Science Interviews

Interview

Thu, 7th Feb 2013

Mining Asteroids for Mineral Wealth

Chris Lewicki, President of Planetary Resources Inc
Rick Tumlinson Chairman of Deep Space Industries

Listen Now    Download as mp3 from the show Analysing Asteroids

The majority of the asteroids we’re acquainted with have come to us.  But now, a number of enterprising individuals are developing ways to harvest and mine asteroids for the minerals that they may contain.  Chris Lewicki is the President and self-appointed Chief Asteroid Miner at the Seattle based company, Planetary Resources Inc; and Rick Tumlinson is the Chairman of Deep Space Industries.  We’ll come to Rick in just a second, but let’s kick off with Chris.  First of all Chris, why do you want to mine asteroids?  What's the appeal of doing that?

Chris L. -   Asteroids are a very exciting destination in our Solar Infra-red view of the solar systemSystem and from the intro that you just heard from Simon, of course, they’ve been out there for some time.  They're the leftover things that formed our planets and they have a number of very useful and very valuable resources on them that will be important, not only here on Earth, but as we continue to expand out into space.

Chris -   When you say resources, what sorts of things are we talking about that we can get from an asteroid that we may not be able to obtain more easily on Earth?

Chris L. -   The resources that you may consider bringing all the way back to Earth are such elements as the platinum group metals, and these are elements that during the formation of the Earth actually sunk down to the core, and are relatively depleted on our planet.  There are other resources though in addition to those that are equally exciting.  Things like the iron, nickel, and cobalt that can be used for the manufacturing of space structures and then a very important resource to us all in space is water.  We have enough water here on the planet and we would never bring water back to supply Earth from space, but not having to transport that water out into space is very valuable, and to be able to use the material, it’s already out there in space is really the great opportunity that’s awaiting us.

Chris -   How much have you had to raise to get your venture going in the first place?

Chris L. -   Our company has been around for a few years.  We just announced ourselves last spring and in starting any venture as audacious as asteroid mining, you certainly require a lot of money and some visionary individuals who are willing to take that first step.  So, we’ve been very fortunate to get gentlemen like Erich Schmidt, the Executive Chairman and Larry Page, the CEO of Google, as well as other Americans like Russ Perot and two-time Space Live participant Charles Simonyi.  They’ve given us a great start down this path of building really a new industry in the next phase of space exploration.

Chris -   Rick, what evidence is there that this is a viable business Asteroid 4 Vesta from Dawn on July 17, 2011. The image was taken from a distance of 9,500 miles (15,000 km) away from Vesta.proposition for both deep space industries – your company and also for Chris Lewicki, I guess you're competitors?

Rick -   Well, let’s put it this way.  As Chris was mentioning, the large early market for us is going to be what we do with these resources in space.

Say if your listeners would walk outside of their homes and grab a pound or a kilo of let’s say dirt, if that were delivered in space right now, that would be in the range of $10,000 for that to be carried into space.  And that’s just dirt.  

So pretty much anything that you can provide up there, any resources or materials that we can create in space are going to be valuable.  On Earth, we measure ore in few thousand dollars per tons of ore.  In space, the value of it goes up incredibly and once we being to provide those resources in space, and begin to learn how to refine and process them, then we can begin to build different sorts of structures, we can support missions, let’s say, the space agencies want to go to Mars, we can be their oasis, we can be provide hardware using some of the manufacturing processes.

So, those are wide range and then there’ll be the kinds of activities that begin to bring back to the Earth, whether it is shooting down platinum, etc.  We’re not so focused on that, but basically, at the core of it, we have to admit that Chris and their founders, and our founders are true believers that this is the next frontier.  And we’ve got to figure out a way to make it pay or nobody stays.  You know, no bucks, no Buck Rogers.  So, we’re out there working that.

Chris -   Well, let’s talk practicalities for a second.  So Chris, where are you going to get these asteroids from?

Chris L. -   Well again, as Simon described, we have almost 10,000 objects that have been discovered to-date, many of them in just the last 15 years that are orbiting the Sun in relatively close proximity to Earth.  In many cases, these near-Earth asteroids are even more accessible and easier to travel to than it is to land in the surface of the Moon.  

Actually, about 15% of them or almost 1500 objects are relatively easy journey away from what we have learned about robotically exploring space in the past 50 years.  So, what is necessary in the next few years is to really identify those worthy candidates that have the appropriate resources on them, that have the appropriate orbits and the schedule to get to and from them, and to begin and continue to develop the technology and the business environment to develop and produce these resources to a market.

Chris -   And Rick, how are you actually going to get to these objects and then once you get there, get stuff off of them, and then what are you going to do with it?

Rick -   The two companies of course have different approaches.  In our scenario, we’re launching small prospecting probes called Fireflies about the size of three laptops, and they’ll do flybys and begin to help us characterise or learn what the different types of asteroids are made of so we could compare that with observations made here in the Earth or using Hubble or whatever.  Then we will send out what we call Dragonflies which will bring back a few kilograms so that we can begin learning how to utilise the materials and probably, sell a little of that to scientists.  Once we get to that point then we get into what we call harvesters which are using different source of thrusters, ion or plasma thrusters.  Fairly small relative to the size of the asteroid, but it doesn’t take much.  If you push a little bit over a long period of time, you can move something very large a long distance.  

As Chris was saying, once we’re in space, we can do a lot that you can't do if you have to go down into what we call gravity wells which is on the Moon and Mars.  Once we’re out there, if we have the time and the patience, we can move very large things in a very long way.  So for example, we might move an asteroid into a little orbit and there, if anything goes wrong, it falls harmlessly on the moon.  So, it’s not a safety issue and then we can begin extracting the actual industrial process.

Chris -   It’s reassuring to think that you’ve thought about what might happen if you accidentally create a giant traffic jam or a collision in space.  Chris, is there not a good reason to say, take the refinery to the asteroid and then bring back just the stuff you want?

Chris L. -   Well certainly, there are a variety of options there we can have.  We too, like Rick had mentioned, are in the prospecting phase of sending out the geologists, so to speak to these things to identify the resources and then through a step-wise process, continuing to educate what it will take to acquire the resources, what the resources exactly are, and then as you said, decide whether the next most appropriate action is to bring some of that resource back to the Earth’s proximity where you might have more infrastructure available to help develop it, or in other cases, do some local refining of the resource, at the asteroid and then just ship back to the point of use, whether that’s a fuel depot in Earth orbit, or developing space station, or maybe even destinations in the future out to Mars and elsewhere that you would just send really something that is closer to a finished good or a raw material.

Chris -   And just to finish off, what is the timescale on this?  I mean, Rick, when are you aiming to actually have things airborne and samples coming back?

Rick -   Our goal as a company is to try and get something popping up around 2015, the actual Fireflies and part of that is to demonstrate our capability, to demonstrate the technology, to start testing them, and seeing how operable they are.  The actual large scale mining activities, I don’t know exactly Chris’s company schedule, but I don’t see that happening until 2020 and beyond the serious mining sorts of activities.  But keep in mind, even here on Earth, if somebody is pondering a large scale project, you know, be it a major dam or mining, or other large scale project, timescales of 10 years or more are quite common.  So, it’s not that out of the range.

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