Mining the heavens: In conversation with Planetary Resources' Chief Engineer
By David Szondy
June 24, 2013
It wasn't long ago that asteroid mining was only found in the pages of science fiction. Now, with increasing interest in the commercial exploitation of space, companies are springing up to turn asteroids from things that Bruce Willis blows up, into raw materials for future travellers and colonists. One such firm is Planetary Resources, which is currently winding up a KickStarter campaign aimed at raising public awareness about asteroid mining by offering the public access to a space telescope. Gizmag visits the company’s Bellevue, Washington headquarters and talks to the President and Chief Engineer, Chris Lewicki.
First off, congratulations about hitting your stretch goal of 11,000 backers on Wednesday.
We were very excited about that. We got to 8,000 really quick, then it took forever to get to 9,000 and it was only yesterday that pushed us over the edge. It still has really good momentum today and we’re already planning lots of events leading up to the close of the campaign. What we're doing in crowdsourcing is unprecedented and certainly a brand new topic and everyone is watching it. You have early adopters, people who find out along the way, and as the clock ticks down those who don’t want to miss out on the action.
We wanted to make sure that what we were offering would be of sufficient interest to people and that the funds we were raising would go a ways towards offsetting some of the costs. Of course, what we’re raising isn't enough for designing, building and launching a spacecraft. This is only possible because we’re already doing this.
Your Kickstarter goal was a million dollars. That’s pretty much chump change for space technology, isn't it?
In the history of space exploration, NASA can spend a million dollars in a day, probably in a meeting, if they really need to. We’re a startup. We pursue our business like any other lean and agile startup would in that we want to be as efficient and competitive as possible. Asteroid mining is kind of audacious. It’s no secret it’s going to take us a little while to achieve that and we need to be a productive business toward that goal. Part of what we're doing with putting spacecraft into orbit is being able to leverage what we’re doing with other opportunities whether it’s straight science or astronomy or Earth sciences or, in the case of Kickstarter, consumer market.
Let me be the bank manager for the moment. Asteroid mining: It sounds a bit like you've been reading too much Robert Heinlein. Do really think that you can make asteroid mining into a paying business?
Oh, absolutely. We wouldn't be in this for any other reason. This is probably one of the greatest business opportunities that has existed in more than a century. We had the industrialisation of the US and the world in the 1800s and the 1900s. We’ve had the transportation industries that came out in the 20th century and in the 21st century we've got the internet that has connected everyone.
Our capacity as a species to move into an area, become the masters of that area, to improve the quality of life for everyone by using resources and developing businesses and creating economies means we’re at a point where we don’t want to constrained by the surface of this planet. Our mission statement is expanding the economic sphere of humanity off the surface of the planet.
The only thing that will do that outside of taxpayer dollars, which are finite and contested, is to create an economic engine and an economic reason for doing it. We fully believe that space resources are that economic engine.
To be able to use the resources of space, to explore space, imagine that if we were building railroads that we had to ship in everything from Europe. We didn't do that, of course. It’s all about using those resources locally, so in space the first resource we’re interested in is water.
Water is such a simple thing. Why would you ever need water? There’s plenty of it here on Earth. We’re not bringing water back to Earth. We don’t want to ship water into space because it’s very heavy and very expensive to send it there. Just to send a liter to the International Space Station it’s US$10,000 and to the Moon it’s $50,000.
Space habitats, space stations are going to need hundreds of thousands or millions of liters of water, but there are some asteroids 75 meters across that are water rich. Just one has enough hydrogen and oxygen to fuel every Space Shuttle that’s ever been launched. It’s useful for fuel, its useful for supporting life and it’s full-blown radiation shielding for all those people talking about going to Mars. So, that is a resource that is of near-term interest.
We can see this resource. As meteorites we can hold it in our hand. We can identify that it’s out there using telescopes and spectroscopy. Our job is to build Arkyd 100, 200, 300 spacecraft that will go out and take that remote data using a telescope. We’re like sending a geologist out to confirm if there’s enough water out there to develop.
I think that with what were developing, with the team we have, and the schedule we’re on that we’ll be doing the first bids of that during the 2020s – not only identifying it, but how to extract it.
That seems to be the big jump. Building a space telescope is 1960s technology, but this is not just bringing back asteroid samples, but materials in industrial quantities. Isn't that technology on another level?
It is a technological jump, but it’s a recognition that if you’re doing something for business reasons technology is brought to bear to solve problems. If you’re doing things for scientific reasons, there’s different motivations.
Shell Oil in the 1980s came to understand that there may be large reserves of oil in the deep ocean and we did not have the technology to extract that. But they made the multi-billion dollar investment to go explore what was out there and the technologies to build these offshore platforms – floating cities in the middle of the ocean – to go down through a mile of water where there’s hundreds of atmospheres of pressure, a corrosive salt water environment, and then drill a hole and go down another couple of miles.
They invested tens of billions of dollars and spent 10, 15 years creating the technology so that, today, they can make tens of billions of dollars from every one of those rigs. That technology, to my mind, is much more advanced than anything on Curiosity rover that we use to explore Mars. That was all private money, so if the opportunity exists, if there is an economic interest and a business motive to follow it, the technology is not a problem.
As a startup, Amazon.com went for years without making a profit. If you’re going to be bringing back water and that not until the 2020s, will your current efforts be able to keep Planetary Resources in the black until then?
In Arkyd 100 and all of the technology we’re developing, we’re in the middle of a second space race and it’s involving private investors and private developers. Whether it’s tourism or resources or exploration or launching capacity or orbiting habitats, there are all these different reasons why these companies have been created. What we have really been focused on is a bit of an audacious goal: asteroid mining.
In order for us ever to be able to do that, as I mentioned, we need to be a sustainable, lean business, so the technology we’re putting into the Arkyd 100 are innovations that the world has not yet seen and we’re being forced to do them because of the way we’re pursuing our goals with the constraints that we have as a private business.
What we are doing is of interest to NASA and to other government agencies and private companies and we have been very successful in taking our technologies, such as our communications technology, and working NASA and partnering with universities under contract doing work for NASA.
All of these helps offset our development costs, allows NASA to take advantage of our innovations, and allows us to leverage NASA towards our greater goals. So, it’s a little bit on the Amazon mode that we feel that being able to deploy a remote sensing capability in low Earth orbit very low cost, very responsibly and have that a very accessible platform is a general business activity and we've seen some interest that we anticipate will pay for themselves along the way.
Let’s talk a bit about the satellites themselves. The one here on your desk is remarkably compact.
This is the third version of [the prototype]. The bigger the lens, the better picture. Most of our technology is dedicated to capturing photons, or in our case, transmitting photons because we use the optics for laser communications. Everything else is what’s necessary to support this.
Technology has progressed in the last 10 years so that we can get all the brains into the box in the back here and we don’t have to develop from scratch any of the pieces, but adapt parts from industrial product lines and, in some case, from other space companies’ product lines. This makes sense because, like Elon Musk, there are some parts we do plan to make from scratch when we want to build 10 or 15 or a hundred of them. It just make sense to do that.
How many do you see yourself building?
We’re putting a prototype of this spacecraft into orbit next year. We’ll be building two of those and maybe launching both of them. For the Arkyd 100 space telescope, we’re launching three. One will be available to the Kickstarter community and the public for general use and we’ll have other ones for our own technology development and other applications. We see an iterative process where we will use low Earth orbit as our development environment, using the remote sensing devices to identify our targets and then we will deploy them en mass.
Our risk strategy is one of swarm exploration, so that instead of building one of these that has 99.9999 percent viability, we will use four or five of them, so that the odds of them achieving their objectives is very high and we don’t have to spend a lot of money making every one of them absolutely bulletproof.
One of the ways that small satellites make up for their size is to act in a coordinated manner. Would yours be acting independently or in concert?
Yes, they would be acting in a coordinated manner. That’s what we mean by swarm exploration. We’d have one asteroid with half a dozen of these exploring simultaneously; either exploring the same parameter, same vantage point, or different parameters and vantage points.
Inside the spacecraft we have a multiple set of filters for various spectra. Each might use different filters all the time so, unlike a normal spacecraft, where you have to pass over the same spot several times with different filters, we can get that all in one pass.
How do you maintain attitude control in such a small package?
It’s reaction wheels, momentum technology and things like that. It also uses the Earth’s magnetic field, which is a common technique in orbiting spacecraft. We don’t have consumables, so its lifetime is the natural life of its parts.
Since we’re deployed as a secondary payload in low Earth orbit, we go where the other customer goes and there are enough targets of opportunity for us that we’ll get acceptable astronomical observations, but there is the threat of orbital decay, so the threat of space debris of low and the spacecraft will be destroyed by orbital decay.
Isn't there a balancing act between the cost of the spacecraft and a limited life due to orbital decay?
Yes, but the spacecraft is low cost and we don't want one that’s a relic orbiting for 10 years when we could just as easily upgrade.
Were you surprised at how well the Kickstarter campaign did? Did you have any fear that it would backfire?
Yeah, definitely. We decided that this was something we were comfortable with. Many people were able to understand that in putting something on Kickstarter, we didn’t need the funds to succeed for our business, which is different from how Kickstarter is often used. If it turned out that the things that we put out there with our rewards and concept were not of interest, it was an acceptable result for us because it showed that we didn't have to put a lot of time and attention into that area.
Are trying to change the public perceptions of space? Are you trying to change the image of what has traditionally been seen as a tremendous exercise with herculean efforts of engineering?
And they were. With so many aspects of society and technology and entrepreneurism, people can experience them first hand. Space is starting to become that. In space tourism, it was first the ultra wealthy and then those who can afford the suborbital tickets. There’s been more in academic circles. They are doing research projects associated with this, but its still a little ivory tower.
It was still always something that you watched someone else do. I had the great fortune of being at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory when I got to do it. My favorite thing about this project is that we can now give that experience to anyone who wants to have it. In many ways, its changing the way that science and exploration is done. It doesn't mean it will replace the way it has been done by government. It just means that there are many more options that are available.
How did you end up at Planetary Resources?
I have a bachelors and masters in aerospace engineering from the University of Arizona. I have always been a passionate robotics space nut and that trajectory led me to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I had the opportunity very early in my career to get very intimately involved in Spirit and Opportunity and working with many of the people that now work here at the company, who followed me from JPL. I was flight director on Spirit and Opportunity when I was 29 years old and I got to oversee the landing of both of those. On my next mission, I was service mission manager for the Phoenix mission to the North Pole that dug up Ice.
I have known our co-founders Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson since my first year in college. We have been back and forth with each other over the past 20 years on different projects and they approached me about what they considered founding as a company and asked me if I would join them and help them create it.
For me, it was a recognition that the world was ready for this, that the technology was available, the finances and the interest for doing it are present. Between our founders, our investors, our advisers and our team here, we are able to assemble the best people on the planet to do this. And that these things do not happen by themselves. I had to stop reading about it and start doing it, so the attitude that I had done everything I could expect to do in a glorious career at JPL became “Who wouldn't want to mine asteroids?”
How would you compare working here with JPL?
Each has their advantages and challenges. Common things: A lot of extremely smart people at both organisations and that’s something we’re very proud of here. We’ve really been able to build a very tight knit community of extremely intelligent, extremely passionate people who all have the same goal of doing a new thing in space exploration that should now be possible and going to be the ones to make it happen.
Because we’re a startup we have many advantages in deciding how we’re going to pursue that, so we can be very agile and we don’t have bureaucracy and taxpayer oversight telling us the way things ought to be done, looking down their noses at us about whether or not we transmit a video in Klingon. The pace with which we can pursue things is way beyond that of government. The challenge we have is that we are not a massive institution with resources. We’re business driven and not government funded, so we have to be very efficient at what we’re doing. I think we've got a good mix of the strengths of both worlds and we’re going to make mistakes along the way, but we have the advantage that we’re quick enough to respond to those mistakes.
Official website: Planetary Resources