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Historic Asteroid Mining To Return Space Resources To Global Economy

This false color image of the asteroid Eros illustrates the apparent density of the regulth on the surface. Red is the most dense material, while blue is less so and green pertains to uniform distribution of material. Such information derived from NEAR spacecraft images before it landed on the asteroid can provide compositional clues. Photo Credit: NASA

In an historic commercial venture to bring resources in space within humanity’s economic sphere, Space Resources Inc. plans by 2014 to launch a space telescope to search for near Earth asteroids, then by about 2022 begin mining selected asteroids robotically for precious metals and water.

The company will use a variety of commercial space launchers to propel their “Arkyd” spacecraft into Earth orbit and beyond. Arkyd is a Greek word meaning “leap forward”.

Whenever possible, Arkyd spacecraft will ride-share with larger spacecraft such as satcom missions into geosynchronous transfer orbits.

In an unrelated effort by 2025 NASA hopes to land Orion astronauts on an asteroid to fulfill President Barack Obama’s goal of moving manned spaceflight beyond the Moon to asteroids and then onto Mars.

Twin docked Orion spacecraft, piloted by a single crew forms a robust ship for several week trip on NASA’s first manned mission to an asteroid to be launched by an SLS booster in about 2025. Photo Credit: NASA/Lockheed Martin

If Space Resources is successful it could spawn a whole new industrial revolution—this one based on highly advanced robotics and rocketry to reach, mine, and return  tens of billions of dollars worth of critical rare metals like those increasingly scarce on Earth.

Mining equipment companies already see the importance of this new space resources market.

According to a web opinion piece posted  by the C. Marshall Fabrication Machinery  Co. Simi Valley Calif.,  “A long, long time ago, in a galaxy we are all familiar with, asteroids rained all the gold, cobalt, iron, manganese, nickel, osmium, molybdenum, palladium, rhenium, rhodium, ruthenium and tungsten that we will ever mine from this planet.

Asteriod Itokawa has computer graphics added for Japanese Hayabusa spacecraft image and touchdown targeting . This illustrates some of the tools Planetary Resources will use when preparing to position robotic hardware on an asteroid for exploration or mining. Photo Credit: ISAS/JAXA

“Based on known earthly reserves and growing rates of consumption in developing countries, it has been speculated that metal reserves essential for modern industry, including antimony, zinc, tin, silver, indium, gold and copper, could be depleted from Earth within the next 50-60 years, “ the company said.

Planetary Resources Inc. hopes to find then mine asteroids that can restore those critical materials to new levels and discover others that would be especially important to high speed chips and alloys.  Just a small asteroid with such metals would be worth tens of billions of dollars

But the mining of water from Carbonaceous Chondrite asteroids, stony chunks of the Solar Nebula that gave birth to the Solar System, will likely be the first priority, according to team members. Water, which is enormously expensive to launch into space is extremely valuable if found already in space because it can satisfy human needs and break down into hydrogen and oxygen for use as rocket propellant .

If mined asteroid water could become an intersecting and enabling point between the robotic mining operation and deep space human flight, the relationship could propel new human exploration not only to Mars but possibly also Venus and the moons of Jupiter 500 million mi. from Earth.

Japanese Hayabusa Near Infrared camera images of asteroid Hayabusa show its mineral distributions to indicate that this is a Chondrite asteroid. Similar asteroid mineral characterization will be necessary by Planetary Resources Inc. Photo Credit: ISAS/JAXA

Space Resources has determined that one Carbonaceous Chondrite asteroid  just 150 ft. in diameter would likely be made up of 20% ice—enough to produce more liquid oxygen and liquid oxygen used as propellant in the entire history of the space shuttle program.

This could possibly make propellant depots in space possible, something NASA has avoided because it could negate its Space Launch System (SLS)  plans. But many NASA engineers like the propellant depot idea anyway, perhaps even more with Planetary Resources on the scene.

What the company hopes to initiate is a whole new American Industry, just like key American Industries of the past that built the steel mills, led to transportation breakthroughs like the auto and airplane and electrification of the country, linked by lines of communication along thousands of miles of paved roads and eventually a cyber revolution.

“This will be an ‘American Story’,“ said Ross Perot Jr. a participant in the project and the son of  the Texas billionaire and former presidential candidate H. Ross Perot.

Lead billionaire investors include Larry Page, Goggle’s chief executive; Eric Schmidt, the company’s executive chairman, along with ocean explorer James Cameron.

“The pursuit of resources drove the discovery of America and opened the West. The same drivers still hold true for opening the space frontier. Expanding the resource base for humanity is important for our future,” said Schmidt.

Other Investors or advisers include former Microsoft Corp. executive Charles Simonyi, who has made two Soyuz trips into space; Ram Shriram, Google director and venture capitalist.

Former NASA Mars mission manager Chris Lewicki is the company’s president and chief engineer.

He is one of a number of NASA planetary mission engineers to join the project.  He said the venture already has hired about 24 engineers and is looking to hire more, one reason the project has finally gone public.

The company itself was actually started nearly three years ago but then known as Arkyd Astronautics. The company has officially changed its name to Planetary Resources, Inc., but the Arkyd name lives on in its spacecraft line.

Lewicki said the extremely low cost spacecraft built by the company will be designed to operate as teams or even swarms.  Spacecraft in a swarm would have separate sensor capabilities that when combined will provide a compete asteroid picture.  But several of each type would be launched in a swarm with the managers’ knowledge several would likely fail, but enough would survive to provide comprehensive data.

The initial asteroid spacecraft will be:

Arkyd Series 100 Leo Space Telescope should provide spectacular views of both Earth and deep space, including the rich, virtually unexplored areas between Earth and the Sun. Photo Credit: Planetary Resources Inc.

–Arkyd “Leo” Series 100 Space Telescope: Leo will be the first private space telescope and a stepping-stone to near-Earth asteroids, says the company.  The space telescope, utilized in low Earth orbit, represents the next milestone on the company’s technology development roadmap.

Planetary Resources, is committed to a disciplined approach of fielding systems simple enough to be designed, manufactured, tested and integrated by a small team, yet robust enough to get the job done. Leo will demonstrate that capability in Earth orbit.

The company wants to either sell such telescopes or lease services on their own.

It should provide the company with the core spacecraft technologies necessary for asteroid prospecting. Leo contains the critical structures, avionics, attitude determination and control, and instrumentation that enable low-cost asteroid exploration, says Planetary Resources.

Central to its configuration and functionality is a precision imaging system. With arc-second resolution, the Leo spacecraft camera will provide detailed celestial and Earth observations where you want them, and when you want them. Leo is capable of surveying for near-Earth asteroids during one orbit, then be retasked for rain forest observation on the next.

Giant can-like spacecraft approaches to cover end of asteroid where it will extract water from the object. The mining of space based water is the project's highest priority. Photo Credit: Planetary Resources Inc.:

–Arkyd Series 200 Interceptor:  The  second spacecraft design (not pictured) will add propulsion and  greater instrumentation to the Leo Space Telescope to enable an Earth-crossing asteroid Interceptor mission. Several undiscovered asteroids are seen for the first time as they routinely cross through Earth’s neighborhood. By hitching a ride with a launched satellite headed for a geostationary orbit, Interceptor will be well positioned to fly-by and collect data on these new targets of opportunity.

Two or more Interceptors can work together as a team to potentially identify, track and fly-by the asteroids that travel between the Earth and Moon. The closest encounters may result in a planned spacecraft “intercept,” providing the highest-resolution data, similar to how government efforts first explored the Moon with the Ranger missions (1961-65) and later with the Deep Impact mission at Comet 9P/Tempel (2005).

These Interceptor missions will allow Planetary Resources to quickly acquire data on several near-Earth asteroids.

Series 300 spacecraft will test deep space laser communications for NASA as well as using multiple spacecraft to remotely sense asteroids. Photo Credit: Planetary Resources Inc.

—Arkyd Series 300 Rendezvous Prospector:  This spacecraft would operate in swarms to characterize an asteroid’s value and prepare for mining operations. By augmenting the Interceptor spacecraft with deep space laser communication capability, Planetary Resources can launch the Rendezvous Prospector mission to a more distant asteroid, much further away from Earth. Orbiting the asteroid, the Rendezvous Prospector will collect data on the asteroid’s shape, rotation, density, and surface and sub-surface composition.

Through the use of multiple Rendezvous Prospector spacecraft, Planetary Resources will distribute mission risk across several units and allow for broad based functionality within the cluster of spacecraft.  NASA has awarded the company a contract to develop and evaluate with NASA the deep space laser communications hardware.

Rendezvous Prospector also results in the creation and demonstration of a low-cost interplanetary spacecraft capability, of interest to potential customers such as NASA, scientific agencies, or other private exploratory organizations.

Multiple advanced robotic spacecraft are shown working a grid layout as a group shaving and processing the surface regolith from a small near Earth Asteroid. Photo Credit: Planetary Resources Inc.

—Asteroid Mining Spacecraft: Recovery and processing of materials in a microgravity environment will occur through significant research and development. Planetary Resources will lead the creation of critical in-situ extraction and processing technologies to provide access to both asteroidal water and metals. When combined with our low-cost deep space explorers, this represents an enabling capability for the sustainable development of space.

According to the company, once it is able to access, process, and utilize asteroid water resources, mining metals becomes more feasible.  Some near-Earth asteroids contain platinum group metals in much higher concentrations than the richest Earth mines.

In space, 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.

The C. Marshall Fabrication Machinery Co. that has a chance of making such mining equipment stated some asteroid market values in a different way.

“At the rate we’re going, in a few years, you will no longer be able to look down for metals: you’ll have to look up.,” the company says on its website. “Space exploration is going to expand fiercely and rapidly because there is going to be an exceedingly practical reason for it that is far more interesting to most of us than pure science: namely, competition, and huge amounts of potential profits.

Soon, we will be going to go back to the source for metal resources – and that will take us into outer space, into the fantastically interesting subject of asteroid mining.

“At late 1990s prices, a small metallic asteroid no wider than 1 mile across was calculated to contain more than $20 trillion worth of industrial and precious metals– so at today’s prices, it would be even significantly more than that.

Eros tumble rate enabled NEAR spacecraft to image the asteroid from different angles. Those views have been coloured to represent the "gravity slope" at different points on the surface. Gravity slope is a property that results from Eros' shape, density and spin. Photo Credit: NASA Science Photo Library

As another point of comparison, a 1 km-wide asteroid would probably contain more than 2 billion metric tons of iron-nickel ore, which would be more than twice the global annual production of iron ore in the mid 2000s.  That doesn’t even include whatever precious metals it would also contain.,” the company said.

Near-Earth asteroids are generally defined as that population of asteroids which spends at least part of each orbit between 0.983 and 1.3 Astronomical Units from the Sun. These asteroids were previously part of the Main Belt population or were once active comets.

In 1960, only 20 near-Earth asteroids were known, growing to 134 by the year 1990. Today, nearly 9,000 near-Earth asteroids are known to exist, and the number increases daily.

Scientists believe the number may actually exceed one million. Of the asteroids currently observed, 981 of these objects are larger than one kilometer in diameter. The majority of the remaining known near-Earth asteroids are believed to be between 100 m and 1 km. in diameter, with those smaller than 100 meters wide numbering slightly more than 2,800.

Near-Earth asteroids are categorized into three groups based on their distances from the Sun: the Atens, Apollos, and Amors. Some near-Earth asteroids spend nearly all of their time outside Earth’s orbit, while other objects, known as Earth-crossers, have orbits that intersect Earth’s orbit.

Only two near-Earth asteroids have been visited by robotic spacecraft: Eros by NASA’s NEAR mission, and Itokawa by Japan’s Hayabusa mission. NASA is currently working on the OSIRIS-REx mission to visit a carbonaceous asteroid in 2019. The telescopic capabilities for asteroid observation are also improving. One example is the Large Scale Synoptic Telescope (depicted below)  that recently received a $20 million gift from Planetary Resources investor Charles Simonyi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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