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.

Arkryd Series Leo

?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.

?We intend to do the entire activity from remote sensing to prospecting and ultimately mining, entirely through the use of robotics.”Chris Lewicki, President & Chief Engineer, Planetary Resources

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.

Planetary Resources

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.

Ultimate objective: “To bring the solar system within our economic sphere of influence.” Peter Diamandis, entrepreneur and X-Prize impresario

One of the robotic technologies that could make asteroid mining a reality is the microspine-based gripping system developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Designed specifically for use on asteroids, the gripper can quickly attach to different surface types using an actuator with one degree of freedom.

Built to survive over a hundred anchoring sequences, the gripper provides enough force on vertical and inverted surfaces for a percussion drill operating though the anchor to take core samples ?no small robotics challenge in a microgravity environment.

JPL researchers are investigating the possibility of adding the gripper system to the feet of the limbed Lemur IIB bot, enabling it to climb around the the vertical and inverted rocky surfaces of asteroids, collecting samples along the way.

Lewicki, a former JPL engineer, has been following NASA’s asteroid gripper research closely.

?As governments continue exploring asteroids, we benefit from their data and techniques. And as we explore asteroids using our methodology, we share that information back to the government. So, it’s mutually beneficial,? explains Lewicki.

Out-of-this-world economics

Planetary Resources offers a business case with the potential to turn global economics on its head: By opening up the resources of space to humans, the company hopes to enable a transition from a one world-based economics of scarcity to an economics based on the practically infinite resources of space.

At the same time, the ability to mine asteroids could enable a range of other opportunities, from increased manned solar system exploration (by making water readily available) through in-situ construction of space-based solar power systems.

Asteroid colony

For example, it’s estimated that there are around 1,500 NEAs that could be mined for platinum group metals (PGMs) alone. With platinum selling at around $1,600 an ounce and one 500m diameter asteroid potentially containing more platinum than has been mined in all human history, the dollar value of a successful mission would be extraordinary.

?It’s a multi-trillion dollar proposition, in terms of what market prices would have it be worth today,? says Lewicki.

The business plan isn’t quite that simple however. Rather than exploiting scarcity on earth, says Lewicki, Planetary Resources plan to exploit the new opportunities that an economics of abundance could create.

?The real value of the platinum group metals and their catalytic properties is not in their relative scarcity here on earth but it’s in their elemental composition. It’s really about turning a scarcity regime into an abundance regime,? explains Lewicki.

Not everybody is convinced by the promise of asteroid riches however. Pointing to launch and set-up costs, prolonged development times, and the effect of introducing huge amount of rare earths on the global market, some experts believe that the company’s plans could be scuppered before they get off the ground.

Asteroid mining is not likely to be profitable without reduced launch costs and an off-world market for asteroid resources, says H. Sterling Burnett, senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis.

Transformation of the entire global economy

?It’s an exciting project and a serious effort with some big backers, but the bottom line for me is that I just don’t know how it’s going to be competitive and profitable on earth in the short term, or in the long term either. It’s an even more risky venture than mining on earth,? says Burnett, author of the NCPA’s May 2012 brief ?Finding Sources of Rare Earths Beyond China,? which calls for the U.S. government to support domestic, terrestrial rare earth mining projects in order to reduce its reliance on imported materials.

Although the business case for terrestrial exploitation of asteroid mining remains uncertain, Burnett believes that an off-world market –from lunar bases to space tourists and space hotels– could enable Planetary Resources to succeed.

Asteroid Mining

The infrastructure necessary for profitable asteroid mining is ?not yet present, but is near,? says Mark Sonter, an expert in the economics of asteroid mining and an advisor to Space Wealth, a public benefit, California corporation that aims to develop the asteroid mining industry.

?Asteroid mining will be profitable only when there begins to be developed commercial infrastructure and operations in orbit which will generate demand for some hundreds of tons of metal and volatiles in orbit for construction and propulsion,? says Sonter, author of the paper, ?Is Profitable Asteroid Mining A Pragmatic Goal??

Like something out of science fiction, the recent launch of Planetary Resources combines advanced technologies with billionaire investment, the promise of expanded space exploration, and the long-term potential to transform the entire global economy by opening it up to the abundant resources of space.

If Planetary Resources is successful, robots will have played a crucial role in what could well be regarded by future generations as a pivotal period in human history.