A company called Planetary Resources is attempting to do something no one has done before: fly a spacecraft to an asteroid and mine minerals that could be worth millions of dollars. But is it achievable?
On 12 November 2014, a small but advanced mobile laboratory called Philae descended from its parent spacecraft, Rosetta, onto an alien world where no human had ever, or likely will ever, set foot.
This was the first time in history that we had been able to send and land a human-made craft on a comet as it hurtled through space.
Thanks to the incredibly talented team at the European Space Agency (ESA), including Irishman Laurence O’Rourke, astrobiologists and astronomers were able to analyse the chemical composition of the ancient space debris and determine whether it could harbour basic life forms.
As it turns out, rather than just being a lump of rock, Comet 67p contained ice beneath its surface and samples that simply wouldn’t be accessible here on Earth, or would they?
Three years prior to the Philae landing, which almost went off without a hitch, a company called Planetary Resources opened for business with the intention of developing a means to take the tonnes of space debris that exist within our own solar system and use them for our own benefit.
Like the prospectors who sniffed out a fortune during the Californian Gold Rush of the late 19th century, Planetary Resources knows there’s ‘gold in them thar hills’, and its mission is to mine it.
Mining their own business
“Small teams of people can now do what it used to take entire governments to do and what used to take billions of dollars now only takes millions of dollars,” said Planetary Resource’s president and CEO, Chris Lewicki, on the idea of starting an asteroid mining company in the 21st century.
Beginning operations in 2011 under the name Arkyd Astronautics, Planetary Resources quickly began getting to work following the opening of its first office, laboratory and manufacturing space in the US.
Within a year, the start-up had financial support from, among other backers, Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, investing in the company to help it literally get off the ground and begin testing systems for craft to send into space.
So, what is worth all the trouble of spending billions of dollars to collect minerals from space and what is so valuable out there?
Water, water everywhere, and more than a drop to mine
“Water seems pretty ordinary as we have a lot of it here on Earth in the oceans, but in space it’s kind of hard to come by and to send it into space is extremely expensive,” Lewicki said in conversation with Siliconrepublic.com.
Taking the example of the International Space Station (ISS), Lewicki said the average astronaut requires one tonne of water for a six-month stay, which is substantial in itself, but to send that same amount of water to Mars would cost somewhere in the region of $50m.
This would still only last six months, and when you take into consideration that a trip to Mars takes longer than six months, you’re left with not only a financial challenge, but a logistical one, too.
This is where Lewicki and Planetary Resources believe there exists a future gap in the market to create the gas stations to the stars.
“If we find water on the right asteroid in the right location and use that water in space to support human life and start to think about manufacturing processes, water becomes very useful,” he said.
This can be expanded upon again, with even more profound outcomes, when it comes to taking that water and breaking it down into its key elements – hydrogen and oxygen.
‘We could have something of a major breakthrough on our hands’
Not only is the latter crucial to our own survival, but it is also one of the vital components of rocket fuel, which sends our current generation of craft into space.
If we’re able to mine this water in space and turn it into rocket fuel without needing to return to Earth, well, then we have something of a major breakthrough on our hands, at least according to Lewicki.
“Instead of taking that extremely expensive rocket and spacecraft and sending it into space and throwing it away, you can refuel it again and again.
“That would be transformational as we develop infrastructure and get a permanent foothold in space in the 21st century.”
Let’s not also forget that it’s not just water flying through the solar system, but incredibly valuable minerals like platinum and palladium.
In July of last year, Planetary Resources put a whopping $5trn price tag on an asteroid designated 2011 UW158 that is believed to contain vast quantities of platinum, citing it as a “prime example” of one they will mine one day.
“After we figure out how to develop rocket fuel in space and maybe develop [our business] in space manufacturing,” Lewicki said, “we’ll look at bringing this material back to the surface of the Earth to turn what was once the rarest metals of the planet into the most useful metals on the planet.”
The laws of space are complicated
But while strict laws govern what can be taken from the ground here on Earth, recently passed legislation has made it an awful lot easier for companies like Planetary Resources to actually develop a long-term plan for asteroid mining.
In November 2015, a significant piece of legislation was passed by US President Barack Obama that will make Planetary Resources’ work – and other companies looking to move into space – a lot easier.
The Space Resource Exploration and Utilisation Act of 2015 – or simply the Outer Space Treaty – effectively calls an open season on asteroids in the known universe and any US company that might be interested in mining them.
“A US citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource under this chapter shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained,” the Act states, “including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell the asteroid resource or space resource obtained in accordance with applicable law, including the international obligations of the US.”
Make peace in space, not war
While Planetary Resources and any other future competing companies like Moon Express have yet to get their businesses literally off the ground, this marks a major milestone given that, not so long ago, space was considered a future warzone.
It was considered so important that, in 1967, a number of UN members – including the US and the Soviet Union – ratified the Outer Space Treaty, making it illegal to send any weapons of mass destruction into space.
Yet now, at least in the eyes of the US legal system, space is a place not just for warring nations, but a future marketplace.
Other nations too are beginning to move into this ‘space’, most notably the small, wealthy European state of Luxembourg, which agreed a deal to actually purchase a minority stake in Planetary Resources.
The ruling Grand Duchy has also made moves to sign deals with other fledgling asteroid mining companies and financiers, having begun planning as far back as 2013.
While the short-term goal is to use the company’s Earth observation business, Ceres, it’s clear that the Luxembourgian government has plans on making it a potential centre for space mining operations globally.
So harking back to the gold rush reference earlier, will we see a hyper-competitive space mining industry?
“Well I don’t think of it as a fight but there’s certainly a rush,” Lewicki said.
“Space is so mind-bogglingly large, with 60m asteroids out there, and this is something that is going to be thousands if not tens of thousands of years before there is any fear of contention [among other companies] and by that time I hope we’re interstellar.”
This marks a considerable turnaround from a time that saw almost all advancements in space technologies originating from state-run agencies like NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA).
Private companies, it appears, will be able to boldly go where no space agency has gone before motivated not by one-upping national rivals, but establishing a successful business.
Lewicki himself knows all about life within NASA, having been the flight director for the Spirit and Opportunity rovers that traversed Mars, and he admits that his old employer and companies like his own have similar goals, but different strategies.
“When failure is not an option, success becomes very expensive,” he said, referring to NASA’s attitude of ensuring little-to-no risk for missions that are usually running on a tight budget.
“In a lot of ways, NASA continues to do the things that only governments can do, like landing nuclear-powered rovers on Mars and flying to Pluto, but other things like delivering cargo to the ISS are being taken up by private enterprise. Even though it’s still rocket science, these are the simpler things.”
Watch this space
These ‘simpler things’ include its Arkyd 3 Reflight satellite launched in 2015 as a testbed for its satellite technology, testing the avionics, control systems and software for a future mining spacecraft.
During its 90-day mission, the spacecraft was also collecting data of Earth from orbit that could then could then be sold to companies.
The next step will then be the launch of Arkyd 6, which plans to be an upgraded satellite fixing the shortcoming of Arkyd 3 Reflight, as well as having an advanced photo-display-and-retransmission system.
“If we play our cards right and the asteroid we get to is a promising one,” Lewicki said, “our next trip to that asteroid may be in the first half of the 2020s and on it will be the very first experiments of extracting water from asteroids.
“That’s where mining will begin with the first litre of water and the first kilo of material.”
But with competitors like Deep Space Industries planning to launch its Prospector-X spacecraft as early as 2020, Planetary Resources has some stiff competition to corner a whole new chapter in space exploration.