If you have a minimum of interest in Space and Astronomy then you will have probably heard about Planetary Resources, Inc., the company that on April 24th 2012 announced their intention to mine Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs). To get an idea of what they’re about you should watch their promotional video below before reading on.
If you want to watch the whole 1 hour announcement you can do so here; either way, in the following section I summarise their plans for you, as far as I understand them, in the order they plan to execute them.
- Launch a fleet of small, 9″ telescopes to survey the population of NEAs.
- Find the candidate NEAs most suitable for the mining of water.
- Bring them to Earth or Moon orbit, extract their water, then sell it (in space).
- Create a way to use hydrogen from the water extracted from asteroids as fuel to power ships and more mining equipment.
- Use this fuel and equipment to undertake the more difficult task of mining asteroids for valuable metals such as platinum (and also iron, aluminium, copper, etc., that would be useful as building materials in space).
Given timelines are vague, as they should be, but they expect to reach the platinum mining phase within 10–15 years. The question everyone is asking is Can this be done or is it science fiction? Unless somebody tries to do it, we’ll never know, but Planetary Resources faces some large obstacles along the way and it will be many years before their investments begin to pay off.
Who are these people?
I believe the reason Planetary Resources has not been written off as “a bunch of crazy people” is because of the names associated with the company, be it as investors, advisors or employees. Here are a few of them (in no particular order):
- Chris Lewicki, President and Chief Engineer: Formerly a NASA engineer, he was, amongst other things, flight director for the Mars Exploration Rovers Mission.
- Peter H. Diamandis, M.D., Co-Founder, Co-Chairman: He is the Founder and Chairman of the X Prize Foundation, which in 2004 awarded the $10 million Ansari X Prize to SpaceShipOne for being the first private enterprise to “build and launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people to 100 kilometers above the Earth’s surface, twice within two weeks”.
- James Cameron, advisor: Movie director and screenwriter, best known for his small indy movie Titanic. He enrolled into community college in 1973 to study Physics but dropped out.
- Tom Jones, PhD, advisor: Former US astronaut, he obtained a PhD in planetary science from the University of Arizona.
- Sara Seager, Ph.D., advisor: Associate Professor of Planetary Science at MIT, she studies the atmospheres of exoplanets.
- Eric Schmidt, Ph.D., investor: Ex CEO of Google and currently their executive chairman.
- Larry Page, investor: Co-founder of Google; does anything else need be said?
- Ross Perot, Jr., investor: Son of Ross Perot, he is also a business man, currently Chairman of the Board of Perot Systems.
- John S. Lewis, Ph.D., advisor: The man who started it all; professor emeritus of planetary science at the University of Arizona, he’s been advocating the usage of natural space resources for decades. His book Mining the Sky: Untold Riches from the Asteroids, Comets, and Planets is probably on the nightstand of every Planetary Resources employee.
These are all successful entrepreneurs, business people, engineers, scientists…that have proven their worth in their chosen fields. These aren’t the type of people that you imagine meeting in some dark basement every first Saturday of the month and starting sessions with the mantra the first rule of Planetary Resources is you don’t talk about Planetary Resources. What you expect is to see these guys giving commencement speeches, talking on CNN, accepting awards and donating large cash amounts to charity. But setting up a space mining company?
Taking a closer look
These guys have moxie, I’ll give ‘em that, but I want to throw some numbers out there to show that not everything that shines in their plan is gold, or platinum, as the case may be.
- Mining equipment: Mining an asteroid for metals in space is different to mining on Earth, but you’re still going to need machinery. The only way you’re going to get it to the asteroid is on a rocket. Let’s assume the following (and it’s an expensive assumption, money-wise): they’ve brought the asteroid back to LEO (Low Earth Orbit); they’re using SpaceX rockets to launch their equipment and Elon Musk has achieved his goal of lowering costs to $2,000/kg taken to LEO. I don’t know what machinery they’ll take, but let’s look at your average Caterpillar excavator; depending on the model they weigh between 20 and 36.5 metric tonnes, but let’s assume they go with the lightest. Simple arithmetic (remember there are 1,000 kg in a ton) tells us it will cost $40 million to get one excavator to the asteroid. I don’t expect them to use off-the-shelf machinery like this because, among other things, you need engines that can run on solar power, not gasoline, so they’ll probably have to design and build their own equipment (and I’ll assume the weight of their space excavator is the same). That Caterpillar excavator costs around $250,000, and it’s mass produced, so expect whatever they substitute it with to cost at the very least $1 million to manufacture (and I’m going to ignore the several million it will cost to develop). How many will they need? I have no idea, but you can’t send just one because if it breaks, you’re without a paddle up the famous creek, so a bare minimum would be 3 so two can be working at any one time and you have a back-up. Some more arithmetic tells us that to build and send 3 excavators to LEO would cost $123 million, assuming all the above optimistic figures. Now think of how much more equipment will be required to actually mine an asteroid (drills, sifters, containers…), dispose of or contain the leftover “dirt”, then transport the precious metal safely to sea level. Furthermore, if the asteroid is to be mined in Moon orbit the expense of getting equipment there increases about tenfold, so now were talking $1.2 billion for 3 excavators. Add in about $2 million/year to run ground operations while we’re at it, and the costs of building and launching the fleet of Arkyd 100 telescopes discussed below. I can see start-up costs easily exceeding $1 billion.
- Asteroid transport: The asteroid above was moved from its orbit around the Sun and taken into Earth or Moon orbit. That’s going to take a lot of energy! And nobody has an asteroid tug in their hangars, so that’s another craft that needs to be designed and built…and launched to the asteroid (see previous point on launch costs). Here’s something else to think about: asteroids spin, and smaller ones usually tumble (meaning there is no fixed axis of rotation). To move such an asteroid via physical contact (firing rocket engines attached to the asteroid surface, pulling it with cables, sticking it in a “bag” etc) would most likely require stopping its spinning motion, which is a whole other problem in and of itself (and would again, cost R+D money to accomplish). In fact, I see this as a major challenge because it involves new engineering and, like most of this enterprise, doing something that’s never been done before.
- Martin Elvis, to observe asteroids in the 50-100m size range the telescope(s) would have to be no farther than ~0.03 AU (~4.5 million km, 2.8 million miles) from the asteroid; that’s about 11.5 times the distance from Earth to the Moon. Looking at current flyby numbers (see sidebar) that means the telescopes would be able to observe only ~16 such asteroids per year! This value is based on currently known asteroids and current discovery rates for new ones; if Planetary Resources wants to survey enough asteroids to be able to choose an ideal one for mining they would have to discover many, many new ones. If a telescope cannot detect enough asteroids because they are too faint or far away, having 20 telescopes orbiting Earth isn’t going to improve its odds. The only way around this limitation is to place these telescopes along Earth’s orbital path around the Sun; in this way, if they have 20 telescopes spread out equidistantly, you’d expect them to observe ~16 asteroids per year per telescope, for a total of 320 per year, which sounds a lot better, but as a comparison, any of the current ground-based NEO telescope surveys observe several thousand of these 50-100m objects each year. By spreading telescopes out in this way they would certainly increase their chances of discovering new asteroids that wouldn’t be detected by Earth-bound telescopes at that time but it will be more expensive to build telescopes capable of orbiting on the other side of the Sun from us (and sending them there), especially when it comes to transmitting data back and forth. Do note these numbers are for asteroids 50-100m in size, which are at the upper range of what would be mineable; a 10-50m asteroid would be more manageable but harder to find. Of course, the Arkyd 100 telescopes would be able to observe larger asteroids too, which might not be candidates for mining, but could be potentially hazardous to Earth so their study is certainly a worthwhile endeavour. Finding appropriate asteroids: Planetary Resources’ telescopes will be called Arkyd 100, a number of 9″ optical telescopes in Earth orbit that will search for new asteroids as well as monitoring known ones that could be candidates for mining to obtain more information about them. According to some early calculations performed by senior SAO astronomer
- Selling the spoils: As Martin Elvis aptly put it in a recent talk, in space, not only can nobody hear you scream, but there’s nobody to sell anything to. Planetary Resources’ economic model appears to be Mine it and they will come, but that places a lot of faith in private space industry, which would need to set up space hotels and frequent orbital flights that would require abundant water and fuel. A publicly-funded space program (be it American, European, Russian, Chinese or all four combined) will not have large enough needs to make the business profitable.
I don’t mean to pour cold water over this project, which is exciting and has the potential to inspire a new generation of school children to choose Asteroid Miner as their vocation for when they grow up; I just want to point out some of the harsh realities such an ambitious endeavour faces. The recent study released by the Keck Institute for Space Studies on the feasibility of retrieving a 7m asteroid and bringing it to Lunar orbit estimated the cost at $2.6 billion. That does not include the cost of mining! It’s just the cost of retrieval, and as I’ve shown, the actual mining could easily cost just as much. The upside is that, if successful, all this money could be recouped with the sale of mined minerals and profits could be huge. As has been said many times, this is the epitome of a high-risk, high-reward business venture.
The Mining Journal states the chances of bringing a raw [mine] prospect into production have been estimated at 1 in 5,000-10,000. What are the chances for a prospect in space? I’m glad it’s not my job to calculate that number and then have to go out to raise funds from investors. Nevertheless, I wish Planetary Resources the best of luck and truly hope they are successful. The MPC’s resources are all publicly available and I hope they make full use of them.
No related posts.