 433 Eros as imaged by the NEAR Shoemaker pro...

The north polar region of near-Earth asteroid 433 Eros as imaged by the NEAR Shoemaker probe (Image: NASA)

The prize in asteroid mining? Huge amounts of raw materials, ranging from water to precious metals, and transition from an economy of scarcity to an economy of abundance. Most asteroids are rich in precious metals, such as platinum, gold, iridium, osmium, palladium, rhodium, and ruthenium - far richer than terrestrial ores. Indeed, the precious metals for which we mine on Earth were the result of ancient asteroid impacts - we have, in effect, been mining asteroids for thousands of years.

Whereas a terrestrial platinum ore may have a concentration of 0.5 parts per million (ppm), the concentration in an asteroid can be as large as 100 ppm, with a total precious metals concentration of 350 ppm. Such an asteroid also contains about 6 ppm of rare earth compounds, for which industry and consumers both are feeling the effects of scarcity. To have rich ore greatly simplifies the extraction process.

To illustrate the potential of mining asteroids for precious metals, the Lavender Pit is a relatively small open pit copper mine near Bisbee, AZ, USA. In 25 years it grew to a volume of 0.33 cubic kilometers, in the process removing 340 million tons of ore, yielding 600,000 tons of copper worth about US$5 billion at today’s prices.

An asteroid about 850 meters in diameter has the same volume, but contains eight hundred thousand tons of precious metals worth about US$50 trillion. It would supply precious metals at the current worldwide rate of production for 40 years . There are about a million asteroids of this size in the Solar System, and perhaps 10-20% of them will yield precious metals in this amount. Asteroids thus provide rich ore for precious metals having a total present value of about 5 quintillion US dollars. The tailings, of course, form a cheap space-based source of building material.

Now, what about water? Water is cheap, after all – a liter of bottled water costs about half a US dollar. However, in space it is a valuable commodity, as it costs about US$20,000 per liter to boost water into low earth orbit (LEO). This presents both manned and robotic spaceflight with a problem.

Astronauts are people, too, and they need water – at least four to five liters a day even in a prolonged emergency situation. Currently, it costs about a million US dollars per day to keep an astronaut in orbit. The International Space Station budget for consumables allows for about 30 kg/day/astronaut – costing six hundred thousand US dollars to lift into orbit daily supplies for one astronaut. When all factors are taken into account (there are additional regular losses), most of the cost of manned spaceflight is the cost of taking along consumables.

An inexpensive space-based source of water would greatly enhance our ability to tackle manned and unmanned space missions. Of course, when you have water and sunlight, you can make oxygen and hydrogen gas. Not only do we breathe oxygen, but oxygen and hydrogen is the chemical rocket propellant having the highest known performance. Fuel costs that same US$20,000 per kilogram to lift into LEO, so a cheap source of water in space is also a cheap source of fuel – enough fuel to explore the Solar System.

Asteroids similar to carbonaceous chondrite meteorites contain as much as 20% water, which can be released with very mild heating. A carbonaceous chondrite asteroid only 10 meters (32.8 ft) in diameter can contain 120 tons of water, with a present value in LEO of 2.4 billion US dollars. Converted into fuel, this amount of water would fill six Centaur interplanetary boosters like that used to propel the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and Titan. Not bad for what could be the first mined asteroid!

The hows of asteroid mining

Planetary Resources intends to make asteroid mining a reality be developing cost-effective, mass produced robotic exploration and extraction technologies. This will position the company to efficiently target resource-rich asteroids and extract their useful raw materials.

Of the approximately 9,000 known NEAs, there are more than 1,500 that are energetically as easy to reach as the Moon – 4,000 if the energy required to return refined materials to the Earth is included in the comparison. This is a rich target environment, in which the capability to characterize NEAs using robotic probes is crucial for PRI’s current vision. To that end, PRI has developed the first in its planned line of deep-space prospecting spacecraft.

An Arkyd-101 space telescope in low Earth orbit

An Arkyd-101 space telescope in low Earth orbit

The Arkyd-100 series of orbital spacecraft comprises LEO satellites containing small-scale space telescopes. The first of these is the Arkyd-101, a tiny spacecraft only measuring about 16”x16”x40” (40x40x100 cm) in size, containing a remote imaging telescope with a 9” (22 cm) aperture and sub-arcsecond resolution capability. These will be placed in low-Earth orbit by hitching a ride with other satellites being placed in orbit.

The purpose of the Arkyd-100 series is to discover and prioritize NEA mining candidates for more detailed inspection, but they will also provide commercial Earth imaging and educational space telescope services. The number of Arkyd-100 series to be placed in orbit initially has not been announced, but the first launch is scheduled for late 2013.

The Arkyd-200 series (Interceptors) are essentially Arkyd-100 series spacecraft to which are added the propulsive means needed to go out and closely study asteroids on near-earth orbits. They will be used for closer examination of promising NEAs, and will have conventional and multispectral imaging capability, perhaps with electronic sensors such as radar and/or magnetic field measuring capability.

A swarm of Arkyd-300 series rendezvous probes examining a candidate asteroid

A swarm of Arkyd-300 series rendezvous probes examining a candidate asteroid

Later in the decade, the Arkyd-300 series will help finalize the selection process. Arkyd-300 rendezvous prospectors will be sent in swarms to rendezvous with and examine particular asteroids. The swarm will include assorted members of the Arkyd-300 series which provide complementary information about a target asteroid. Multiple asteroids can be examined by a single swarm, and the spacecraft can be recovered and reused.

Actual mining operations will start with extraction of water from suitable asteroids. If you have water, you have the resources to enable large-scale exploration of the Solar System.

Recovery and processing of materials in a microgravity environment will require significant research and development activity. PRI is committed to take on the creation of in-situ extraction and processing technologies to provide access to both asteroidal water and metals. When combined with PRI’s mass produced deep space explorers, the result will be a new resource for humanity – the capability to undertake the sustainable development of space.

The broader vision, however, will be served even if asteroid mining itself is a failure. “The promise of Planetary Resources is to apply commercial innovation to space exploration," said Tom Jones, Ph.D., veteran NASA astronaut, planetary scientist and PRI advisor. "They are developing cost-effective, production-line spacecraft that will visit near-Earth asteroids in rapid succession, increasing our scientific knowledge of these bodies and enabling the economic development of the resources they contain.” The new technologies being developed by PRI will set the stage for Solar System discovery and economic development over the next century.

PRI was founded in 2009, and is financed by visionaries who have launched whole industries which did not previously exist. These include:
  • Erik Anderson – Co-Founder and Co-Chairman of PRI, Mr. Anderson is an entrepreneur and aerospace engineer who is associated with Intentional Software Corporation, Space Adventures, and Planetary Power.
  • Peter Diamandis, M.D. – Co-Founder and Co-Chairman of PRI, Dr, Diamandis is an international pioneer in the development of the commercial space sector. He is Chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation, and the Executive Chairman of Singularity University.
  • Rena Shulsky David – President and CEO of Shire Realty in New York City, Ms. David founded and chaired the “Swords into Plowshares” meeting between US and Soviet military officers as the Soviet Bloc was collapsing.
  • Larry Page – Computer scientist and internet entrepreneur, Mr. Page is Co-Founder and CEO of Google, and an investor in other forward-looking technology companies.
  • Ross Perot, Jr. – Real estate developer and Chairman of Perot Systems, Mr. Perot piloted the first round-the-world helicopter flight.
  • Raymie Stata – entrepreneur and former CTO of Yahoo!
  • Eric Schmidt, Ph.D. – Software engineer, businessman, and Executive Chairman of Google is also a well-known art collector and was considered by President Obama for the position of Commerce Secretary.
  • K. Ram Shriram - Google investor and Board of Directors founding member.
  • Charles Simonyi, Ph.D. - Intentional Software Co-founder and two-time space tourist (time in space, 26 days 14 hours), at Microsoft he was responsible for developing Word and Excel.
  • John C. Whitehead – Former Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, former Chairman of the Board of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and 9th Deputy Secretary of State for President Reagan.

Some of the company’s advisors include film maker and explorer James Cameron; General T. Michael Moseley (Ret.); Sara Seager, Ph.D.; Mark Sykes, Ph.D.; and David Vaskevitch.

Source: Planetary Resources, Inc.

About the Author
Brian Dodson From an early age Brian wanted to become a scientist. He did, earning a Ph.D. in physics and embarking on an R&D career which has recently broken the 40th anniversary. What he didn't expect was that along the way he would become a patent agent, a rocket scientist, a gourmet cook, a biotech entrepreneur, an opera tenor and a science writer.   All articles by Brian Dodson
23 Comments

Great con.. I mean go big or go home. I really needed a laugh today.. TY.

Michael Mantion
25th April, 2012 @ 05:58 pm PDT

really? a "con" if you believe that this is just fake. then you are a very weak minded individual. just because its in all our sci-fi today, doesn't make it any less possible.

20 years ago people would have said we were crazy for thinking about portable wireless networked touch based electronics..... and that was in our own lifetime.

everything we ever create is nothing more than some crazy guys crazy sci-fi idea... Until we build it.

oh well, not my place to educate the ignorant.

Chris Edwards
25th April, 2012 @ 07:14 pm PDT

"The earth is simply too small and fragile a basket for the human race to keep all its eggs in." Aurthur C Clarke.

This will be a great first step to getting out amongst the stars. If we get enough manufacturing out there, we won't have to keep sending up rockets.

VoiceofReason
25th April, 2012 @ 08:41 pm PDT

Chris Edwards it is entirely possible but will not be profitable. This company will never mine an gram of resources and return it to earth.. I doubt they will even get anything into space. Its a con. It would take a trillion dollars maybe more to do what they are suggesting.

Michael Mantion
25th April, 2012 @ 09:30 pm PDT

I am sure they can mine. But its still ILLEGAL! Read the international law. Any and all bodies of the solar system are only allowed for science not for mining or claiming as territory. First step is having the law changed.. But that wont happen as US thinks the law don't apply to them, but if the Chinese did the same thing they go to war over it. IF one does things the right way and take time its not Too expensive to mine asteroids.

Swedish_inventor
26th April, 2012 @ 12:29 am PDT

These asteroids are huge treasure boxes moving in space. No doubt precious metals have a big role in our lives, from electronics, to industrial catalysts and research, this will be a big game changer.

As for consumers. Imagine significant price drops in electronics from when we used to have scarcity of precious metals that were used in it, to abundance.

No doubt disputes over the ownership of these asteroids will follow as more corporations follow the same path.

If all goes right, this will be a big deal.

Fretting Freddy the Ferret pressing the Fret
26th April, 2012 @ 05:56 am PDT

I love that last post. Illegal. That's ridiculous. As if the governments of the world can claim the entire solar system as their "just because." Give me a break!

Just as with ALL land throughout history, whoever gets there first can claim it. If someone else wants it, they'll try to take it. Every nation in the world was founded that way.

For anyone to say you're "allowed" or "not allowed" to do something in space is just ludicrous.

"No one can mine anything because you're not sharing it equally with everyone!" Really? Wah, wah! The ones who take the extreme risks with their lives, reputation and/or money deserve whatever they can get out of this.

More power to 'em...

Dave Andrews
26th April, 2012 @ 06:23 am PDT

@Swedish_inventor

who has the right to place laws anywhere in the solar system we haven't even stepped foot on? That doesn't make sense. The Moon, Mars, and maybe Venus may be an acception because we have government/nasa equipment.

Other than laws in the sky, I say go for it. If not now, than within the next 100 years. We will need to develop a faster means of space travel for it to become more profitable.

Dev-the-Man
26th April, 2012 @ 07:27 am PDT

Hmm. Let's send up say a 703 ton Proton-M, rocket to recover say an asteroid that's say 700 pound rock. "Well done sir!"

Sammy
26th April, 2012 @ 07:40 am PDT

This is pretty exciting. Interestingly, the more raw materials this company brings back to earth, the lower their potential total profitability since the high prices of these materials is largely due to their scarcity on earth. Increasing supply will decrease the spot market value of these materials. So basing their potential earnings (such as $50Trillion/asteroid) on current commodity prices is really misleading.

superfluid
26th April, 2012 @ 08:49 am PDT

Consider the Who's Who list of participants in this. Consider the advances in robotics, swarms etc. that you can watch in Gizmag videos. Consider the ways people are finding to get into orbit more and more cheaply (cubes, tubes). Consider that, as rare materials (like petroleum) become more expensive, alternatives become relatively cheaper. Put it all together, and it seems, if not inevitable, at least a decent bet.

Marshall Savage wrote an epic book a couple of decades ago, The Millennium Project, incorporating this among other ideas. Looks like this one has a chance of becoming a reality.

Rich Mansfield
26th April, 2012 @ 08:59 am PDT

Glad to see an article on this with some substance beyond PR. Where can I buy stock?

David Finney
26th April, 2012 @ 10:00 am PDT

It would be nice to see all that investment and human endeavor going towards something more useful and timely. On the other hand, those financing it are already seeing value, as they become labeled as visionaries rather than simply suckers having more money than common sense.

CliffG
26th April, 2012 @ 10:04 am PDT

I was skeptical when I first heard about this, as the costs will be obscene. But $50 trillion worth of copper is a heck of a payday. Even if it costs a trillion bucks it would still be enormously profitable. This will be interesting to watch in the days ahead. Of course a primary issue they'll face is developing a viable propulsion system. Chemical rockets won't do the job, but maybe a high energy plasma thruster is within the bounds of current technology.

Bill Wilson
26th April, 2012 @ 10:19 am PDT

Given the people attached to this project, I would absolutely take it seriously.

Note, for instance, that the squadron of twenty 20 kg probes is just under the mass limit for a SpaceX Falcon 1 launch.

Note too that the value of something in orbit is inflated by the cost of launching a similar object INTO orbit, which is at least $1000 a kilogram. $50 trillion dollars worth of copper IN ORBIT is worth a LOT.

Jon A.
26th April, 2012 @ 11:41 am PDT

This is the kind of bold thinking that we need! Hats off to the people willing to fund a project like this.

Mark Wialbut
26th April, 2012 @ 12:19 pm PDT

@ all the whiners

If it weren’t for the people with vision of a better future, then we would all still be living in caves.

I also like Dave Andrews comment. More power to the people that can do this and if I could I’d also invest in this company.

We need a whole lot more visionaries and a lot less of the type of people that are always being negative about things. You need to remember there were people that were negative about the automobile, electric lights and airplanes and see where and what has been accomplished since they were first invented.

JMOdom
26th April, 2012 @ 02:33 pm PDT

re; Swedish_inventor

Law only reaches as far as the enforcing body does. The people who made asteroid mining illegal can not reach to stop it. If you want to get around the law without openly violating it all you have to do is find a country that either did not sign on to the treaty or is willing to withdraw from the treaty to flag your vessel.

Slowburn
26th April, 2012 @ 06:50 pm PDT

I heartily endorse the sentiments voiced by JMOdom.

If there is one aspect repeated endlessly by members of the Human Race, it is comments which end up leaving the spokesperson with 'egg on their face'.

• “I think there’s a world market for about 5 computers.”

( Thomas J. Watson, Chairman of the Board, IBM, circa 1948 )

• “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.”

( Ken Olson, President, Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977 )

• "Transmission of documents via telephone wires is possible in principle, but the apparatus required is so expensive that it will never become

a practical proposition."

( Dennis Gabor, British physicist and author of Inventing the Future, 1962 )

• "There is practically no chance communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television, or radio service inside the United States."

( T. Craven, FCC Commissioner, 1961

(the first commercial communications satellite went into service in 1965)

• Space travel is bunk."

( Sir Harold Spencer Jones, Astronomer Royal of the UK, 1957

(two weeks later Sputnik orbited the Earth)

• "To place a man in a multi-stage rocket and project him into the controlling gravitational field of the moon where the passengers can make scientific observations, perhaps land alive, and then return to earth--all that constitutes a wild dream worthy of Jules Verne. I am bold enough to say that such a man-made voyage will never occur regardless of all future advances."

( Lee deForest, American radio pioneer and inventor of the vacuum tube, 1957 )

• Space travel is utter bilge."

( Dr. Richard van der Reit Wooley, UK space advisor to the government, 1956

(Sputnik orbited the Earth the following year)

• "Television won't last because people will soon get tired of staring at

a plywood box every night."

( Darryl Zanuck, movie producer, 20th Century Fox, 1946 )

• "That is the biggest fool thing we have ever done [research on]... The bomb will never go off, and I speak as an expert in explosives."

( William D. Leahy, U.S. Admiral, advising President Truman on atomic weaponry, 1944 )

• "Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?"

( H.M. Warner, Warner Brothers, maker of silent movies, 1927 )

• "The radio craze will die out in time."

( Thomas Edison, American inventor, 1922 )

• "Professor Goddard does not know the relation between action and reaction and the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react. He seems to lack the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high schools."

( New York Times editorial about Robert Goddard's revolutionary rocket work, 1921

(note that the day after Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969, the New York

Times printed a short boxed item on page 2. It read in full:

"Errata: It has now been conclusively demonstrated that a rocket ship can

travel through the vacuum of space. The Times sincerely regrets the error.")

• "Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value."

( Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre, 1904(?)

• "The horse is here to stay, the automobile is only a fad."

( Advice of President of Michigan Savings Bank to Horace Rackham, lawyer for

Henry Ford, 1903

(Rackham ignored the advice and invested $5000 in Ford stock, selling it later

for $12.5 million)

• "Fooling around with alternating current is just a waste of time. Nobody will use it, ever."

( Thomas Edison, American inventor, 1889

(Edison often ridiculed the arguments of competitor George Westinghouse for AC power)

• "Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil? You're crazy."

( Drillers whom Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist to his project to drill for oil, 1859 )

• "What, sir, would you make a ship sail against the wind and currents by lighting a bonfire under her deck? I pray you, excuse me, I have not the time to listen to such nonsense."

( Napoleon Bonaparte, when told of Robert Fulton's steamboat, 1800s )

•••••••••••••••••

But, others had vision, and did not accept these kind of limits for humanity-

go on to-

http://www.spacequotations.com/predictions.html

•• "I suppose we shall soon travel by air-vessels; make air instead of sea voyages; and at length find our way to the Moon, in spite of the want of atmosphere."

— Lord Byron, 1822

vortexau
26th April, 2012 @ 09:12 pm PDT

it seems to me that most of these minerals will be of more value if manufactured in-situ into useful space things, rather than dragged back down to earth where they will have to compete with the open market.

I imagine there will be a point where the amount of manufacturing facility in space reaches a critical mass, beyond which there will little need to transport construction materials into space any more. That still feels some way off, but who knows?

Seems to me that the need for humans to actually be present at the scene is becoming less and less of a concern. All we really want is a warm bed and plenty of food and entertainment, and to occasionally satisfy our curiosity about something.

inchiki
26th April, 2012 @ 11:10 pm PDT

It's great that this task is being engaged by a serious group of forward looking entrepreneurs.

the question remains though where is the patient money to back the play?

attoman
27th April, 2012 @ 09:36 am PDT

One of the best things that have come out of space exploration is the technological advances we have been able to apply here on earth in medicine, energy, physics and efficiency. I think it behooves us to encourage non-governmental exploration of space.

As for the legal implications, I think it is rather arrogant of any governmental body on the earth to presume to make laws governing what happens out in space. First of all, it would be pretty unenforceable and secondly, I don't remember anyone claiming other than their own lands here on this earth.

When it comes down to it, we are only renting the space anyway. Civilizations come and go and the new builds over the old. By making the exploration of space the business of business instead of government, at least the greed and self-indulgence is assumed, not swept under the rug.

I say...go for it.

Bonnie Dillabough
27th April, 2012 @ 12:39 pm PDT

Wouldn't it be easier to obtain water via the up and coming 100,000 km carbon graphine (or nanotube) based sling? This way they could already have the life support and the fuel... for mere Earth like prices plus the energy costs for the electric propulsion which would take days (instead of minutes) thereby reducing such costs dramatically... search reveals between 75 cents to 220 dollars per kg.

"The space elevator will be built about 50 years after everyone stops laughing".

--Arthur C. Clarke

And obviously, the asteroid with our name on it should be mined within a shorter time frame after that!

Robert Bernal
3rd May, 2012 @ 12:24 am PDT
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