The local resources of space will enable economic growth in the same way new resource frontiers have been explored and developed here on Earth.
Near-Earth asteroids are much closer energetically to Earth, than even our own moon, making them the perfect targets for our asteroid prospecting and minings missions. Read more here about “How we choose our near-Earth asteroid targets” in our in-depth blog post.
Asteroids are primordial material left over from the formation of the Solar System. They are scattered throughout it: some pass close to the Sun, and others are found out beyond the orbit of Neptune. A vast majority have been collected by Jupiter’s gravity into a belt between it and Mars – an area known as the Main Belt. As it turns out, astronomers have been discovering thousands of asteroids that do not belong to the Main Belt, but instead pass near Earth’s orbit – more than 11,000 to date, with over a thousand more discovered every year.
Outside of low Earth orbit, many near Earth asteroids are the most accessible destination in the Universe. Many also contain enormous quantities of accessible resources. We have learned a great deal about asteroids over the past few decades from the 50,000 meteorite samples that have been analyzed in laboratories, the modern investments in telescopic study, and from successful government space missions to 433 Eros, 25143 Itokawa, 4 Vesta, and other asteroids. You can learn more about “How we know so much about asteroids” in this blog post.
There are three general types of asteroids in our Solar System. Planetary Resources is targeting asteroid types that are rich in water (C-type), or rich in precious metals (X-type) as they offer the most value and will positively affect growth of the space economy. Review our list of interesting astroid targets in the Solar System.
Photo Credit: Laurence Garvie, Center for Meteorite Studies, ASU
Photo credit: Laurence Garvie, Center for Meteorite Studies, ASU
Photo credit: Laurence Garvie, Center for Meteorite Studies, ASU
Asteroid mining activities must be preceded by the development of asteroid prospecting capabilities. The ideal prospector craft is capable of rendezvousing with an asteroid, surveying the surface for weeks at a time, and then landing or impacting to conduct in-situ measurements. NASA and the Japanese Space Agency had demonstrated these capabilities, but required multi-hundred-million-dollar budgets and time frames of a decade to do so. Planetary Resources is standing on their shoulders to perform commercial prospecting at costs that are more than an order of magnitude lower.
Our primary objective during the prospecting phase is to analyze the asteroids composition and characteristics.
We are doing this with our advanced Ceres sensors on board the Arkyd spacecraft that gather data of our asteroid targets in non-visible spectrums.
This gives us valuable data about the composition that allows us to confirm the targets value beyond the data we have collected from Earth based observation.
Software programmers release versions and beta-test. Space hardware doesn’t need to be any different. With the small size, and low cost of our spacecraft hardware, Planetary Resources is using space as our test bed. Starting in low-Earth orbit, we are deploying a series of increasingly more capable spacecraft, allowing for research and development, iteration and testing.
Our first spacecraft in the series of technology demonstrators for prospecting and other exciting technologies are the Arkyd 3 and Arkyd 6.
Arkyd 3, On Orbit Since July 2015
Arkyd 3 (A3) deployed into low-Earth orbit in July of 2015 and successfully completed its mission to test our core prospecting capabilities.
Arkyd 6, Launches in Spring 2016
Arkyd 6 (A6) is currently being developed at our headquarters in Redmond, WA. and will launch in the Spring 2016 to test increased capabilities of our Prospecting and Earth Observation technologies.
By augmenting the Arkyd 200 capabilities with more propulsive power, Planetary Resources can deploy the Arkyd 300 Rendezvous Prospector swarm missions to our target asteroids. Orbiting the asteroids, the Arkyd 300 will collect data on the asteroid’s shape, rotation, density, and surface composition – giving it the ability to characterize an asteroid’s value.
Through the use of multiple Arkyd 300 spacecraft per mission, Planetary Resources will distribute mission risk across several units, and allow for broad based functionality within the cluster of spacecraft.
The Arkyd 300 series spacecraft also demonstrate low-cost interplanetary capability, which is of interest to potential customers such as NASA, scientific agencies or other private exploratory organizations.
In 2015, President Obama signed a historic piece of legislation into law that recognizes the right of U.S. citizens to own asteroid resources they obtain and encourages the commercial exploration and utilization of resources from asteroids.
The U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (H.R. 2262) is a key milestone in our roadmap to access asteroid resources for commercial use in space.
To learn more about this law, and read the full text of H.R 2262, click here for our full press release: “President Obama Signs Bill Recognizing Asteroid Resource Property Rights into Law”.
Every frontier expansion and gold rush in history relied on a local source of energy and a transportation backbone. Space will be no different. Before mining precious metals, Planetary Resources intends to produce fuel in space from carbonaceous chondrites rich in water that can be broken down into highly efficient LOX/H2 rocket fuel. Rocket Fuel is an attractive early resource for several reasons:
The actual method used for extracting and refining rocket fuels from asteroids will depend on the specific composition of the target asteroid and will require an up-close investigation with Planetary Resources’ Arkyd prospectors. However, the mining equipment required may be more simple than you imagine. In some cases, much of the equipment we need to mine on Earth (drills, excavators, concentrators) may not be required. Even surface contact with the asteroid may not be necessary due to the unique environment of space. One possible concept for extracting water from an asteroid may be as follows:
Many of the engineering systems required for such a process have already been demonstrated in space. But before they can be deployed to mine asteroids, we must first learn which asteroids are rich in water and how that water is locked within the asteroid. Without advances in this knowledge, the engineering and deployment of water-harvesting spacecraft would be excessively risky.
Some of Earth’s richest ore deposits such as Canada’s Sudbury Basin can trace their origins to ancient asteroid impacts. By going to the source, Planetary Resources can harvest platinum group metals in much higher concentrations than even the richest Earth mines on Earth. A single platinum-rich 500 meter wide asteroid contains about 174 times the yearly world output of platinum, and 1.5 times the known world-reserves of platinum group metals (ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium, and platinum). This amount is enough to fill a basketball court to four times the height of the rim. By contrast, all of the platinum group metals mined to date in history would not reach waist-high on that same basketball court.
While platinum group metals are enriched in asteroids to often hundreds of times that of the richest mines on Earth, they still represent just a small fraction of the total mass of an asteroid. Extraction processes could be chemically or energy intensive, requiring abundant solar energy, fuel, working fluids, and machinery. An abundant, cheap, local source of fuel and working fluids are a natural building block towards developing space metal mining capabilities and then delivering those resources back to Earth.