Throughout the ages, mining has faced and met the challenges thrown up by new frontiers that have been necessary to exploit due to decreasing resources. With deep-sea mining of oil and gas commonplace and exploitation of seabed mineral resources imminent, the next frontier is space.
The Moon and Mars might seem the obvious choices but an easier option is the asteroids where there is no gravity, and this is the goal of Planetary Resources, whose founder and CEO Chris Lewicki spoke to The ASIA Miner’s editor John Miller.
|There are thousands of asteroids in the Solar System that have potential to be mined for water and/or minerals.|
AS mining of resources gets more difficult, riskier and expensive, forward thinking companies like Planetary Resources are looking further afield – beyond the bottom of the ocean and the far reaches of Antarctica, into space.
It’s not that Planetary Resources only wants to mine minerals such as platinum or nickel and bring them back to Earth, although this is possible and becoming increasingly feasible, it wants to mine the most essential ingredient to the sustaining of life – water.
H2O can be extracted from many asteroids in a fairly simple process and then used in its natural form for drinking, protecting humans from cosmic radiation and, most importantly, for the production of rocket fuel.
The latter is the focus of Planetary Resources’ work, according to the US-based company’s CEO Chris Lewicki, who says water can be the fuel of space. “Water is pretty simple stuff but in space, you can’t get enough of it. It’s useful for supporting life but you can also turn it into rocket fuel to refuel spacecraft,” he says.
“A modestly sized asteroid about 75 metres across can have enough components of rocket fuel to have fueled the entire US space shuttle program – all 135 launches. This is just one object of about 60 million in the Solar System.”
This process makes the prospect of living, working, holidaying and travelling in space much more feasible and a lot less expensive.
The work of Planetary Resources and others in this niche area was given credence by a recent report from banker Goldman Sachs, which explains, “Space mining could be more realistic than perceived.” It also states: “Asteroid mining could quickly supply an emerging on-orbit manufacturing economy with nearly all the raw materials needed.”
|A representation of how prospecting could be carried out on an asteroid.|
The company’s plan has also been boosted by the tiny European country of Luxembourg, which last November invested US$27.7 million to help the company accomplish its goal of launching its asteroid prospecting system into space by 2020. This forms part of Luxembourg’s $225 million investment in asteroid mining initiatives, which has seen Planetary Resources establish an office in the country.
Space travel will be the norm
Chris Lewicki says as life becomes more complicated and more high-tech, change has never been more rapid and greater space use is inevitable. The CEO, who is a former flight director at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and was responsible for landing rovers on Mars, says private companies are now playing greater roles in this process, advancing work that was once just the domain of NASA, the European Space Agency, and the US and Russian governments.
He says the industries that drive commerce on Earth - energy, minerals, construction, transportation, tourism and hospitality - are beginning to see that space is not a stand-alone industry, it is a new medium to conduct business and generate revenue, and some companies realise there will be economic opportunities.
“Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is an example. He is investing US$1 billion into his company Blue Origin because he sees a future in his lifetime of millions of people living and working in space.
“This is exciting but also presents supply chain problems, which Planetary Resources believes it can help solve,” Chris Lewicki says.
“There are two views of the future. One is the rather closed view that this is all we have, it is all there will ever be and we are stuck on this nice planet, for which we have to take great care. However, we have crossed continents and oceans, taken to the air and to space, so I prefer the more open view that we have developed technology to do all these things, and this continues into new frontiers.
“What is inevitable is that where people are going to go, they will need things to live in a healthy, safe and happy manner. Central to what we are doing at Planetary Resources is that we’re getting resources close to where people will use them, just as mining and energy companies strive to do on Earth.
“We’re not about bringing things back to sell them into the market or about bringing them back so we can disrupt supply chains in the existing economy – it is about expanding the economy.
“The resource we are developing is one we see as fundamental to any business activity in space – as fundamental as computers are to the internet, as websites are to business on the internet. Just as the internet is a medium for commerce and not a place, space is a new location where people will do things, raise families and explore their passions and hobbies - but the vital resource is water,” Chris Lewicki says.
Water in space
|A rendering of Planetary Resources’ Arkyd 6 spacecraft in orbit. The Arkyd 6 is equipped with the first commercially licensed mid-wave infrared imager, an essential tool for detecting water on asteroids.|
“On Earth we know why iron, aluminium, copper, gold and hydrocarbons are important, these things are very clear,” he says. “However, if you are going on ‘walkabout’, what is important to sustain life? You can go a while without eating but you can’t go too long without water.
“Water is important in space for the obvious reasons of supporting our biology, but it takes on other interesting roles because of its location.
“It becomes useful for cosmic radiation protection. If you spend too much time outside the protective bubble of the Earth’s magnetosphere, you increase your likelihood of getting cancer. In the same way you can store nuclear fuel in the bottom of a pool and be protected from radiation, water can be used in space to protect you from radiation.”
“However, the most interesting use,” Chris Lewicki says, “is looking at water as a molecule of hydrogen and oxygen, which are combined to produce rocket fuel.
“You don’t throw away your car when you run out of fuel, but that’s what we have done with rockets and everything else sent into space. When the fuel runs out it is discarded, despite costing billions of dollars. The reason for the cost is that just one is built and it runs off a single fuel tank – it can’t be serviced and reused.
“If we were able to refuel them, you could think of going into space as you would going across the continent and then, before you go across the ocean, topping up and continuing your journey. This is what we need in space as it essentially enables transportation.”
The Goldman Sachs report states that the storage of water as a fuel could be a ‘game changer’ by creating orbital gas stations. Planetary Resources’ CEO adds to this statement by saying that when the motor vehicle became popular, roads were built and services sprung up alongside the road to cater for the car and travelers. “We have seen this whole story before and it is being repeated with electric vehicles. You just have to look at the fundamental economic demand of the way people live, work and play, and what they need to support them in doing that.”
Drawing water from asteroids
“While the psychological barrier to mining asteroids is high, the actual financial and technological barriers are far lower,” according to Goldman Sachs.
|Planetary Resources and the Government of Luxembourg have finalised a 25 million Euro investment and cooperation agreement with the first commercial asteroid prospecting mission to launch by 2020. Planetary Resources’ president and CEO Chris Lewicki and Luxembourg’s Deputy Prime Minister Etienne Schneider celebrate the partnership.|
The method used by Planetary Resources for extracting and refining rocket fuels from asteroids will depend on the specific composition of the target asteroid. This requires an up-close investigation with the company’s Arkyd prospectors, one of which was launched in 2015 to start testing sensor technology with another launch to take place this year to continue the work.
These satellites, which are the size of a cereal box and packed with sensors, are helping Planetary Resources to validate the technology that will eventually characterise asteroids and identify which ones have adequate amounts of ice and precious metals so the resources can be mined.
The company says the mining equipment required may be more simple than imagined. In some cases, much of the equipment needed to mine on Earth, such as drills, excavators and concentrators may not be required. Even surface contact with the asteroid may not be necessary due to the unique environment of space.
One possible concept for extracting water from an asteroid may be:
1. Fully enclose a small asteroid or position a cold plate in the vicinity of a large asteroid.
2. Concentrate and direct freely available thermal energy from the sun onto the asteroid. At temperature, water will volatilise similar to what occurs naturally with approaching comets. The gaseous water freezes on contact with the cold plate in a largely pre-concentrated form.
3. Once the desired quantities are captured, release or depart from the asteroid to deliver the fuel to the point of need, in Earth orbit, or elsewhere in the Solar System.
|The Planetary Resources team with the Arkyd 6 spacecraft at the company’s facility in Redmond, Washington, prior to delivery to the launch pad.|
Many of the engineering systems required for such a process have been demonstrated in space, but before they can be deployed to mine asteroids, Planetary Resources must learn which asteroids are rich in water and how that water is locked within the asteroid.
Why the asteroids?
“Why are there no mines on Mt Everest or on other Himalayan peaks?” Chris Lewicki asks. “The answer is they are inhospitable and difficult to get to. There may be gold there that has economic value but there are easier places to get it. The mining industry has been driven to more remote places because all of the more accessible tier one resources have been consumed.”
One of the reasons Planetary Resources is investing its energy in asteroids is gravity. “It is all governed by the laws of physics, which tell you that the asteroids are the easiest place to get started,” he says.
“Comparing them with the Moon and Mars is like chalk and cheese because the asteroids don’t have any gravity. It is difficult to land on a planet or moon – you have one chance to get it right and unlike when landing at an airport, there is no chance to go around. Once there, you have the fuel problem in that there are no gas stations - you must take all the fuel you need for the return trip.
|Smaller, water-rich asteroids could be enclosed to extract H2O.|
“As an engineer I am drawn to the challenges. People may think that because there is no gravity it creates a big problem, but it represents an opportunity because millions of tonnes of material can be moved around by a fingertip.
“There are insights we have in the science relating to geology in space that tell us that what you see on the outside of an asteroid is what you get on the inside. There are none of the gravitational forces that make much of the Earth’s geology so complex. In many cases we can know more about an asteroid from a telescope than you can know about something on Earth by taking one diamond drill core from it.”
He says that if we were to have explained to our grandparents that in the early part of the new millennium we could get oil from the bottom of the North Atlantic or copper from the bed of the Pacific, they would have thought we were crazy. “There are some who think that about our plans, but history and the cycle of technology allows us to predict these things better than we have ever been able to before.”
Planetary Resources wants to help foster a space economy by dramatically lowering the cost of going to space through provision of necessary resources like water and fuel. By combining the low-cost computers and sensors from smartphones with cutting-edge satellite and avionics, the company believes it can help usher in a future of full-scale economies in space.
Chris Lewicki says, “We are on a technology path to implement our asteroid exploration program by the second half of 2020 and the launch of our Arkyd 6 satellite from an Indian PSLV rocket later this year will advance this work.”
|There are asteroids that can be accessed relatively easily from Earth.|
Arkyd 6, which is equipped with a midwave infrared imager, will serve as a platform to try out different ideas, particularly those that could reduce the cost of asteroid exploration by a factor of 20. He says the primary aim is to test the sensors that will detect the hydrated minerals on asteroids.
“We’re testing those out on the Arkyd 6 and the things we learn will enable us to move into our next satellites - ones that by the end of 2020 will find their way to a near-Earth asteroid.”
The business Planetary Resources is in today in terms of the mining value chain, according to Chris Lewicki, is discovery and prospecting. “The tools are a little different but fundamentally, we are answering the same questions. We will inform in terms of different potential properties we might develop – grades, accessibility, to a certain extent mineralisation - and then outline and assess the various risk factors.
“In a traditional mining project risk is anywhere from local political environment to labour, to energy, infrastructure, native people and environment. The risks are not quite the same in space – labour is a little different, there are no native people we know about at present and environment has different parameters.
“One of the things that motivates us at Planetary Resources is we see the opportunity to be an early mover, or maybe a first mover, in what will ultimately be the most valuable real estate in space.
|Planetary Resources president and CEO Chris Lewicki addresses a conference.|
“There is a best asteroid and our objective in the next four years is to figure out which one it is. From a short list of about 150, we are narrowing that to about a dozen. It might not be the biggest and will depend on things like production cost, proximity, accessibility and many of the things that apply to any mine on Earth.
“Our aim is to get the mining industry to see our work as a continuation of mining – as its future. We are not competing with mining, we are extending it into a new area of opportunity. It’s not about bringing minerals back, it’s about taking people into space and using the minerals when we get there.
“We are a niche in the resource industry rather than being an oddity of the space industry and our projects will be undertaken, implemented, executed and transacted in the resource industry,” he concludes.