Planetary Resources, the company formerly known as Arkyd Astronautics, announced its plans to open up the solar system for humanity. Its mission statement is summed up among the first words spoken by Planetary's President and Chief Engineer Chris Lewicki at an April 24 press conference: “I'm an asteroid miner.”
More specifically, Planetary Resources plans to mine Near-Earth Asteroids (NEOs) for raw materials, with water and precious metals at the top of the list. Water is the enabling resource for space exploration and exploitation, since it can be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen for fuel and used by humans to drink and for radiation shielding. Platinum group metals are extremely rare on Earth and play a key role in catalytic converters. Asking price for a single ounce of platinum on April 25 ranged between $1537 and $1564, making it a material asteroid miners could make an earth-bound profit on.
Step one for Planetary is research, more thoroughly documenting what resources are available around the Earth. There are over 1,500 cataloged NEOs that are easy to get to as the surface of the moon -- and there could be plenty more out there, since no organization -- commercial or government -- has made a concerted effort to catalog all the flying rock.
By the end of 2013, Planetary plans to fly its first Arkdy Series 100 Leo (low earth orbit) commercial space telescope. Leo is designed to be a small, compact, highly controllable space telescope with a price tag (News - Alert) “an order of magnitude” lower than traditional hardware, according to company officials. Company officials didn't cite a price tag, but “tens of millions of dollars” is the number floated about, ultimately getting into single-digit millions.
Leo is loaded with goodies, including an imager capable of doing spectral analysis of NEOs and packed into a mass of 30 to 50 kilograms. It's small enough to be carried as a secondary payload on a number of launch vehicles, so it most likely will end up hitching a ride on a communications satellite launch.
Step two is more recon of NEOs using the Arkdy Series 200 Interceptor, an upgraded version of the Leo with a propulsion system -- my bet is ion -- and other instruments to identify, track and actually fly past NEOs that float between the Earth and the moon.
Detailed recon happens in step three, launching a group of Arkyd Series 300 Rendezvous Prospectors spacecraft to swarm around a target asteroid. The Series 300 incorporates a laser communications system and would map the asteroid's composition, spin and other factors necessary to determine its utility in ultimately being processed.
Underline “ultimately.” During their press conference, Planetary Resources executives emphasized asteroid mining is a very difficult and higher-risk venture; not as big and expensive as deep sea oil well drilling, but technologies, risks and business case for off-shore drilling are all proven and known. Planetary is assuming a space market will develop for water/rocket fuel, both for use by NASA in manned asteroid and mars missions and with private enterprise “space tugs” to service satellites and get rid of space debris.
The most interesting points out of the press conference were social. Planetary Resources is based out of Seattle, an area optimistically called the future “The Silicon Valley of Space.” Attendees at the press event cheered and clapped at various pronouncements by speakers while investor Ross Perot Jr. called in to say it was, “A great story, an American story” with private industry generating these bold ideas and his nephews declaring “Uncle Ross is pretty cool” for putting his money into the venture.
Edited by Jennifer Russell