Did you hear the one about director James Cameron and the near-Earth asteroid? A resource-hungry Earth looks for precious mineral ore contained in space rocks. Young billionaire philanthropists sink their personal fortunes into launching a space mission, with fearless, ruggedly handsome astronauts and a high-tech spaceship, to capture and tow the asteroid back to Earth’s orbit and mine the rock for valuable minerals.
It’s not a movie. So cancel the popcorn.
It’s the long-term mission of a three-year-old start-up company called Planetary Resources. The company, headquartered in Bellevue, Wash., is a joint effort of a number of technology and space luminaries including:
- Investors Larry Page, Ram Shriram and Eric Schmidt of Google
- Charles Simonyi, a former Microsoft executive and two-time space tourist
- Billionaire Ross Perot, Jr.
- Eric Anderson, company co-founder, and CEO of space tourism company Space Adventures
- Chris Lewicki, a NASA Mars mission manager
- Chris Voorhees, NASA’s chief engineer for the Mars Science Laboratory
- Peter Diamandis, founder and chairman of the X PRIZE Foundation
- And James Cameron.
Also aided by a slew of high-profile consultants, Planetary Resources ultimately hopes to mine asteroids, it announced at a highly-anticipated press conference at Seattle’s Museum of Flight in late April, during the company’s public launch.
Planetary Resources’ goal is split into three parts. The company will use satellites to search for right-sized asteroids in Earth’s general vicinity with orbits that could be feasibly intercepted. Phase 2 will see “swarms” of dozens of small robotic spacecraft that will land on the asteroids to perform mapping, scanning, sample-and-analysis and possibly sample-and-return missions. Phase 3 will see the establishment of fully automated, robotic asteroid-mining and processing operations and the ability to transport the mined materials wherever they are required. (OK, so there are no ruggedly handsome astronauts involved — not yet, at least.)
It’s Not Just About Money
A side result will be a further scientific understanding of how the solar system was formed, since most asteroids, which normally reside in a belt located between Mars and Jupiter, contain materials left over from the solar system’s rather violent birth about 4.5 billion years ago and thus vital clues. While nobody’s proposing to visit the asteroid belt, there is no shortage of asteroids that get hurled out of their neighborhood and wind up lurking around our own.
Another side benefit of Planetary Resources’ process will be the knowledge to manipulate the trajectories of small near-Earth asteroids — just in case one of them decides to approach uncomfortably close to Earth and Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck are busy.
According to Planetary Resources, if its long-range plans work, it could add trillions of dollars to the global GDP, helping ensure humanity’s prosperity and reducing the damage to Earth’s environment in mining for critical ores while paving the way for human settlement of space. Trillions of dollars? Why are space rocks so valuable?
Because of precious minerals such as gold, platinum, iron, cobalt, manganese, nickel, molybdenum, osmium, palladium, rhenium, rhodium, ruthenium and tungsten. These materials are found on Earth because asteroids smashed into the Earth when it was a young’un, say scientists. In other words, asteroids are the originators of these valuable substances. Some scientists theorize that a single asteroid could contain the same amount of platinum that’s dug out of the Earth in an entire year.
“The resources of Earth pale in comparison to the wealth of the solar system,” said Planetary Resources co-founder Anderson at the press conference launch. X PRIZE Foundation’s Diamandis noted that an asteroid 265 feet in diameter could potentially yield $100 billion of metals and contain enough energy to power every space shuttle that was ever launched.
Planetary Resources’ founders point out that it’s not only about mineral ores. Since many asteroids are actually extinct comets, they are likely to contain water ice in abundance. The company will need spacecraft, which will need fuel. The water from the asteroids could be separated into oxygen and hydrogen to help supply breathable air as well as provide liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen to make fuel. Planetary Resources says it might even be able to create a kind of fuel depot in space by 2020.
“We have a long view, we’re not expecting this company to be an overnight financial home run,” Anderson told Reuters. “This is going to take time.” And whopping piles of cash.
Can It Be Done?
So is all of this feasible, or is it just a bunch of overinflated egos pursuing Masters of the Universe status?
Depends on who you ask. It’s certainly technologically feasible. A recent report entitled “Asteroid Retrieval Feasibility Study,” authored by scientists at the Keck Institute for Space Studies at California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), examined the feasibility of identifying, robotically capturing and returning an entire near-Earth asteroid (NEA) to the planet’s general neighborhood by the middle of the next decade. Taking technology limits into consideration, the research determined that it would indeed be possible to return an approximately 500,000 kilogram asteroid (a rock about seven meters across) to “high lunar orbit” by around 2025.
However, this study and others calculated that the costs far, far outweigh the benefits. According to another paper, “Economic Analysis Tools For Mineral Projects In Space,” written by geologists Richard Gertsch and Leslie Gertsch, the cost of returning either a small asteroid or mined asteroid materials to Earth far outweighs their market value, and “asteroid mining will not attract private investment at current commodity prices and space transportation costs.”
The Keck Institute study found that, while finding and capturing an asteroid could be done relatively economically (somewhere in the $2.5 billion neighborhood), the cost to mine the asteroid and return the mined ores to Earth “would make profit unlikely even if the asteroid was [sic] 20 percent gold.”
NASA has its mind on asteroids, too, but on a much less ambitious scale than Planetary Resources’ plans. The space agency has plans underway to
launch an unmanned spacecraft, the OSIRIS-Rex, by 2016 to a near-Earth asteroid called 1999 RQ36, on which the vessel will land in 2020. The spacecraft will have a robotic arm capable of taking samples from the asteroid, and it will return to Earth by 2023 with samples for study.
Japan has also fiddled with asteroids. In 2003, that nation’s Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched the Hayabusa, a probe that in 2005 approached and landed on a small near-Earth asteroid called 25143 Itokawa. It studied the asteroid’s shape, spin, topography, composition and density. It took a small sample and then returned to Earth in 2010. Part of the Hayabusa mission failed when a detachable “minilander” called MINERVA couldn’t reach the surface of the asteroid.
As you can imagine, neither of NASA’s nor JAXA’s missions would be very good action movies.
So how does Planetary Resources expect to attain such spectacular results at costs that actually make sense? Apparently by reinventing all the processes that will be used.
Chris Lewicki, a former flight director at JPL for the Mars Exploration Rovers and the Phoenix Mars Lander, and currently president and chief engineer for Planetary Resources, says it’s about the approach to the project. Government space agencies generally operate on a one-off approach, which is extremely costly. Planetary Resources plans to develop a low-cost, mass-produced approach, as reported by ars technica. Once the new mass-production process is up and running, costs will come tumbling down, says Planetary Resources.
Just how high costs will run depends on what the group does with the asteroids. Mine for materials in-situ? Tow the asteroid back to the Earth-Moon Lagrangian point L2 (a point of orbital equilibrium between the Earth and the Moon)? Put it into an orbit around the Moon? Put it into orbit around Earth? Or, the most expensive option, bring it down to the Earth’s surface? Obviously, the closer the asteroid is brought to Earth, the more expensive the process.
Then there’s the issue of ownership. Does a private company have a right to near-Earth asteroids? According to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, no government, company or individual can claim ownership of a body in space. The treaty states that space is the “common interest of all mankind” and that exploration of bodies in space “should be carried on for the benefit of all peoples.” The United States, along with several dozen other nations, has ratified this treaty, according to space law attorney Michael Listner.
“It’s a very touchy issue,” Listner told Wired magazine. If Planetary Resources’ dreams were to come true, the United States would potentially need to withdraw from the treaty — a move that wouldn’t make the nation very popular. “To take that stand against the rest of the world would take a lot of political will, and the government would take a hit. It’s sort of a nonstarter,” said Listner.
It’s touchy particularly when the primary goal of the mission is “resource retrieval.” (In other words, attempting to make a lot of money off the process.) In the Keck Institute report, resource mining was one of only several reasons to engage in such a venture. In order of importance, said the study, the goals of returning an NEA to Earth should be:
1) Synergy with near-term human exploration
2) Expansion of international cooperation in space
3) Synergy with planetary defense (against NEAs that might threaten collision with Earth in the future
4) Exploitation of asteroid resources
5) Public engagement (in other words, positive public relations to fire up a nation that’s grown more fascinated with trashy reality television stars than space exploration).
Of course, when the Keck Institute discusses “exploitation of asteroid resources,” it’s not, per se, talking about capitalism. By mining asteroid resources, says the study, scientists could test resource extraction processes and boost the development of future mining processes in space, helping reduce the costs of future missions. In other words, asteroids could be used as raw material for space-based factories that would build spacecraft in orbit, eliminating the need to launch materials from Earth, which is one of the costliest parts of the process.
According to the Keck Institute report, it costs about $100,000 for each kilogram of mass delivered to orbit using current chemical propulsion methods. (So putting 500 tons of material into orbit would cost about $20 billion.) Bringing asteroid materials directly to high lunar orbit and bypassing Earth entirely for the purpose of building spacecraft, space stations or other facilities would be about eight times cheaper than launching the materials off the ground. Think about the potential cost savings, for example, for future manned missions to Mars.
NASA Says It’s All Good
So how does NASA feel, being trumped by a group of celebrity billionaires?
It took a few days, but NASA’s associate administrator for communications, David Weaver, provided TPM with a statement of general approval:
“This project aligns well with our national space policies and goals. President Obama has set the United States on an ambitious path for deep space exploration, seeking to send humans to an asteroid for the first time and ultimately to Mars. As NASA leads this effort, we will certainly look to take advantage of private-sector resources and data. This commercial interest affirms our path forward — a path that relies on private-sector partnerships and innovation to reduce the overall costs to the taxpayer, create jobs and advance our space exploration program.”
The initiative has its critics, of course. They believe that, despite the credentials of Planetary Resources’ officers and consultants, the new venture is vastly underestimating the time and cash required.
Professor Jay Melosh from Purdue University told the BBC that the costs are simply too high, calling space exploration “a sport that only wealthy nations, and those wishing to demonstrate their technical prowess, can afford to indulge.”
Richard Binzel, a professor of planetary science at MIT and author of textbooks on asteroids, told the Wall Street Journal that asteroids could eventually be mined for resources and become “operational stepping stones” for future manned missions to Mars, for example, but that Planetary Resources “may be many decades ahead of its time.”
To its credit, Planetary Resources seems to understand that.
“We’re trying to do something audacious, and we might fail,” said Anderson. “But we believe that attempting this and moving the needle in space [exploration] is worth it.”