Following the recent announcement of a project to mine asteroids, much has been made about the audacity of the plan to exploit resources in space. However, Planetary Resources, the operation leading the way, has defined the necessary, incremental improvements to make in space technology and our knowledge of asteroids, in order to extract their water and minerals. Even before extraterrestrial mining becomes a reality, the advances made will have an impact on a number of industries, on Earth and in space. The following article examines where this revolutionary project came from and where it is going next.
This article is the second of three in a series on the developing industry of commercial space exploration. 1- Start Dreaming Again:The Coming Era of Asteroid Mining 3- Abundance & the Business of Space 2.0
At the heart of innovation there is always a kernel of madness – the daring to think differently and the courage to take a risk. Planetary Resources, the commercial space exploration enterprise, has recently shown this through its pursuit of a revolutionary new industry: mining asteroids for valuable minerals. But behind every successful venture, there is also a sound plan and carefully considered business model. While reaching for the stars – or asteroids, in this case – the company is keeping its feet firmly on the ground.
Planetary Resources’ project is based on current knowledge of asteroids and existing tools, as well as ongoing research and the development of new, lower cost technologies for space exploration. That's one of the key aspects of the project: as for many private space companies, the necessity is to make it as commercially and economically self-sustaining in the short or long run, as possible. And the way to do so is believed to be the start-up style: small teams instead of large ones, experimenting, building, failing, rebuilding, failing again, over and over, but learning from it; doing stuff until it works, instead of planning and never doing anything risky, which is, in many ways, the culture and politics of governments and space agencies, like NASA or ESA, around the world today.
In other words, it’s all about risk taking, even though the chances of succeeding are small. But if it works, the outcome will be revolutionary and open space exploration to an all-new era. That's actually one of the points that co-founder of Planetary Resources Peter Diamandis has made for many years now, and proved over and over, through his X PRIZE Foundation. What it has shown, with its incentivised challenges, based on the concept of “revolution through competition”, is that start-up-like structures with passionate entrepreneurs, backed by private investors, venture capitalists, are the ones willing to take the risks and, when they work, to bring a paradigm shift.
This is the goal of Planetary Resources and, to understand how revolutionary their way of thinking is, it's important to understand the roots of the idea and the belief that it can work. Diamandis’ challenges began with the Ansari X PRIZE, a space competition, offering a $10 million prize for the first non-governmental organization to launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks. It was won on October 4, 2004 by a small team led by visionary aerospace engineer Burt Rutan and financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. It became Virgin Galactic, a company within Richard Branson's group, which plans to provide sub-orbital spaceflights to the paying public in a year or so (you can actually buy your ticket already, for $200,000), along with sub-orbital space science missions and orbital launches of small satellites in the future.
After succeeding with the first competition, Diamandis started new ones. Among them:
- the Archon Genomics X PRIZE whose target is to sequence 100 human genomes in 10 days or less, aiming to reduce the time and price of genome sequencing;
- the Google Lunar X PRIZE, a competition to put a robot on the moon;
- the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander X CHALLENGE, a competition to build precise, efficient small rocket systems;
- the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE, a challenge for efficient capturing of crude oil from ocean water;
- the Qualcomm Tricorder X PRIZE, a competition to create a portable medical diagnostic device.
All of these challenges have been taken up by small groups of experts and passionate people all over the world.
To understand the importance of the link between the X PRIZE and Planetary Resources, you should know that the X PRIZE competitions are based on many prizes from the early 20th century. The Orteig Prize, for example, spurred Charles Lindbergh to make his solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean, opening nothing less than the multibillion-dollar industry that commercial air flight is today. In the same spirit, the plan for mining asteroids is based on a step-by-step process, developing, testing and proving the technology before heading to the next level, by taking a new approach to spacecraft design that will enable commercial deep space exploration.
Scouting for asteroids, and more
As a first step, and within the next 18-24 months, Planetary Resources is planning on launching between two and five low Earth orbit space-based telescopes. The first, the Arkyd series 100, or Leo, will be the first commercial space telescope within reach of the private citizen. Its function will be to look for potential asteroids to mine. We already know of almost 9,000 near-Earth asteroids larger than 45 meters diameter, an interesting size for mining, and we discover around 1,000 new ones every year. From the 9,000 and growing, 1,500 of them are in similar orbits to Earth and as easy to reach as the Moon. If the time frame is kept, there will be several of them in orbit near Earth by 2014. Leo will be looking among them for the best candidates for resource extraction.
The Arkyd 100 will allow the company to build core spacecraft technologies, and its development will open the way for upgrade and the next step in the project. Interestingly, Leo is not only an asteroid finder, but provides high-resolution imagery from space for Earth observation, too. In one orbit, Leo could survey near-Earth asteroids, and on the next, be re-tasked for observation of rainforest, deserts, oceans or whatever its user may need, making it commercially interesting for a vast array of clients.
Another important aspect of this first series will be testing new communications technologies necessary for a swarm of spaceships to work together. Advances in autonomous vehicles on land, with the Google driverless car, along with autonomous air and underwater vehicles, will probably play an important role in this part of the program, allowing robotic spacecraft to be more and more independent in the future.
By building such an open, economically diverse and upgradeable system, the company hopes to create robotic explorers costing an order of magnitude less than current systems. Founding a new industry, they want to create a model where space exploration will be worth investing in for other future companies. Creating a new ecosystem, with innovation feedbacks and technological advances that will nourish the whole industry, encourage competition and, in the end, promote the growth and potential of this new form of space exploration.
The second step and generation will be the Arkyd series 200 - Interceptor. Greater capabilities will be added, like propulsion and more advanced scientific instrumentation, to allow for what Planetary Resources calls an Earth-crossing asteroid Interceptor mission. The idea is to get a ride as secondary payload with a rocket, heading for geostationary orbit, putting the Interceptor in good position for a fly-by of the Asteroid to collect more direct and accurate data. A collaboration of two or more Interceptors could accelerate the potential to identify, track and fly by asteroids. And the closer the encounters, the higher resolution the data will be. By expanding the catalogue of near-Earth asteroids, Planetary Resources plans to narrow down the possible candidates for mining.
Preparing for Mining
The company describes the third stage with the launch of the Arkyd series 300, the Rendezvous Prospector model as preparing for mining operations. By augmenting the Interceptor spacecraft with deep space laser communication capability, they will be able to launch the Rendezvous Prospector mission to a more distant asteroid, much farther from Earth.
Orbiting the asteroid, the Rendezvous Prospector will collect data on its shape, rotation, density, and surface and sub-surface composition. Through the use of multiple spacecrafts, Planetary Resources will distribute mission risk across several units and allow for broad based functionality within the cluster of spacecraft. This will also result in the creation and demonstration of low-cost interplanetary spacecraft capability, of interest to potential customers such as NASA, scientific agencies, or other private exploratory organizations.
The last step will be, of course, asteroid mining itself. Initial space resource development will focus on water-rich asteroids. You may ask why water before metals. Water is the essence of life and exists in plentiful supply on asteroids. Access to water and other life-supporting volatiles in space provides hydration, breathable air, radiation shielding and even manufacturing capabilities. Water’s elements, hydrogen and oxygen, can also be used to formulate rocket fuel. Using the resources of space to explore space will enable the large-scale exploration of the Solar System. Accessing water resources in orbit will revolutionize exploration and make space travel dramatically more economical. In the short and long run, as deep cave explorer Bill Stone pointed out, the final missing piece, the real paradigm-buster, is a gas station in orbit. Because if it existed, it would change all future spacecraft design and space mission planning.
Recovery and processing of materials in a microgravity environment will occur through significant research and development. Planetary Resources will lead the creation of critical in situ extraction and processing technologies to provide access to both asteroidal water and metals. What this will mean for the market, and the price of resources whose current value is tied to their scarcity, is an important question that will be addressed in the third article of this series.
When combined with low-cost deep space explorers, exploiting extraterrestrial resources represents an enabling capability for the sustainable development of space exploration. At that point, whether the mining of asteroids becomes a reality or not, Planetary Resources, along with other private space companies (to be described in part 3) will have made significant progress in space technology and science. The outcome will only be limited by our present imagination at that time. And the colonisation of the Moon, Mars, and beyond won’t be far behind.
About the author: A Curious Mind enjoying exploration, learning, sharing; meeting cool, different, visionary, fun or curious humans, to talk about Life, people, science, technology, education, travelling, photography or anything you may think of that would be fun, interesting to share, learn and play with.
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Find out more:
“Incentivized Competition Heritage”, The X PRIZE Foundation http://www.xPRIZE.org/x-PRIZEs/incentivized-competition-heritage
“First Private Craft Docks with Space Station”, New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/26/science/space/space-x-capsule-docks-at-space-station.html?
“Burt Rutan sees the future of space”, 2006 TED Talk http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/burt_rutan_sees_the_future_of_space.html
“Meet the 'Fly Boys' of Memphis, the Future of American Education. What two teenagers from a struggling school district, bitten by the rocketry bug, can teach us about creating a new generation of scientists and engineers” http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/05/meet-the-fly-boys-of-memphis-the-future-of-american-education/257613/