A billionaire-backed asteroid-mining company aims to start putting its big plans into action soon, launching its first hardware into space by this time next year.
Planetary Resources, which counts Google execs Larry Page and Eric Schmidt among its investors, plans to loft a set of tiny "cubesats" to Earth orbit in early 2014, to test out gear for its first line of asteroid-prospecting spacecraft.
"Our belief and our philosophy is that the best test bed is space itself," Chris Voorhees, Planetary Resources' vice president of spacecraft development, said Wednesday during a Google+ Hangout. [Planetary Resources' Asteroid-Mining Plans]
"Despite the fact that we're a deep-space company, we're going to use Earth orbit as much as possible," Voorhees added. "For us, it's a valuable learning experience, and that's what we plan on doing one year hence."
The test bed slated for launch in 2014 is made up of three "cubesats," measuring 12 inches long by 4 inches wide by 4 inches tall (30 by 10 by 10 centimeters), company officials said. The Arkyd-3 satellite will test out technologies for Planetary Resources' Arkyd-100 scouts, which the firm hopes to launch to low-Earth orbit on asteroid-hunting missions in 2015.
The Arkyd-3 "is the testbed manifestation of our Arkyd-100 spacecraft. It just happens to be flying," Voorhees said.
A series of other robotic probes beyond the 33-pound (15-kilogram) Arkyd-100 will investigate near-Earth asteroids up close, eventually mining suitable ones for resources such as water and precious metals. Water is the key focus at first, because it is the key enabler of off-Earth living, Planetary Resources officials said.
Water can keep astronauts hydrated, and serve as a shield against dangerous radiation. Split into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen, it can also provide breathable air and rocket fuel, allowing voyaging spaceships to fill up on the go.
Sourcing water in space will make space travel much cheaper and more efficient, Planetary Resources President Chris Lewicki said. He noted that it currently costs about $10,000 to launch 1 liter (0.26 gallons) of water to low-Earth orbit.
"Water is the gateway drug of space. It's the enabler — in a good way, though," Lewicki said.
Planetary Resources held Wednesday's Google+ Hangout partly to mark the one-year anniversary of the company's public unveiling. After Planetary Resources announced its existence and intentions last year, another asteroid-mining firm called Deep Space Industries made its presence known as well.
Both companies hope their activities help spur humanity's push out into the solar system, officials have said.
Experts on near-Earth objects wondered whether February's meteor blast over Russia would serve as a wakeup call about asteroids — and two months later, there's ample evidence that it has. But there are two sides to that wakeup call, having to do with potential opportunities as well as potential threats.
"Bechtel has a history of consistently tackling the most challenging projects, beginning with the construction of the Hoover Dam more than 75 years ago," Peter Diamandis, the co-founder and co-chairman of Planetary Resources, said in a news release announcing the deal. Today, California-based Bechtel is one of the world's leaders in the engineering, procurement and construction industry. It will join Planetary Resources' billionaire-heavy list of investors — and assist the company in its long-term mission to mine near-Earth asteroids for precious metals and outer-space water.
Diamandis and his fellow co-founder, Eric Anderson, have said asteroid mining could turn into a multitrillion-dollar industry if their vision becomes reality.
"Planetary Resources' mission is ambitious, but they've assembled a world-class team to succeed," Riley Bechtel, the chairman and CEO of Bechtel, said in the news release. "Our companies share a common vision to continually innovate and push boundaries, all aimed at contributing a better quality of life."
Speaking of life, Planetary Resources' president, Chris Lewicki, is among the scores of experts attending this week's Planetary Defense Conference in Flagstaff. "It's always an extremely fun and informative conference, as it focuses entirely on asteroids ... how often do you get to consider defending the Earth from space rocks?" he wrote in a blog posting on Tuesday.
Experts estimate that there are 9 million near-Earth asteroids as large as the 17-meter-wide (55-foot-wide) space rock that broke apart over Russia on Feb. 15, and virtually all of them are too small to track using current observational tools. So far, detection systems have found less than 1 percent of the asteroids smaller than 100 meters (which is big enough to wipe out a city).
Lewicki passed along word of a scientific study suggesting that even "rubble-pile" asteroids can become more cohesive over time, thanks to the forces that bind together the smallest grains in their size distrbutions.
JPL's Shyam Bhaskaran described an "AutoNav" system that could guide an impactor autonomously to hit an asteroid target at speeds of up to 30,000 mph. "It's not that easy," Bhaskaran said in a news release. "Hitting an asteroid with a spacecraft traveling at hypervelocity is like shooting an arrow at a target on a speeding race car."
The conference began on Monday and runs through Friday. Check out the program, feast your eyes on the video coverage (with live streaming as well as archived clips for each session), and follow the action via Twitter with the hashtag #PDC2013.
NASA / JPL-Caltech / B612 Foundation
The artist's concepts for the NEOCam infrared telescope (left) and the Sentinel Space Telescope (right) look similar. Both are designed to scan the skies for near-Earth asteroids.
Infrared eyes The first step in planetary defense is to find all those potentially threatening asteroids — and during the Flagstaff conference, the spotlight focused on two proposed space telescopes designed to look for space rocks. The B612 Foundation's Sentinel Space Telescope, currently scheduled for launch in 2017 or 2018, would use an infrared sensor to look for Earth-threatening asteroids from a Venus-type orbit. Ball Aerospace reportedly has 25 people working on the Sentinel project, and so far, B612 has raised $2 million of the mission's estimated $450 million cost.
Meanwhile, JPL is working on the components for a future space mission known as NEOCam. Like Sentinel, NEOCam would scan the skies from an outer-space vantage point, looking for the infrared glow of asteroids. The mission is getting technology development funds from NASA's Discovery Program — and on Monday, JPL said NEOCam's infrared sensor passed a design test that assessed its performance under simulated deep-space conditions. A research paper detailing the sensor's design and capabilities is to be published by the Journal of Optical Engineering.
"Infrared sensors are a powerful tool for discovering, cataloging and understanding the asteroid population," JPL researcher Amy Mainzer, a co-author of the paper, said in a news release. "When you observe a space rock with infrared, you are seeing its thermal emissions, which can better define the asteroid's size, as well as tell you something about composition."
Correction for 1:50 p.m. ET April 17: Good news, everyone! The Planetary Defense Conference runs through Friday. The bad news is that I originally wrote Wednesday instead, and that I wrote "#PDC2012" rather than #PDC2013 for the Twitter hashtag. Sorry about that!
A new venture dubbed Deep Space Industries is jumping into the marketplace for asteroid mining — joining a billionaire-backed company called Planetary Resources in what they hope will eventually turn into a trillion-dollar business.
In a press advisory, Deep Space Industries says it will create "the world’s first fleet of commercial asteroid-prospecting spacecraft." The venture also promises to develop a "breakthrough process for manufacturing in space."
"Deep Space is pursuing an aggressive schedule and plans on prospecting, harvesting and processing asteroids for use in space and to benefit Earth," the company said in a press advisory. Further details came out in a news release issued early Tuesday, and a news briefing is scheduled for 10 a.m. PT (1 p.m. ET) Tuesday at the Santa Monica Museum of Flying in California. The briefing will be webcast via Spacevidcast and YouTube.
Financial questions One of the key questions relates to the venture's financial backing: Theoretically, mining the right kind of asteroid could produce precious metals worth sending back to Earth, such as platinum, gold and rare-earth minerals. Some asteroids also contain water ice that can be converted into fuel and supplies for space travel and settlement. Under the right conditions, such resources could be worth trillions of dollars a year. But it would cost billions of dollars to identify and exploit those resources.
When Planetary Resources had its coming-out party last year, that company's executives said they planned to launch their first hardware in the 2013-2014 time frame. In a technical update released on Monday, the company's president, Chris Lewicki, didn't provide details about the launch schedule. But he did say there were "a number of exciting upcoming events," and indicated that the venture was currently concentrating on the development of low-cost prototype telescopes.
"With each new prototype build, we’re learning a lot about how to strip cost out of the assembly, integration and test process, and that will be incredibly valuable when we start mass production of the units destined for space," Lewicki said.
It's not yet clear whether Deep Space Industries will end up being a competitor for Planetary Resources — or a customer. But as with most outer-space ventures, the venture's financial underpinnings will be as much a key to success as its technological vision.
Update for 1:30 a.m. ET Jan. 22: Deep Space Industries provided more details in this voluminous news release:
"Deep Space Industries announced today that it will send a fleet of asteroid-prospecting spacecraft out into the solar system to hunt for resources to accelerate space development to benefit Earth. These 'FireFly' spacecraft utilize low-cost cubesat components and get discounted delivery to space by ride-sharing on the launch of larger communications satellites.
"'This is the first commercial campaign to explore the small asteroids that pass by Earth,' said Deep Space Chairman Rick Tumlinson (who signed up the world's first space tourist, led the team that took over the Mir space station, was a Founding Trustee of the X Prize, and Founded Orbital Outfitters, the world's first commercial space suit company.) 'Using low-cost technologies, and combining the legacy of our space program with the innovation of today's young high-tech geniuses, we will do things that would have been impossible just a few years ago.'
"FireFlies mass about 55 pounds (25 kilograms) and will first be launched in 2015 on journeys of two to six months. Deep Space will be building a small fleet of the spacecraft using innovative miniature technologies, and working with NASA and other companies and groups to identify targets of opportunity.
"'My smartphone has more computing power than they had on the Apollo moon missions,' said Tumlinson. 'We can make amazing machines smaller, cheaper, and faster than ever before. Imagine a production line of FireFlies, cocked and loaded and ready to fly out to examine any object that gets near the Earth.'
"Starting in 2016, Deep Space will begin launching 70-pound DragonFlies for round-trip visits that bring back samples. The DragonFly expeditions will take two to four years, depending on the target, and will return 60 to 150 pounds. Deep Space believes that combining science, prospecting and sponsorship will be a win/win for everyone, both lowering costs for exploration and enabling the public to join the adventure.
"'The public will participate in FireFly and DragonFly missions via live feeds from Mission Control, online courses in asteroid mining sponsored by corporate marketers, and other innovative ways to open the doors wide,' said CEO David Gump. His earlier ventures include producing the first TV commercial shot on the International Space Station for RadioShack, co-founding Transformational Space Corp. (t/Space) and Astrobotic Technology Inc. 'The Google Lunar X Prize, Unilever, and Red Bull each are spending tens of millions of dollars on space sponsorships, so the opportunity to sponsor a FireFly expedition into deep space will be enticing.'
"Bringing back asteroid materials is only a step on the way to much bigger things for DSI. The company has a patent-pending technology called the MicroGravity Foundry to transform raw asteroid material into complex metal parts. The MicroGravity Foundry is a 3-D printer that uses lasers to draw patterns in a nickel-charged gas medium, causing the nickel to be deposited in precise patterns.
"'The MicroGravity Foundry is the first 3-D printer that creates high-density high-strength metal components even in zero gravity,' said Stephen Covey, a co-founder of DSI and inventor of the process. 'Other metal 3-D printers sinter powdered metal, which requires a gravity field and leaves a porous structure, or they use low-melting point metals with less strength.'
"Senior leaders at NASA have been briefed on DSI's technologies, which would make eventual crewed Mars expeditions less expensive through the use of asteroid-derived propellant. Missions would require fewer launches if the fuel to reach Mars were added in space from the volatiles in asteroids. Mars missions also would be safer with a MicroGravity Foundry on board to print replacements for broken parts, or to create brand new parts invented after the expedition was on its way to the Red Planet.
"'Using resources harvested in space is the only way to afford permanent space development,' said Gump. 'More than 900 new asteroids that pass near Earth are discovered every year. They can be like the Iron Range of Minnesota was for the Detroit car industry last century — a key resource located near where it was needed. In this case, metals and fuel from asteroids can expand the in-space industries of this century. That is our strategy.'
"For example, a large market for DSI is producing fuel for communications satellites. Low-cost asteroid propellant delivered in orbit to commsats will extend their working lifetimes, with each extra month worth $5 million to $8 million per satellite. DSI has executed a non-disclosure agreement with an aerospace company to discuss collaboration on this opportunity. In a decade, Deep Space will be harvesting asteroids for metals and other building materials, to construct large communications platforms to replace communications satellites, and later solar power stations to beam carbon-free energy to consumers on Earth. As DSI refines asteroids for in-space markets, it also will harvest platinum group metals for terrestrial uses, such as pollution control devices.
"'Mining asteroids for rare metals alone isn't economical, but makes sense if you already are processing them for volatiles and bulk metals for in-space uses,' said Mark Sonter, a member of the DSI board of directors. Mr. Sonter combines experience in planning, permitting, and management of large and complex terrestrial mining projects with funded research into the development of asteroid resources. 'Turning asteroids into propellant and building materials damages no ecospheres since they are lifeless rocks left over from the formation of the solar system. Several hundred thousand that cross near Earth are available.'
"Asteroids that fall to Earth are meteorites, and the Deep Space team includes Geoffrey Notkin, star of the international hit television series 'Meteorite Men' about hunting for them. Notkin has unparalleled expertise in the diversity and market value of these elusive rocks, which are transformed by intense heat during their plunge to the surface. By contrast, the initial asteroid samples to be brought back by Deep Space will have their original in-space composition and structure preserved, creating exceedingly rare specimens for sale to the research and collectors markets.
"Deep Space is looking for customers and sponsors who want to be a part of creating this new space economy. The company believes that taking the long view, while creating value, opportunities and products in the near term will allow it to become one of the economic engines that opens space to humanity. By getting under way and taking calculated risks, while developing basic industrial technologies, DSI will be well positioned over time to supply the basic needs of life in space. Taking the idea of socially minded companies to a new level, DSI is literally reaching for the stars.
"'We will only be visitors in space until we learn how to live off the land there,' concluded Tumlinson. 'This is the Deep Space mission — to find, harvest and process the resources of space to help save our civilization and support the expansion of humanity beyond the Earth — and doing so in a step-by-step manner that leverages off our space legacy to create an amazing and hopeful future for humanity. We are squarely focused on giving new generations the opportunity to change not only this world, but all the worlds of tomorrow. Sounds like fun, doesn't it?"