Robots, Platinum, and Tiny Space Telescopes: The Pitch for Mining Asteroids
By Ross Andersen
A company's plan to harvest off-world minerals is wild and exciting, but could its real promise lie in helping space science regain its footing, i.e. funding?
A lot has been written about the business prospects of Planetary Resources, Inc., the billionaire-backed space venture that recently announced its intention to mine platinum, and other metals, from near-earth asteroids. The firm claims that a single successful mining mission could bring it tens of trillions of dollars in revenue, and could potentially supply the raw materials for generations of computing devices.
These are ambitious goals, but not everyone is convinced that Planetary Resources can muster the technology or the staying power to reach them. The firm's critics have pointed out that flooding the market with asteroid-sized quantities of platinum, which currently sells for over $1,500 an ounce, could reduce its price considerably, endangering the business model of the entire enterprise. But even if Planetary Resources falls flat on its face, a serious (and seriously funded) attempt at asteroid mining could have interesting collateral effects---it could, for instance, entirely remake the way that we do science in space.
Back in April, when Planetary Resources first went public with its plan, it sent out a press release highlighting the big names attached to the project. Scanning through the list of tech luminaries and entrepreneurs---Larry Page! Charles Simonyi! James Cameron!---I noticed that Sara Seager, a Professor of Planetary Science at MIT, had signed on with the firm as a science advisor. I know Seager a bit, having previously interviewed her about her groundbreaking research into exoplanets, planets that orbit other stars. Knowing that exoplanets were a singular focus for Seager, I wondered what enticed her to sign on with an asteroid mining outfit.
It turns out that the technology and expertise you need to observe distant exoplanets overlaps, to some extent, with the tools and know-how you need to observe asteroids. But more than that, Seager was drawn to the idea of building a sustainable business in space, a business that could lay the groundwork for a new leap forward in space science. The notion that space exploration could benefit from the creative force of private industry has been around for decades, but it is newly resonant in our era of slashed budgets at NASA. Space scientists like Seager are starting to look beyond bureaucratically restrained, risk-averse missions funded strictly by the government.
"The bottom line is that NASA is not working the best that it could," Seager told me. "In order for people like me to succeed with my own research goals, the commercial space industry needs to be able to succeed independently of government contracts." Private firms might turn out to be nimble explorers of space, unencumbered by the too-big-to-fail issues that afflict NASA and its overseas equivalents. But first they have to figure out a way to turn a consistent profit. What follows is my conversation with Seager about what asteroid mining might do for commercial space exploration, and what that could mean for the future of space science.
How long have you been involved with this project and what made you sign on? What got you excited about it?
Seager: I've been involved with Planetary Resources for about a year. My involvement is on the advisory board, and in addition, I am specifically involved in developing the technology for one of Planetary Resources business interests, which includes a line of small space telescopes. Some of these small space telescopes will observe asteroids, others will feature new communication capabilities. We have some relevant technology developed for detecting exoplanets around distant stars. So, I share common interests with Planetary Resources in a specific space technology subsector; that's how I first got involved.
But what got me excited about this project was the tie in to the commercial space industry, because I want to help them find a way to have a sustainable imprint in space. The bottom line is that NASA is not working the best that it could for space science right now, and so in order for people like me to succeed with my own research goals, the commercial space industry needs to be able to succeed independently of government contracts. That is my main interest in working with Planetary Resources.
For example, most journalists have focused on the asteroid-mining aspect of what Planetary Resources is trying to do, but that's only the long-term goal. The short-term goal is to have a sustainable business in space. If you look at the Planetary Resources Arkyd Series of spacecraft---the company was called Arkyd before they changed the name to Planetary Resources---you'll se that it wants to first build small space telescopes for private use. That would mean that anyone could have a space telescope on the order of one to ten million dollars. Now that may seem like a lot of money for you personally because you probably don't have that kind of money sitting around, but a space telescope for purchase could be a really useful product for people who want to do astronomy or space science at the level of wealthy individuals or even universities. It's exciting to think that soon there could be a small space telescopes available for a price that is relatively reasonable. That could be a big deal.
Why haven't small space telescopes been used in this way before if they're so cheap to build and deploy?
Seager: That's a good question. I don't think anyone has mass marketed small space telescopes before because they haven't really identified a market for them. The astronomy community has typically gone for custom telescope development based on a specific science goal. For example, if you just want a program where you build space telescopes that are big enough to go look for asteroids, you could have done that, but there are other ways to find asteroids, like ground-based surveys using wide-field telescopes, that astronomers decided where more efficient. But like any business, Planetary Resources has multiple reasons for creating something. Planetary Resources can build telescopes that they can sell, and they can build the same telescopes to use themselves for their own asteroid detection and characterization goals. At the same time, they can build up their capability to develop and launch space missions. Planetary Resources has more than one motivation, and that might not be true of your typical astronomer.
It was really interesting to read about how Planetary Resources hopes to launch these telescopes. I'm used to thinking of a space telescope launch as a pretty big production, but here you just hitch a ride to space on one of these small satellites.
Seager: That's because Planetary Resources has connections with other space companies that happen to build launch vehicles. That's where the business world is very different. Here at MIT, I can't just call up my pal at SpaceX and say, "can you help me with my business by helping me with free or reduced cost launches?" That just doesn't work for me right now. Even if Planetary Resources ends up paying for launch costs, they can probably get what they want, whereas, right now launch costs are prohibitive for the general public or general academia. If you're part and parcel of the commercial space flight world, it appears you can get a lot of interesting things done. I think that in academia we could learn a lot from the business world.
Why aren't Lockheed and Northrop and those guys at the forefront of this stuff? It seems like if anyone were going to be in a position to leverage those kinds of connections it would be the aerospace giants, no?
Seager: Well, remember that NASA also has a mission to go to an asteroid. NASA's OSIRIS-REx is going to launch in 2016. It'll take a few years to get to the near Earth asteroid 1999 RQ36, after which the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will orbit the asteroid for a number of months. After spending 3 weeks in a close orbit identifying a suitable sample site, the spacecraft will venture closer and closer to the asteroid, then reach down and scoop up 2 ounces of material and bring it back to Earth a few years later (by the year 2023). Lockheed Martin plays a role on OSIRIS-REx. At MIT and Harvard we won a student competition to build an instrument called REXIS, which stands for Regolith X-ray Imaging Spectrometer. So NASA and contractors actually do know how to go to an asteroid, but the question to ask is "What's the difference between the large space companies and the small more entrepreneurial private space companies?" That could be worthy of a whole long article unto itself.
Remember, America is the only country where the private human space flight and related entrepreneurial commercial space flight industry is developing. In the private spaceflight world there are focused goals with profit and new capability as priorities. At NASA the motivation for space missions is different. In addition to big and general science goals, the main goal appears to be not to fail. In this sort of culture the bigger space companies and academia are taught that it, the mission, has to work.
Freeman Dyson once told me that in the old days, the public was used to space mission failure. And that's why two of each were built in the past: Pioneer 1, Pioneer 2; Voyager 1, Voyager 2, Viking Lander 1, Viking Lander 2, etc.. The space science missions are government-sponsored so perhaps the large space companies don't have to aim for a long-term investment for a commercially sustainable business. They have to embed in a culture that avoids failure and accepts the concomitant high cost and bureaucracy. But at small space companies, things can fail. Risk is part of developing new technology. Also, for the big space companies the whole competition is just getting the government contract. The competition is not about making something awesomely cool, first to market, and making a ton of money out of it. So in my opinion, the motivation factor and the risk aversion factor make it basically impossible for these larger companies to shift gears. The question that is on the minds of a lot of people is "Can America continue to be competitive in space with the current paradigm?" And the answer is no. That is the reason we have seen the rise of the commercial space flight world---they're trying to start a new paradigm for spaceflight with a sustainable business that doesn't just rely on government contracts.
Speaking of building a sustainable business in space, it seems like space tourism---as an idea or a business plan---has been around for a while now. Is that sustainable?
Seager: I think there is a general consensus that space tourism will not be a sustainable business in space because for the market to work it requires a lot of extremely wealthy people. But we are starting to see space tourism evolve. Virgin Galactic wants to do suborbital flights (3-4 minutes of zero gravity) and people have already paid up to $200,000 to reserve their slots. And, Virgin Galactic believes they can reduce the cost by about a factor of 2. With those numbers, they might have a sustainable business with $100,000 per flight as the very best case scenario. Other private human spaceflight companies are also working toward suborbital flights.
What makes asteroids such attractive targets for mineral extraction? Is there a subset of particularly attractive mineral-rich asteroids?
Seager: Well there are limits to mineral extraction on planets like Earth, because a lot of the heavy elements have sunk deep inside in a process called planetary differentiation that happened during the planet's early, hot existence. An asteroid doesn't have that problem because it either started out as a fragment of something bigger or is a leftover building block of a planet that never fully formed. And so the heavier metals in asteroids didn't sink out of reach. Asteroids are also more accessible than bodies like the Moon and Mars because they have very low gravity, so landing on and taking off with material is easier.
What would be the perfect target asteroid in terms of mineral content, size, orbit---that sort of thing?
Seager: Well there are two ways to mine an asteroid. One is robotic: travel to an asteroid, land on it, mine what you need, and bring the material back to Earth. Mining at the asteroid is essential, because bringing back raw asteroid material would involve too much mass and would be too costly. That's one way. Another way that people are talking about is capturing an asteroid, literally capturing it and bringing it closer to Earth--- so that people could go back and forth to the asteroid, just like they go back and forth to the International
Space Station. Only for safety reasons people are talking about a high lunar orbit for the asteroid, not an Earth orbit, so in the case of any crash the asteroid would hit the moon and not Earth.
As far as mineral composition, the goal is to mine for the highly valuable platinum metals so you're going to want a metal-rich asteroid. Asteroids are categorized by telescope observations of their surfaces tied with lab-based studies of meterorites that have fallen to Earth. One of the other things that Planetary Resources and others have talked about is mining asteroids that are water rich. You could go and extract the water and convert that water to fuel, like in hydrogen fuel cells or you could use the water as life support for manned missions in the future.
As far as the perfect size, there was a whole study on asteroid retrieval done by the Keck Institute for Space Studies. It turns out that if you're going to go and get an asteroid, you don't want the asteroid to be too big, because if you mess up the asteroid could hit Earth and that could have disastrous consequences. Also, transporting a large asteroid is harder than transporting a smaller asteroid. So the study tried to find the sweet spot based on the size of the asteroid, small enough to transport but large (and massive) enough so that the fraction of metal and other resources for extraction is worthwhile. The study favors asteroids that are 7 meters in diameter, which corresponds to a mass in the range of 300,000-700,000 kilograms. 7 meters doesn't seem that big, but I think it would be very cool to bring something of that size back.
I've read that intelligent robots might do the bulk of the on-site mining on these asteroids. Does that assume radical advances in artificial intelligence or are we reasonably close to developing efficient robot miners?
Seager: One thing that I'll say is that significant research and development is still needed to figure out the best way to mine an asteroid. But, remember people are starting to mine at the very bottom of the ocean and it's not people who are down there doing the mining. That's one of the reasons that the time is right for this discussion, the fact that there is robotic mining at the bottom of the ocean going on right now. We know how to get to an asteroid, we know how to orbit an asteroid, we know how to scoop surface material up off an asteroid, and we know how to land on another solar system body. All the ingredients are there, now someone just has to put them all together and figure out how to mine in a low gravity environment.
This is another difference between the private sector and NASA. As a scientific researcher, you could never propose for an ambitious NASA space mission for which you didn't have every single last detail worked out and all the risks assessed. In the business world it's different. You can have a plan to get from A to B, but not all the details worked out, so long as you aren't going to break the laws of physics and the path for the high-risk technology research and development is legitimate.
The next Mars rover, Curiosity, is a great example. The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover is a big mission costing well over 2 billion dollars, and the giant rover has 10 different scientific instruments and an incredibly complicated landing system. The question is why did MSL have to be so complicated? The reason is because it's a general science mission needing a lot of different instruments--and that created a very heavy rover. The MSL is so heavy it can't just have a parachute and some air bags and land. So, that's the opposite of the way that Planetary Resources and other people working in space science are headed, which is to do something small and highly specialized and not something big and multi-purpose. Don't get me wrong. NASA is and will continue to do a great job for big, complicated space science missions. But there is a whole new set of opportunities out there that don't fit under the NASA rubric.
There's been a lot of talk about Planetary Resources setting up fuel depots around the earth, the moon and eventually the entire solar system. Would those be in place to support future mining missions, or are they being set up in anticipation of a new market in space flight logistics? Are these going to be the first service stations for manned missions to Mars and beyond?
Well, one thing you should note is that all the people involved in Planetary Resources, myself included, want to see space open up for more robotic and even human travel. So, the hope is that in addition to mining asteroids, we open up a new frontier in space. It would be great to have a station out in space where one could refuel because mass equals cost, and getting large amounts of material off of earth is really, really hard to do.
The engineering behind mineral extraction here on Earth is some of the most sophisticated on the planet. Is it your hope that a mission like this will have serious innovative spill over effects on space exploration, beyond the fuel depots?
Seager: I'm really enthusiastic about further developing the smaller and cheaper way of doing things, because when Planetary Resources figures out how to sell and launch small space telescopes, how to get to asteroids quickly and investigate them and characterize them, that could be a huge boon for space exploration. If you think about the history of space exploration, the technology from the Apollo missions opened up the possibility of exploring other planets---it revolutionized planetary science. One of my first memories is the Voyager Launch. I was about 6-7 years old. You know how kids like to watch cartoons in the morning? That morning there were no cartoons. Every single TV channel had the same thing on---the launch over and over and over again. I didn't know why it was happening at the time, but that image stuck with me. Something like Voyager wouldn't have been possible without the extraordinary engineering effort that was Apollo. Hopefully Planetary Resources will usher in a similar change for planetary science.
Take methane on Mars for example. Methane gas detection on Mars is still somewhat controversial, but three different observations have shown evidence for it, and this is exciting because methane gas shouldn't be on Mars unless Mars has unexpected geological activity or if there is subsurface life on Mars. So what should we be doing? If we had a way to get to Mars really fast and to get to a lot of different spots on the planet---I'm not talking about human exploration but something that's deployable, small things and a lot of them---we could actually start figuring out the source of methane rather quickly. But that's not how it works, right? Instead, Curiosity (MSL) has to go and that required a huge budget and a very long lead time. You could imagine a scenario where Planetary Resources opens up a new paradigm of building many things that are smaller, and that could be really truly awesome.
You mentioned to me that not all of your colleagues in academia were thrilled to see that you'd signed on with this project.
Seager: It's interesting to think about the different reactions people have had to the Planetary Resources announcement. I mean I read the news, I heard the random public talk about it. I can tell you that pretty much every single young person I knew, especially here at MIT, was extremely excited and came up to me and asked me about it and wanted to know if they could get a job at Planetary Resources and so forth. But that was not the response I got from the older academic community; there was actually quite a negative reaction there. I didn't talk to a lot of people about this, but a few who did contact me were actually not happy about it. Some people told me that they thought any academic associated with Planetary Resources was making a big mistake. I got a comment like that actually from a person that I actually have huge respect for, and I'm getting the impression the negativity is pretty serious and pretty widespread. I think it's a lack of understanding of the business world; in academia we don't operate with a business sense. We have a great idea, we keep it close to our chest, and we work really hard on it and when it's done we publish it and other people follow. In the business world there's a completely different strategy that is needed. As space scientists we have all grown up with the NASA culture where if you're going to have success in getting funding, you're going to have to be accountable at every last level for the money. And rightly so, because taxpayers are paying for it and it's not my own money, or my billionaire friends that are backing the money. I can't just blow money risking it and that means being much more careful.
I guess I could see a person from academia saying "hey, this is a little fast and loose and wild west for me personally," but why should they think that's it's not good for any academic to be involved? Is there some generalized aversion to lending the gravitas of big science to entrepreneur types?
Seager: I keep asking myself why academics have had such a negative reaction to Planetary Resources. I do think the difference in reactions between the students and the more senior, more established people in academia is telling. Why are we so conservative in academia? Are we limiting ourselves by not being more like the business world? All I know for sure is that a future where science is tied into the commercial space industry is exciting---because we're going to need it.