New Scientist

So You’re Going to Mine Asteroids? Oh, Really.

How Google billionaires invest their spare cash.

This image of the giant asteroid Vesta obtained by NASA's Dawn spacecraft shows the surface of the asteroid from an orbit of about 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers) above the surface.
There be gold in them asteroids.

Photo courtesy of NASA.

Eric Anderson co-founded space tourism company Space Adventures in 1998, and in 2010 launched Planetary Resources to develop the technology to “expand Earth’s natural resource base.” Planetary Resources’ president is former NASA engineer Chris Lewicki, who was flight director for Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Not content with sending the first tourist into space and landing NASA’s Mars rovers between them, they have an outlandish plan to mine asteroids, backed by Google billionaires. But that’s just the start.

Paul Marks: Your asteroid mining company Planetary Resources is backed by the Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt. How tough was it to convince them to invest?
Eric Anderson: The Google guys all like space and see the importance of developing an off-planet economy. So Larry Page and Eric Schmidt became investors. And Google’s Sergey Brin has his name down as a future customer of my space tourism company Space Adventures.

PM: You want to put space telescopes in orbit to seek out asteroids rich in precious metals or water, and then send out robotic spacecraft to study and mine them. Are you serious?
Chris Lewicki: Yes. We’re launching the first telescopes in 18 months, and we’re actually building them ourselves in our own facility in Bellevue, Wa. We have a team of more than 30 engineers with long experience of doing this kind of thing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, myself included. Many of our team worked on designing and building NASA’s Curiosity rover, and I was a system engineer on the Spirit and Opportunity rovers—and flight director when we landed them on Mars.

PM: How many asteroid-spotting telescopes will you need, and are they anything like Hubble?
EA: We’d like to put up at least 10 or 15 of them in orbit in the next five years, some of them on Virgin Galactic rockets. They’re a lot less capable than Hubble, which is a billion-dollar space vehicle the size of a school bus. Our telescopes, which we call the Arkyd 100 spacecraft, are cubes half-a-meter on a side and will cost around $1 million each, though the first one, of course, will cost much more. But when they are developed to a high level of performance, we want to print them en masse on an assembly line. They will have sub-arc-second resolution, which is just a mind-blowing imaging capability.
CL: The smaller we can make them the lower they cost to launch. Making them the size of a minifridge, with 22-centimeter-diameter optics, hits the sweet spot between capability and launch cost.

PM: How can you tell if an asteroid might have platinum, gold, or water deposits?
CL: We’ll characterize them by studying their albedo—the amount of light that comes from them—and then with the appropriate instruments we can start to classify them, as to what type of asteroid they are, whether they are stony, metallic, or carbonaceous. We’re starting with optical analyses, though we could use swarms of Arkyd 100s with spectroscopic, infrared, or ultraviolet sensors, too, if needed.

PM: Once you spot a likely asteroid, what then?
EA: We’ll send other spacecraft out to intercept and study them. They will be rocket-assisted versions of the telescope—the Arkyd 200 for nearer Earth space, and the Arkyd 300, which is the same except that it will have a deep-space communications capability. We’ll make sure we understand every cubic inch of that asteroid. We’ll find out where it is, what its inertia is, what its spin rate is, whether it has been burned, impacted, or is carbonaceous or metallic. We’ll know that asteroid inside and out before we go there and mine it.

PM: Will you be able to tell, remotely, if a space rock has lucrative platinum deposits, say?
CL: Probably not. But we would be able to tell metals from water or silicates. There’s an asteroid out in the main belt right now called 24 Themis, and we’ve been able to sense water ice on its surface from way back here on Earth. Identifying metals will require spectrometry and direct analysis of the materials returned. The Arkyd 300 will get right up to the asteroid, land on it, and take samples—like NASA’s NEAR and Japan’s Hayabusa missions did—then return pictures, data, and grain samples back to Earth for analysis.

PM: Digging up ore on an asteroid 50 to 500 meters wide in zero gravity will be a tough task, even for robots. What technology will you use?
CL: The data the 300-series gathers will allow us to design the mining spacecraft. There are many, many different options for that. They could vary from very small spacecraft that swarm and cooperate on a bunch of tasks, to very large spacecraft that look seriously industrial. Before we can begin the detailed design of a mining spacecraft, we need to actually go there, explore the asteroid and learn where the specific opportunities are.

PM: You’ve suggested an asteroid could be brought closer to the Earth to make it easier to mine. Is that really feasible?
EA: It is. One of the ways that we could do that is simply to turn the water on an asteroid into rocket fuel and burn it in a thruster that nudges its trajectory. Split water into hydrogen and oxygen, and you get the same fuels that launch space shuttles. Some asteroids are 20 percent water, and that amount would let you move the thing anywhere in the solar system.

Another way is to set up a catapult on the asteroid itself and use the thermal energy of the sun to wind up the catapult. Then you throw stuff off in the opposite direction you want the asteroid to go. Conservation of momentum will eventually move the thing forward—like standing on a skateboard and shooting a gun.
CL: This is not only our view. A Keck Institute “return an asteroid study,” involving people at JPL, NASA Johnson Space Center and Caltech, showed that the technology exists to place small asteroids a few meters wide in orbit around the moon for further study.

PM: Can you think of any other uses for asteroid repositioning?
EA: There is one incredible concept: We could place the asteroid in an orbit between the Earth and Mars to allow astronauts who want to get there to hop on and off it like a bus. Think about that. You could make a spacecraft out of the asteroid.

PM: Apart from your commitment to turn a profit for your investors, might there be spin-offs for the rest of us?
EA: Hopefully, we’ll be finding hundreds of new asteroids that would not otherwise have been discovered—including asteroids that are Earth-threatening. We do need to develop the ability to move asteroids: Every few hundred years an asteroid strikes that is capable of creating great loss of life and billions of dollars’ worth of damage. If the 1908 Tunguska meteor had struck London or New York, it would have killed millions of people. It is one of the few natural risks we know will happen—the question is when. And we have to be ready for that. So while some might regard moving asteroids as risky, it really is something we need for our planet’s future safety.

PM: What will be your first priority: seeking precious metals or rocket fuel on the asteroids?
EA: One of our first goals is to deploy networks of orbital rocket propellant depots, effectively setting up gas stations throughout the inner solar system to open up highways for spaceflight.

PM: So you are planning filling stations for people like Elon Musk, the SpaceX billionaire planning a crewed mission to Mars?
EA: Elon and I share a common goal, in fact we share many common goals. But nothing would enable Mars settlement faster than a drastic reduction in the cost of getting to and from the planet, which would be directly helped by having fuel depots throughout the inner solar system.

This article originally appeared in New Scientist.