Asteroids: The Next Frontier of Mining?

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More than 1,500 asteroids are in near reach of the Earth and are packed full of valuable resources from water to platinum.

If we were able to access them, they might help us top up declining supplies on Earth. Charlotte Richardson Andrews asks asteroid explorers how far their projects have progressed

“I think we are living in the most exciting time period in the history of our species”, says Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer of Seattle-based Planetary Resources. “We have the opportunity to become a multi-planetary species and that’s exciting.”

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The private, commercial company is at the forefront of the burgeoning asteroid mining industry, which seeks to mine near-earth asteroids (NEAs) for precious metals and other valuable materials. Planetary Resources enjoy the backing of Hollywood director James Cameron and Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt and has made leaps since its launch in 2010.

The company currently operates as a team of 40, with a number of NASA scientists and engineers among their ranks. “Small teams are now able to do what it used to take whole governments to do,” says Lewicki.

“One engineer who’s coming out of an undergraduate university program with a desktop computer and a set of commercially available tools really has as much design capability and computing power as an entire department at NASA had in the 1960s.”

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Getting into space

The team is currently busy at work at Planetary Resources’ new facilities, building prospecting spacecraft. Developing and producing its own technology in-house is both economic and savvy for a moderately small company with big aims, says Lewicki. “This is a way for us to make quick progress, to keep up with new tech trends as they emerge and also to dramatically reduce the cost of exploring deep space.”

The company’s current project is the partially crowd-funded Arkyrd, which will be launched this autumn from the International Space Station.

“It’ll be our first satellite,” explains Lewicki. “It’ll demonstrate a lot of the core technologies that we intend to use in the commercial exploration of asteroids. We’ve done a lot of stuff here on earth, but getting into space still has a long queue; we’re coming to the front of that line.”

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Readying its engines at the front of this line is NASA. In less than two years’ time, the agency will launch its Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security and Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission. If successful, OSIRIS-REx will be the first US mission to carry samples gathered from an asteroid back to Earth.

It’s something Planetary Resources hopes to have achieved in the next decade, says Lewicki, adding: “We’re familiar with the mission, and many of the team members. The Japanese are also launching a mission, the Hayabusa 2, to an asteroid later this year. The data these missions gather will be very useful for commercial exploration.”


“The company’s current project will be launched this autumn from the ISS”


Growing interest in commercial exploration of NEAs has prompted studies into how financially lucrative asteroid mining might be for companies such as Planetary Resources and the newer Deep Space Industries, which appeared in 2013.

A recent study by Harvard astrophysicist Dr Martin Elvis suggests that just ten NEAs might be suitable for commercial-scale mining – a potentially disappointing summary. But Lewicki, who is in regular contact with Dr. Elvis, says the assessment’s conclusion is essentially a very conservative, worst-case scenario.

“Martin was looking at the metallic asteroids in particular, which make up just a few percent of the solar system’s asteroids,” he points out. “Our interest is in the carbonaceous ones, which make up almost 20% of the solar system, so we’re much more optimistic about things.”

The target of the OSIRIS-Rex mission, asteroid Bennu, is one such carbonaceous asteroid. NASA’s spacecraft will launch in September 2016 and arrive at Bennu in October 2018 to study the asteroid and collect samples before returning to earth in 2023.

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While Planetary Resources is interested in mining for profit, the motives behind NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex mission are primarily scientific. Since asteroids are relics from our solar system’s formation, NASA believes analysis of the samples will give the scientific community – and the wider world – invaluable insights into how the planets formed and how life as we know it originated.

The agency also believes its spacecraft will be able to accurately measure how the tiny push from sunlight alters the orbit of Bennu, helping astronomers to better predict this influence on the path of any asteroid that might present the risk of impacting Earth.


“NASA’s spacecraft will arrive at Bennu in October 2018 to study the asteroid”


Leaps in technology

Asteroid exploration technology is developing at a rapid pace, says Lewicki, including telescopes that allow us to identify what type of materials an asteroid may contain without ever leaving Earth.

Brighter, stony S-type asteroids contain a significant amount of metal – mostly iron, nickel and cobalt. They also contain a fair amount of trace elements such as gold, platinum and rhodium. Metallic M-class asteroids are rare and contain about ten times more metal than C-type asteroids, which are dark, carbon-rich and abundant in water sources.

Planetary Resources is primarily interested in C-types, says Lewicki. “C-types are maybe the oldest, most primitive types in the solar system. They can contain hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and even carbon. Those four elements are the building blocks of a number of things like water, methane and ammonia,” he explains.

“We can even take the hydrogen and oxygen and combine them to create rocket fuel. As a material that costs $50m for every ton sent into space, it’s extremely valuable if we can get it in space instead of having to transport it from earth, which continues to be a very expensive thing to do.”

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While Earth-orbit telescopes can provide useful data, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is equipped with instruments that map an asteroid’s composition from a much closer vantage point, allowing the team to accurately identify and select the best sample sites.

These instruments include three spectrometers that determine an asteroid’s composition by analysing the light they reflect, emit and absorb, in ranges that the human eye is incapable of detecting, such as X-ray and infrared.

Increasingly sophisticated technology has seen our knowledge of asteroids grow exponentially in the last 15 years, points out. “Over 90% of the asteroids current being tracked have been discovered since the year 2000, and 2,000 more have been discovered since we announced the company,” says Lewicki. “There has even been confirmation of hydrogen, or hydroxyls, on asteroids in the main belt – specifically asteroid 24 Themis.”

Other advances made in recent years include the mapping of certain asteroids and even a better understanding of the science behind how asteroids are held together. “It really is an area where there has been a tremendous amount of progress is being made,” says Lewicki.


“Over 90% of the asteroids current being tracked have been discovered since the year 2000”


Regulators need to catch up

This progress has prompted the US Government to begin drafting HR 5063, otherwise known as the American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities In Deep Space (ASTEROIDS) Act. The legislation aims to promote private exploration, protect commercial rights over mined materials and regulate this burgeoning, potentially lucrative industry.

While the ethics of asteroid mining may be debatable – with critics claiming more effective on-Earth recycling systems could negate the need to mine for supposedly unsustainable resources ¬– the bill will comply with international obligations set out in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which bans states from making a claim to ownership of any celestial body.

With companies such as Planetary Resources and Deep Space industries vying for these resources, how will the act legislate in regards to commercial competition? “This is something that will be debated as the act itself is discussed in congress,” says Lewicki. “The regulatory environment is something that is yet to be created and defined.”

Legislation may have to be rapid to match the ever-advancing field of NEA exploration.


“The Outer Space Treaty bans states from making a claim to ownership of any celestial body”


Human vs robotic asteroid miners

While NASA has been focusing its attention on the human exploration of asteroids, Planetary Resources is more invested in the robotic, remotely controlled breed of space age explorer.

“We’re used to having humans involved in opening up these frontiers, but technology has gotten to a point where we can teleoperate [robotic miners].” Lewicki cites self-driving vehicles, autonomous drones and the rovers that have been traversing Mars’ surface for the past 20 years as positive examples of this.

“We’re making advances in this area of science all the time, and we’re now in a position where we can undertake asteroid mining robotically,” he adds.


“Technology has gotten to a point where we can teleoperate robotic miners”


“It means we don’t have human lives on the line, and it drastically reduces the need for the multi-billion dollar budgets required to support human exploration.”

While NASA has a tax-funded pot to draw on, Planetary Resources is a smaller operation, relying on the support of affluent, high profile backers.

But the fact that the company raised $1.5m for the Arkyd via Kickstarter last year – promising backers access to the Arkyd that will allow them to photograph asteroids, stars and even project selfies from orbit – shows that it can also draw on support from a public who understand that asteroid mining is no longer confined to science fiction.

People shouldn’t ask ‘if’ when it comes to asteroid mining anymore, says Lewicki, but rather ‘when’.


Images courtesy of Nasa


NASA astronaut Dr Mae Jemison shares her pioneering plans for interstellar travel

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She was the first African-American woman in space and the first real astronaut to appear on Star Trek. Now, as principal of the 100 Year Starship organisation, Dr Mae Jemison is aiming to pioneer another first: interstellar travel.

Dr Jemison, could you explain what 100 Year Starship (100YSS) is?

Yes, 100YSS is an initiative to make the capabilities for human interstellar travel a reality within the next 100 years. It’s a really difficult challenge designed as a mechanism to push radical leaps in innovation, knowledge, systems and technology that can also benefit us here on Earth.

I think of it as blue sky versus black sky. People think of blue sky investment and design, it’s completely open, you can work in different ways. But with blue sky you sort of know what’s there and the parameters. As you get deeper into space the sky becomes black.

You don’t actually know everything you need to know. So how do you develop a paradigm to think about that whilst being flexible and rapidly adjusting? That’s where we’re pushing ourselves.

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How did 100YSS come about?

The team I led won a competitive seed funding grant from the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to start the organisation. 100YSS is a completely independent non-governmental organisation.

DARPA was keen to fund something that would push innovation in a way that may not happen if it were to stay within a governmental agency.

What made you want to get involved with the project?

When I heard about 100YSS I thought, ‘I know how to do this.’ All my life experience has been around connecting somewhat disparate technologies and ideas.

I’ve been working on science literacy ever since I left NASA. Before I joined the astronaut programme I worked as a doctor in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

I have worked in Cambodian refugee camps. I knew that there was a lot of ‘advanced technologies’ that could impact life in the developing world that we weren’t using. As a little kid growing up I always wanted us to do bigger things.

I grew up when we were landing on the moon and when I was an astronaut I was irritated that we were only in lower Earth orbit. I thought we’d have been sitting on Mars by then. It was that push and wanting to make something happen that made me want to get involved with 100YSS.

What more can you do than helping to shepherd our journey from our cradle?


“You’re probably going to use so much energy you’re not going to come right back”


What has 100YSS done so far?

We got the grant in 2012 and since then we’ve had two public symposiums. The first one was in September 2012 and we were really proud to have former President Bill Clinton as our inaugural chair.

The reason we wanted to do that was to show that this is about everyone. The public symposium allows people to come together and meld ideas.

We’re building a community around a global aspiration that’s wider than astrophysicists and rocket scientists – it’s about people who are experts whose expertise can be applied to space exploration – coming together to energise, think about the world differently and accelerate the creativity around it.


“The only thing I’d want to do is carry my cat with me”


Why would we want to make interstellar travel a reality?

Let’s think about the way we do space probes right now. Voyager, which just went outside of our solar system about a year and a half ago, has been travelling at about 35,000 miles per hour since 1977.

Our closest neighbouring star is Proxima Centauri, about 4.2 light years away. If Voyager were to head towards it at current speed it would take 70,000 years to get there. That’s a long time. We weren’t even cave painting well back then! So clearly we have to do something different.

What could that something different be?

You’re going to have to go to something like really good fission, the same way we split atoms, which may not be enough. Or we’re going to have to go to fusion, which powers the sun, which we really don’t know how to do yet.

Or we’re going to have to go to anti-matter, which they make at CERN [the European organisation for nuclear research].  But let’s say you figure out the energy and you can go one tenth of light speed, so it’d take you 50 years to get to our nearest neighbouring star.

You’ve cut 70,000 years down to 50 years – that’s pretty good, right? But here’s the problem, if you put humans on board, how do you feed and clothe them? Right now if you think about going to Mars there’s enough capability to carry a lot of what you need with you.

If you were to try to carry enough food and clothing for 50 years it would be impossible. We have to think about things differently.

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How do you intend to do that?

The key to this is building relationships and inviting other people in. I’m looking at advanced aerospace manufacturing.

A lot of the time when people think of space exploration they think of astronauts and PhD scientists but we wouldn’t be anywhere unless we had the folks who were building the stuff. Those are the people who are going directly out of high school into two-year degree programmes. They’re creating the future and we need to connect them in.

We put together a series of resource materials for third to sixth graders about 100YSS, so we get to talk about lots of different things.

We have Karl Aspelund, professor at Rhode Island, doing work on pushing the boundaries of textile and design and taking the word out. We have professors who are working on bone research.

There’s folks who are already doing the research so we don’t have to do it but we can rally for them as well as putting together workshops and forums that can look at new areas of work.


“The reality is the reason we’re not on the Moon is nothing to do with technology”


What do you think is the most likely tech to be involved in interstellar travel if you had to guestimate now?

I can bet you that we’re going to have to really deal with issues of sustainability. I can bet you that it’s going to be growing food and developing really good ecological systems.

I would bet whatever type of ship you build it’s not going to be austere. It’s going to have plants and animals and an ecosystem in it.

There’s some interesting technology. Claudio Marconi out of Italy has done this gravity lens on the sun where you use relativistic physics to get a focal point, where you can magnify electromagnetic signals from distant stars. I bet those kinds of technology will come into play.

With such huge time and distance issues involved – will you have to develop technology capable of manipulating time?

I’m not going to jump into that because that goes into a lot of theoretical physics. You’re probably aware that there are people who have come up with equations that say ‘we could warp space time.’

The only thing I’d say as an engineer is: where are you going to get the energy from? The quantities of energy required would be vast.

So there may not be any rules of physics that say it can’t happen but there might be some issues around the engineering.

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From your experience of going into space, what do you think interstellar travel will be like?

I think it will be completely different. When I went up with the shuttle, you still get to see the Earth. You can just look out the window and see it. You’re not that far from it. You can get back in a couple of hours. It’s all good.

When you start to think about going to Mars you’re a month away. And when you think about doing interstellar, even if you figured out how to do a wormhole or something fantastical that’d get you there in a blink of an eye, you’re probably going to use so much energy you’re not going to come right back.

The people who go probably aren’t going to come back at all. So the mindset is completely different. You’re leaving what you knew and having to commit yourself to a new society.

Is there anything you think might be similar?

When I was in space I felt this incredible connection to the universe, not just to the Earth but to another star system.

If I were thousands of light years away it was OK because I felt that connection. What you’re going to have to work on is your connection to the universe psychologically. No matter how much tech we do, we’re social creatures.

Would you go up there yourself if you could, even if it meant you might not come back?

In a heartbeat. The only thing I’d want to do is carry my cat with me! Some people want to go, some don’t.

That’s why it’s important we connect it back to life here on Earth. There’s an African proverb that says ‘no one shows a child a sky.’ Every culture, every society has wondered about the stars and what’s above us.


“The reality is the reason we’re not on the Moon is nothing to do with technology”


So what happens next?

The plan is always around getting more people involved and getting more funding. You need funding not just for research but for the everyday functions.

Our members are volunteers and it’s about giving them an opportunity to help chart the future.

Let’s think about where we are in terms of space exploration. Last Sunday was the 45th anniversary of Apollo landing on the moon. I love Buzz Aldrin. He’s one of my friends. He looks very much forward to the future but generally we look back towards Apollo as the glory days. That really bothers me because it says we’re stuck. We’re not. It’s a matter of commitment.

The reality is the reason we’re not on the Moon is nothing to do with technology. It’s about public commitment. We know how to do the Moon. We know Mars.

Most of it is not a technological issue – yes, there’s some issues around radiation but the reality is we know Mars’ address.

We’ve been to the surface. We can do a technological roadmap for that but it doesn’t push your imagination as much. What pushes us and make us think of doing things differently is the idea of going someplace uncharted.


Images courtesy of NASA