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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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