Commercial Space Entrepreneurs Embrace NASA Asteroid Retrieval Plans

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PHOENIX — Two companies that have announced plans in the last year to prospect and eventually extract resources from near-Earth asteroids, expressed their support last week for NASA’s proposal to move a small asteroid to cislunar space, seeing the mission as an opportunity for partnership rather than as competition for their own ventures.

“We’re looking forward to a partnership with NASA. There’s a lot the private sector can bring to this game,” Rick Tumlinson, chairman of the board of Deep Space Industries, said April 11 at the Space Access ’13 conference here. His company unveiled plans in January to survey and then mine near-Earth asteroids using a series of small spacecraft the company plans to develop.

Tumlinson endorsed in particular an approach modeled after NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, where the agency provided financial and technical assistance to companies developing cargo transportation systems for the international space station, while requiring the companies to invest some of their own money into these projects.

“A correctly structured program to bring an asteroid into lunar orbit may be based on the COTS model, where we had a cooperative venture leading to a pay-for-services model. It might work very well in this case,” Tumlinson said, although he did not go into details about how such a model might work for an asteroid retrieval effort.

“The question is, are we going to be able to work cooperatively?” Tumlinson asked, adding that he was encouraged by some initial discussions with NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “What I’m hearing is that there’s a real openness to discuss using this model.”

Planetary Resources Inc., a company that announced its plans to survey and mine asteroids last April, also supports NASA’s plans for an asteroid retrieval mission and indicated a willingness to cooperate. “The U.S. government’s investment in this area could be leveraged by commercial industry in a number of ways, from supporting the mission to identify, characterize, and, depending on the type of asteroid retrieved, develop ways to understand, extract, and utilize the resources from it once returned,” said Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer of Planetary Resources, in an April 10 statement.

In a separate blog post on the company’s website, Lewicki also endorsed partnership approaches similar to NASA’s COTS and Commercial Crew programs. “NASA is learning that commercial capability is coming online in many areas that will become ‘routine’ in the continued development of space,” he stated. “Asteroids may be the next venue for that type of progressive partnership, and I hope NASA recognizes the opportunity to leverage the innovation and efficiency that is developing in the commercial arena.”

Others are hoping that the additional $20 million NASA is proposing for asteroid search efforts in its 2014 budget can also be used for efforts to support commercial utilization of these objects. “We really have to characterize these things both for mining and for planetary defense,” Martin Elvis, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said at Space Access ’13. “This is a big bottleneck in the whole program,” he said, noting that at current rates it would take 100 years to characterize the estimated 20,000 near-Earth asteroids at least 100 meters in diameter.

NASA’s proposed mission, announced April 10 as part of the release of its 2014 budget proposal, is the latest in a series of events that have heightened awareness of the threats posed by near-Earth asteroids as well as interest in their potential commercial application. Most notably, on Feb. 15, a meteor exploded in the skies above the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, shattering windows and injuring more than 1,000 people.

Tumlinson said that the interest in near-Earth asteroids raised by the Chelyabinsk event has not necessarily been that useful for his company as it tries to attract investors. “Now everyone who’s ever had an asteroid project is going to the bank saying, ‘Fund me,’” he said.