A graphic of an asteroid in space

Mining asteroids for minerals and water

Hollywood movies have long associated the word ‘asteroid’ with the destruction of Earth, but these space rocks could prove useful for deep space exploration and a multi-billion-dollar mining industry.

The idea of mining asteroids for valuable substances has largely been pie in the sky… until now. At the start of December 2015, the Space Act was signed into law in the United States. It allows US citizens to own, transport and sell “any asteroid resource or space resource” obtained during commercial exploration.

This legislation, combined with emerging technologies, has given keen space start-ups the boost they need to rocket their ambitious plans into action. Within a decade or two, the first companies could be mining these huge space rocks.

Moving on up

US-based Planetary Resources was founded in November 2010 by X Prize Foundation entrepreneur Peter Diamandis and Chris Lewicki, former flight director for the Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. The company opened the doors to its head offices and engineering facilities in Seattle in 2011. With spacecraft already in orbit, they are expecting a lot from the next decade or so. Before its end, they’ll be sending out the first commercial missions to figure out which asteroid is the best place to get started.

Competitor Deep Space Industries launched in January 2013. The team here is working to a similar timeframe. “As with all space missions, timescales are a little tricky because there are so many different moving parts - not just technically, but getting a launch and working with our international partners and so on,” says Meagan Crawford, the company’s communications manager. “But we’re definitely expecting to launch our first prospector towards an asteroid before the end of the decade - around 2019.”

Oilfields of the Solar System

In the early days, when starry-eyed entrepreneurs sat around their proverbial campfires dreaming of treasures in the near reaches of space, the talk was of precious metals.

We already know from studying meteorites (asteroids that have hit Earth) and spectroscopy observations made from afar that certain classes of asteroids are rich in industrial metals and platinum-group metals. But lately, deep-space mining plans have started to focus on a very different kind of resource that’s in greater demand than any of these riches: water.

The primary long-term goal of both Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries is returning water to high Earth orbit. “Water is plentiful in space but it’s mostly frozen into these big floating snowballs that we call asteroids,” says Crawford. “So it’s abundant, easy to reach, and it’s typically located on the outside of a lot of the asteroids we’re looking at.”

As Nasa pushes further and further into the solar system, and as Elon Musk and SpaceX are starting to make their first trips to Mars, water is in high demand. Despite careful recycling, fresh water still has to be shipped out to the International Space Station (ISS). The cost of doing so is around $33,000 per litre.

Making water accessible in high Earth orbit would be an incredibly valuable asset. Chris Lewicki at Planetary Resources envisages this milestone as “key to the sustainable exploration of space.” And as well as providing support for human habitation, water’s constituent parts are hydrogen and oxygen. Hello, rocket fuel.

If you’re doing a long-term space mission, most of what you have to lift off the Earth is fuel. If spacecraft could refuel in a ‘filling station’ in Earth’s orbit instead of having to launch with vast quantities of fuel aboard, missions could become less expensive and longer journeys could become more feasible. An Accenture white paper reported that one 75-metre, water-rich asteroid could have fuelled all 135 Space Shuttle launches over the past 30 years.

There’s a lot of potential revenue in being able to refuel communications satellites, too. At the moment, these spacecraft have around a 20-year lifetime - not because the electronics stop working, but because they run out of fuel and have to be deorbited.

“So imagine you’re a company with a $2bn asset in space that you’re about to have to crash into the Pacific Ocean,” says Crawford. “The ability to refuel that asset is highly valuable.”

Prospecting asteroids

The first prospecting missions, taking place towards the end of this decade, will be dedicated to locating water. While telescope-based spectroscopy is already able to tell us which asteroids contain high quantities of water, these missions will assess diggability first-hand.

“Is the water in a layer on the outside? Is it frozen in the middle? What does the outside of the asteroid look like? Is it a lot of little pebbles and dust that are really easy to scoop up, or is it a solid layer of ice that’s more difficult to drill through? Knowing that information will help inform how we build our next set of harvesting missions,” explains Crawford.

Deep Space Industries’ tiny prospecting spacecraft are formed from six CubeSat units - a low-cost spacecraft skeleton made from off-the-shelf components. All the different instruments required for prospecting will be packed inside this nanosatellite, which is about as big as a briefcase. Its tiny size means that it can hitch a lift into space by squeezing into the gaps around a rocket’s payload.

The CubeSats will orbit their target asteroids, using spectral imaging and other methods to determine the size, shape, spin and composition of the asteroid.

Planetary Resources has already tested its Arkyd 3 spacecraft in mid-2015. Staying in a low Earth orbit, it successfully completed its 90-day mission to beta-test the company’s core prospecting technologies, including avionics and control systems.

‘Think about how programmers develop software: They often have an internal version, then they have a beta release, then they release 1.0 and keep incrementally improving the product and incorporating new features,’ says Lewicki. ‘Well, we have the opportunity to do that with space exploration now. We can start with the basics, figure out what works, move beyond that and iterate a number of times through a series of spacecraft.’

The next iteration, Arkyd 6, will launch in spring 2016. It will test out altitude control, power, communication and avionics systems, and the mid-wave near-infrared and hyperspectral sensors for analysing asteroid resources. This mission will test the on-board technologies using targets on Earth before being deployed to asteroids. After these testing missions, the spacecraft that will finally make the voyage to the first asteroid targets are the larger, more advanced Arkyd 200 and Arkyd 300.

Both companies are developing unique technologies in-house. Deep Space Industries has been working on new propulsion systems and battery-powered systems that are more resistant to the radiation of deep space, while 90 per cent of Planetary Resources’ next-generation spacecraft, Arkyd 6, will be created by its own tight-knit, cohesive group of engineers.

“Much in the way that a company like SpaceX is nearly completely vertically integrated - where raw materials go in and a rocket comes out - we are striving for that same level of end-to-end ownership of the design and the new ideas we can incorporate,” says Lewicki.

Harvesting the goods

Past space missions have already set the scene for future asteroid harvesting. In 2010, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Hayabusa spacecraft was the first to land on an asteroid and the first to return a sample to Earth. Hayabusa 2 is currently en route to a new target asteroid, due to make its return to Earth in 2020.

Meanwhile, Nasa’s Osiris-Rex mission is set to launch in September 2016. The spacecraft will be heading to the asteroid Bennu and returning a sample to Earth.

‘The mission will give us unprecedented experience of operating a spacecraft around and on a small asteroid for over a year,’ says project scientist Jason Dworkin. “The knowledge we gather from this experience should be necessary for any future asteroid mining operation.”

Several new technologies have been developed specifically for Osiris-Rex. The spacecraft’s Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) was developed by Lockheed Martin to solve the challenge of collecting a sample from a microgravity environment in the vacuum of space. It uses a burst of nitrogen gas to push surface material into the sampler’s chamber once it makes contact with the surface of Bennu. The team is also developing techniques to use natural feature tracking to help the craft navigate around the asteroid - a first for spaceflight.

Spin-off technology

The main challenge for space mining companies is achieving what governments once did with billions of dollars and thousands of people. Yet they are confident.

‘Today, one of our engineers, working on a computer with modern design software, has as much capability as an entire division of Nasa had during the Apollo programme,’ says Lewicki. ‘We always knew that in trying to do something audacious and ambitious like mining asteroids, we would create solutions that were really different. And instead of having to wait all the way until we’re mining an asteroid to make money, we can actually use those technologies to make money along the way.’

True to its word, Planetary Resources is already finding markets for Ceres, its Earth imaging system, which will eventually orbit aboard the Arkyd 100. Its mid-wave infrared sensors will offer night imaging, temperature mapping and water content measurement, while the hyperspectral (visible to near-infrared) sensors will allow spectral fingerprinting, material identification and plant phenotyping.

The team is excited about potential uses in markets such as in precision agriculture, and oil and gas exploration. The firm has formed partnerships with major engineering companies and advanced technology companies, and collaborates with Nasa and other international groups involved in the commercial development of space. It is working with 3D Systems to explore how parts of the satellite systems could be mass-manufactured on Earth and in space using 3D-printing technologies.

Deep Space Industries is also pursuing near-term revenue opportunities here on Earth and in other space missions. Crawford says the company is already working on “several contracts” to integrate some of its systems into the spacecraft of other organisations. It is partnering with Nasa and working on its first contract with the European Space Agency, partly to help build global interest in its products.

Planning for the long-term future of space exploration and development is a key part of the business. “We need to work with people who are planning satellites now, to inform them about our propulsion systems based on water so that ten years from now we can refill that propulsion system,” Crawford says.

Who knows what else we’ll discover along the way to mining asteroids? The unexpected benefits for technology advancement and basic science could be huge. This is something that excites the Osiris-Rex team. “We’ll be returning a sample of something new to Earth that scientists will be studying for generations. Children today will grow up to analyse samples and answer questions we haven’t even thought of yet,” says Dworkin.

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