Space-based Resource Exploitation Still Decades Off, Experts Say

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WASHINGTON — When asteroid-mining venture Planetary Resources held its coming out party in April at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, the startup, backed by a roster of high-profile billionaires, got the desired effect: media headlines and rave reviews from space enthusiasts.

But a pair of experts, including the former NASA engineer who runs the company, recently said it will be a long time before anyone extracts riches from asteroids, moons or planets. Even selecting and scouting a promising mining target will take decades, they said.

“On Earth it takes many, many years, 10 to 20 to 30 years, to go from prospecting to mining, and it will not be quicker in space,” said Jean-Claude Piedboeuf, director of space exploration development with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). Piedboeuf participated in a Sept. 26 panel discussion at the CSA’s Canadian Space & Mining Industry Forum on Servicing, Repurposing and Mining of Space Resources.

The CSA, which draws on a Canadian industrial base well versed in both robotics and mining, is working on robotic resource-extraction technology that Piedboeuf said could be folded into several exploration missions, including excursions to the lunar surface.

In late July, a Canadian-built rover called Artemis Jr., which carries a NASA payload designed to detect traces of water and oxygen in finely ground lunar dust, was part of NASA’s 2012 In-Situ Resource Utilization Analog Mission on the ash-covered slopes of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. NASA has used the active volcano as a simulated lunar surface since the Apollo era, and during the July mission Canadian operators focused on remotely controlling the rover from centers as far away as Montreal.

The rover and its tools would need to be overhauled to withstand the rigors of a lunar mission, Piedboeuf said. A meter-long drill used by Artemis Jr. for sample gathering, for example, is nowhere near as durable as it would need to be for lunar prospecting.

“Drilling on Hawaii, when it’s cold, it’s still above zero Celsius,” Piedboeuf said. “On the Moon it can be minus 200. Especially if there’s some water, it’s very difficult.”

Although NASA is not funding development of either crewed or robotic lunar-landing vehicles, the U.S. space agency is working on a heavy-lift rocket and crew capsule capable of supporting exploration missions beyond low Earth orbit. NASA has cited the lunar poles, where evidence of water has been detected, as a possible destination for future human explorers, and said that resource extraction would figure into any plans for continuous human presence on Earth’s nearest neighbor.

Chris Lewicki, a former NASA scientist serving as president and chief engineer at Planetary Resources, said exploitation of space-based resources is decades off, whether governments or private companies lead the charge.

“Asteroid mining is going to take a while,” Lewicki said during the panel discussion. “You heard it here first — it’s a decades-long activity. It’s not economically viable to mine asteroids if you project out the current cost of space exploration.”

As a stepping-stone toward its goal, Planetary Resource is developing small, low-cost space telescopes to scout potential targets for celestial resource extraction.

The first of these telescopes, known as the Arkyd 100 series, will have a 20 centimeter aperture and weigh 30 to 50 kilograms, Lewicki said. Planetary Resources envisions launching a constellation of these telescopes in “a little less than two years time” as secondary payloads on commercial missions.

Though intended for resource exploration, the telescopes could just as easily be used for Earth observation or deep-space astronomy, Lewicki said. Anybody who can afford the price tag of several million dollars is welcome to buy one, he said.

“There is no business plan that will survive a 30-year-long investment that puts it all up front, waits patiently and then waits for a return on the investment on the end,” Lewicki said. “We need to make money and find opportunities for derivative applications of our technology and markets for the things that we’re doing and the capabilities we’re creating for every step along the way.”

Planetary Resources was created in 2010 under the name Arkyd Astronautics and introduced to the public in April. The company was co-founded by Eric Anderson, chief executive of space tourism broker Space Adventures, and Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X Prize Foundation.