When Bellevue-based Planetary Resources, Inc. first went public in April of 2012 with its plans to mine astroids for water and minerals there were many who reacted with an “Oh, pshaw.” Less than three years later, the successful landing by the ESA Rosetta mission of its probe Philae on the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, out in the far reaches of the solar system, makes it all seem like a more plausible idea.
“I love seeing the success of this mission because it proves that what we are doing is technically feasible today,” said Caitlin O’Keefe, director of marketing for Planetary Resources, on Tuesday during a Science Café talk sponsored by the Pacific Science Center at The Swiss Pub in Tacoma. O’Keefe added that Philae and Rosetta are ten-year-old craft that have spent a decade traversing six billion kilometers of space. Technology has advanced during that time; think about what your cell phone couldn’t do in 2004.
O’Keefe and everyone at Planetary Resources understand the skepticism. She quoted company co-founder Peter Diamandis as saying, “The day before something is a breakthrough it is a crazy idea.”
They’re creating the technology today to get themselves to that breakthrough. Advances in spacecraft control, avionics, communication systems, propulsion, and observation will help them identify and then get to resource-rich asteroids.
Unfortunately, one of their first tests of the technology went up in flames. Their Arkyd 3 satellite, which was to try out some of their new systems, blew up with the Antares rocket back in October.
“This was a bummer for our team to watch,” O’Keefe said. “There was a big hooray when it launched, and some not so nice words when it exploded six seconds later.”
But, she added, they’ve been able to shrug it off, in large part because their philosophy is to build a lot of small and relatively inexpensive spacecraft rather than putting all of their space-bound eggs into one billion-dollar basket.
“This is going to be a very important part of the space industry going forward: the ability to accept failure,” she said.
Many of the questions from the patrons of The Swiss during the talk centered around the financial aspects of mining in space. O’Keefe noted that there is a lot of potential. For example, one target astroid is thought to contain some $500 billion worth of platinum, which if mined would be more than has been extracted from Earth to date. While that could be a big payday, their first target is a more common substance: water. Water is good for drinking and protection from radiation, and can be turned into rocket fuel. And O’Keefe pointed out that it’s a lot cheaper to pick up water in space than it is to take it with you. To launch a bottle of water into low-Earth orbit you need about 50 times its mass in rocket fuel, and that pencils out to about $20,000. The savings add up, and it will make long space missions much more fiscally possible; a spacecraft can go all the way from Earth to Pluto on the same amount of fuel it takes just to launch into low-Earth orbit.
Mining may well be easier in the zero gravity of space, too, and the methods for doing it are pretty straightforward.
“Building this technology will be extremely difficult,” O’Keefe admitted. “I’m not downplaying the difficulty of a complicated system, but the theory of how to extract it is pretty well known.”
O’Keefe invited us all to join the asteroid mining effort. You can go to Asteroid Zoo, a venture launched this summer by Planetary Resources and Zooniverse, to help comb through data and identify potentially resource-rich asteroids.