Forty six years ago, Neil Armstrong took that one small step for a man; here in 2015, that journey has taken some epic strides. The New Horizons mission is gathering unprecedented data from Pluto and other Kuiper Belt Objects – And as if that could be topped – Planetary Resources takes a giant step toward space mining.
Located in Redmond, a small city east of Seattle in Washington State, the company was founded in 2009, and designed from the get go as an effort to profitably mine asteroids for raw materials; in 2011, they opened its doors. Founded by Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis, both veterans of commercial space exploitation ventures, the company’s team includes veterans of NASA, JPL, and various other private sector companies, advisors such as Astronaut Thomas Jones and James Cameron, and high powered investors such as Sir Richard Branson.
Planetary Resources sees asteroids as the key to not only the future of space exploration, but as the primary vehicle for, “allowing humanity to become a flourishing multi-planetary species.” While the popular view of what might be mined in space has always been precious metals, the real money maker may well be much simpler resources – water and hydrogen, the critical building blocks of spacecraft fuel. As it’s done now, getting fuel off the surface of the earth and into orbit is the reason that it costs as much as it does; as the company points out, once it’s up there, a pound of earth-based fuel is “worth more than an equivalent pound of gold.” If resource extraction from suitable asteroids is possible, it will radically lower the cost of fueling spacecraft, and as such, of extended exploration in space.
Of course there are, in fact, precious metals on certain asteroids, and those too are a desirable resource. Take platinum as an example; there is broad need for it in our modern economy, for everything from catalytic converters to electronics and glass. As Planetary Resources points out in an almost disingenuous manner – “major sources of platinum group metals are concentrated in South Africa and Russia, and becoming increasingly hard to access over time.” – Granted, and indeed another viable source of strategic metals would certainly be a benefit to the U.S. and its global economic allies.
To successfully mine asteroids, the right ones need to be identified. ‘Right’ in this sense means containing the elements we desire, and being a viable near-earth target. In 2013, the company raised over 1.5 million dollars in a successful Kickstarter campaign to launch ARKYD, the “world’s first public space telescope.” Putting a privately owned and controlled telescope into orbit is a clear and definitive step in answering the obvious question – How to look for asteroids with the intention of profiting from them, when virtually all large earth or space based telescopes are owned by governments, educational institutions, or their subsidiaries. The company has already identified a number of viable targets, several of which are quite recent discoveries; there are roughly 9,000 known near-earth candidates to chose from.
So – How close, how realistic are Planetary Resources goals of mining an asteroid? Far closer than they were before July 16th, when the Arkyd 3 reflight was deployed from the International Space Station. The term ‘reflight’ is a bit of a misnomer, because the first Arkyd 3 never made it to a launch of its own; it was destroyed in October of last year, when the Antares resupply rocket bearing it, and built by Orbital Sciences Corporation, exploded shortly after launch. The Arkyd 3 Reflight is a 90 day mission dedicated to testing propulsion, communication, avionics, and power systems that will be employed on future mining-dedicated flights. The company has pursued a relatively low cost approach to missions, and this one is no exception; it wouldn’t be out of place to call this thing a micro-satellite, as you can see from the image below.
Small as the Arkyd 3 footprint may be, that launch is a small step for a company well on the way to their own giant leap.