Exclusive RBR deep-dive interview details Planetary Resources’ bold, robotic plans for success
By Emmet Cole
May 30, 2012
Engineers at Planetary Resources—the world’s first asteroid mining company—are currently working on remote sensing and robotic prospecting technologies to characterize potential asteroid mining sites, company president and chief engineer Chris Lewicki tells Robotics Business Review.
The new technologies will be fitted on the Leo space telescope –the first robot in Planetary Resources’ ‘Arkyd Series’ product range, which is expected to launch in the next 18-24 months.
Leo will be used for asteroid prospecting with possible extra revenue streams being generated by selling space telescope services to private space companies and government agencies. Leo will focus on near-earth asteroids (NEAs) –many of which are easier to reach than the moon due to their low velocity and weak gravity.
It’s all part of an extensive robotics strategy at Planetary Resources.
“We intend to do the entire activity from remote sensing to prospecting and ultimately mining, entirely through the use of robotics. My team has much of their experience working for NASA on Mars landers and implementing those robotic technologies,” explains Lewicki, former flight director for the Spirit and Opportunity rovers and surface mission manager for Phoenix.
“We’re also currently heavily engaged in microgravity materials processing research with the aim of working out how to use materials in a microgravity environment.”
The next robot in the Arkryd Series is the Interceptor –essentially a modified Leo with additional propulsion capabilities and scientific instrumentation that will enable it to study asteroids as they pass between the earth and the moon.
Planetary Resources plans a series of Interceptor robots that can collaborate to identify, track, fly-by, and collect data from NEAs.
Also under development is the ‘Rendezvous Prospector,’ a robot with deep space laser communication capabilities that will enable prospecting to take place much further from the earth –potentially in the asteroid rich region between Mars and Jupiter. Once there, Rendezvous Prospector will collect data on the asteroid’s shape, density, rotation, and composition.
On the asteroid itself, Lewicki envisages robotic systems similar to those used in terrestrial mines, with an automated, central processing unit being fed by unmanned vehicles –all controlled from earth via telepresence systems.
“I’m often asked whether humans will be required for asteroid mining or if we’ll do it with robots. Well, humans will certainly be operating but we’ll probably all be back here on earth,” says Lewicki.
By demonstrating low-cost interplanetary spacecraft capabilities, Planetary Resources hopes to attract business from NASA, scientific agencies, and other private space organizations.
The company’s long-term robotics development strategy will be based on a mix of in-house development, technology share with government agencies, and commercial partnerships, says Lewicki.
“In-house engineers will focus on the system level, how the pieces fit together and the system level risks. These are certainly things that we want to own wholesale. We’ll also develop new technologies that no one else on the planet would have an interest in developing,” says Lewicki.
“But things like launch vehicles and prospecting capabilities may be purchased from other companies. We’ll make those make/buy decisions as we go on.”
Lewicki is tight-lipped regarding Planetary Resources’ existing relationships with robotics companies, but expect that to change over time.
“Information about our relationships with existing robotics companies is still confidential, but part of our transition from being very private to being public is that we can start to talk more about it,” says Lewicki.
Planetary Resources’ launch comes at a time when NASA has made an extensive commitment to asteroid exploration. NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is already in orbit around the asteroid Vesta.
174 times the yearly world output of platinum
In 2016, the agency plans to launch OSIRIS-REx, a unmanned spacecraft equipped with a robotic arm for collecting asteroid samples. Costing an estimated $800 million, the spacecraft is expected to return around two ounces of material to earth in 2023.
NASA has also started training astronauts for a manned asteroid mission that could take place by the late 2020s, according to a recent report in The Telegraph.
And in April, a NASA-supported Asteroid Retrieval Feasibility Study sponsored by the Keck Institute for Space Studies concluded that it will be possible to robotically capture and transport transport a 7-m, 500-ton NEA to high lunar orbit by around 2025 at a cost of around $2.6 billion. If an asteroid retrieval mission goes ahead, NASA envisages working with private space companies to enable scientific and commercial exploitation of asteroids from lunar bases in the 2020s.