Asteroid mining is considered by many to be a key to the colonization of outer space, the space equivalent of California's Gold Rush. Nearly 9,000 asteroids larger than 150 feet (46 meters) in diameter orbit near Earth. These asteroids are prime for mining precious metals like platinum and are a source for water in space, essential for a space outpost.
NASA is planning missions to advance asteroid mining — OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security and Regolith Explorer) — in partnership with two leading private industries: Planetary Resources, Inc. and Deep Space Industries. On May 13, 2015, two leading experts on the subject of asteroid mining held a podcast for Raw Science TV:
Gregory Benford is a professor of physics at the University of California, Irvine, and conducts research in plasma turbulence and astrophysics. Benford is also an American science fiction author and a contributing editor of Reason magazine. He is best known for the Galactic Center Saga novels, which postulates a galaxy in which sentient organic life is in constant warfare with sentient electromechanical life. He is a Woodrow Wilson fellow and a visiting fellow at Cambridge University, and has served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Energy, NASA and the White House Council on Space Policy. In 1995, he received the Lord Foundation award for contributions to science and the public comprehension of it.
Chris Lewicki is the president and chief engineer of asteroid mining company Planetary Resources, and has been intimately involved with the lifecycle of NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers and the Phoenix Mars Lander. Lewicki performed system engineering development and participated in assembly, test and launch operations for both of those Mars missions. He was flight director for the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, and the surface mission manager for Phoenix. The recipient of two NASA Exceptional Achievement Medals, Lewicki has an asteroid named in his honor: 13609 Lewicki. At Planetary Resources, Lewicki is responsible for the strategic development of the company's mission and vision, engagement with customers and the scientific community, serves as technical compass, and leads day to day operations.
Below is a modified transcript of their discussion. Edits and changes have been made by the participants to clarify spoken comments recorded. You can listen to the podcast here.
Gregory Benford wonders how is asteroid entrepreneurship after NASA?
Lewicki: It is an amazing adventure. Certainly doing the amazing things that NASA does, I was very privileged to be a part of a fantastic team who put two Rovers on Mars and a Lander, and more Rovers in the future.
There was a part of me, I guess, unsatisfied by that, because, as amazing as it was, human beings can get used to everything. Landing three things on the surface of Mars was quite enough for me for a career. The opportunity to contribute to an idea which could actually get humanity in the space, beyond government funding, was something I felt was worth dedicating myself to.
Benford: I'm fond of your work and those of NASA. It's like Lewis and Clark opening up the Louisiana Purchase. But the people who really opened the West were basically the railroads with mining, farming and so forth.
C.L.: Exactly. None of this would be possible without the 50+ years of government funded space exploration and discoveries we have enjoyed thus far. We're seeing in the launch business, commercial operators delivering supplies, astronauts and people, to wherever they need to go in space. That's the idea, we can explore, develop and create industry, create economies.
I would love to enable an environment where people's job location would be L5 or L1, or some other destination in space with a P.O Box.
G.B.: Like Mars.
G.B.: Indeed. So, those are the first steps. Lewis and Clark was a government expedition. You see the horizon as being first to do mining? Let's remember that California was opened up mainly by the gold rush of 1848.
C.L.: The reason Planetary Resources was actually founded—was the recognition that resources have opened up every frontier on this planet. I think Neil deGrasse Tyson said that fear, greed and glory are the reasons that cause everything. There's probably a love interest in there as well!
In the gold rush, there were certainly a lot of people going out to make money by finding gold in the hills. But much of the money was made by the people who moved out there, settled and made a life. They would not have been able to do that had California not had all the other resources it had, from the flora and fauna to the land and sunshine.
Those are all the resources we take for granted on this planet, because they're so abundant. One of the primary reasons why we're not out there in space, living and operating as of yet, is because we've had to take everything that we will ever need for the entire “camping trip”. We have to take it all to space. Bottled up oxygen, every gram of water, every pellet of food. We don't make any of that stuff in space — yet.
So, we need the ability to go out to the most useful destination in the Solar System, a nearby asteroid, and start with something as simple as water, the essence of life. But in space it can also be used for radiation shielding from the sun, from the cosmic rays. Using freely available thermal energy, you can break water into hydrogen and oxygen and have rocket fuel. With that, you can do anything you want - that's what really excites us.
G.B.: You've been carrying out more explorations of your own, looking for asteroids to mine. Do you think you'll actually go out to an asteroid and do a first prospect?
C.L.: Prospecting is the precise word to use. Planetary Resources is what the mining business calls a “prospect generator.” We want to find the best asteroid to start with. We will use thermal processes in space to do everything — for example, extracting water out of a carbonaceous asteroid.
It's more like distilling sea water, where you heat it up, you bake off the water. It's naturally purified of course by turning into a gas and just like the de-icing your freezer where all the frost goes to the outside, the water condenses on the coldest spot, and that is your ice mineral. As long as you keep it out of the sun, you now have pure hydrogen and oxygen in solid form that you can transport to where it's going to be useful.
G.B.: Do you plan to do the harvesting and the processing right there on the asteroid and bring the products back to Low Earth Orbit?
C.L.: On Earth, you don't drag the mountain to the refinery. We will try do as much beneficiation as we can closest to the source, because of course it takes a lot of work, a lot of energy, a lot of fuel and a lot of cost to move heavy things around. You never will have to move the asteroid in order to do this. You extract the useful parts and leave everything else behind.
For every mine on the planet, there's a process of doing the first separation of the valuable from the non-valuable, which we then send back to the refinery. In the case of water, we can get 100 percent pure water. If you were to use it as rocket fuel, you would keep in ice right up to the point where you wanted to start filling the tanks.
In the case of say the SpaceX Mars colony transport , Elon has talked about doing in space re-fueling following launch. Maybe you ship up the fuel from the surface of the Earth whether it's liquid hydrogen, or maybe even liquid methane. But maybe some or all of that could be sourced in-space.
For example, oxygen is very important and is something that can come from an asteroid. The oxygen, because of its atomic number, is actually more than 80 percent of the weight of the liquid fuel.
G.B.: What robots are going to do all this work?
C.L.: Yes, all this will be done with robots. We see a lot of variations of machinery, and that's why we've designed the ARKYD series of spacecraft to take up these various roles – at first, the prospecting and then they will be adapted and improved to facilitate the mining.
What I'm excited about, and the reason why I know that this future is sooner than most everybody on the planet thinks, is that technology has advanced faster than it ever has in history. And the rate that it's improving; is itself improving; it's exponential. You could look at what I would call “narrow artificial intelligence” in systems like the Google self-driving car and see a way that variations of that technology could be deployed to humanity's benefit in space.
NASA and other entities have already demonstrated many components of an asteroid mining system – for example, inflatable structures that could be used to collect the solar energy. Inflatable structures have already been flown in space that could be used to enclose the asteroids so that we can collect and condense the materials evaporating off them.
As we do these processes more and more, we get better at it. We'll start with what may be very crude techniques compared to Hollywood and science fiction, but with time and practice very advanced processes for separating material A from material B will evolve as they have in every other industry from a simple start. Robots will do all of this, and of course will also help to repair and fix things when they don't go as planned.
Today, it is very easy to build the robots to go out and find the resources and even do the initial collection and extraction of water out of that material. What we learn from doing that will guide everything that follows.
G.B.: Are you making robots yourself or do you have some way to buy them off the shelves?
C.L.: We are actually building all of our spacecraft. We build almost all of it right here in Redmond, Washington. We buy a lot of the parts, of course, off the shelf, and use our experience to make the most cost-effective interplanetary spacecraft ever made.
G.B.: What do you see as a big benchmark to come, and what will your business look like in 20 years?
C.L.: In 2035, we will easily have been into the era of having multiple asteroid operations in space. Some operated by the government. I see multiple space stations, some being operated governments and some operated by private companies, either for research, for industry, or maybe even for tourism, as a destination for people to go and have that experience.
All of that human activity in space is going to create an enormous demand. In many cases, the most important asset in space will be people. Those people will need resources to live, so we should have certainly discovered the best sources of water and probably metals in space, by the early 2020s.
What is very exciting about this is that one good asteroid has enough materials on it to support an unfathomably large amount of industrial activity in space. We really could be talking about something that has a mine life of 100 years, until the point where we have as many people living in space as we do on the Earth.
But by 2035, asteroid mining, activities on the surface of the Moon, and hopefully even on the surface of Mars will be something that these resources in space will have allowed us to achieve as a result of an accessible source of resources.
Resources in space will be just an extension of what these resources on Earth have done for our economy. I think all of our children and grandchildren at that point will be talking about, “Gee, what it must have been like for our parents to have gone through this dramatic transformation, from these human beings that set up camps in space, nearly risking their lives so we can enjoy our space campus on the surface of the Moon.”
I think that the future of working in space is easily within our reach and all the technology that we need to achieve it is here. We just have to find a way to break from the government way of doing things historically, and look into more entrepreneurial and cost effective way of doing things.
G.B.: The government doesn't open hotels, but when do you think I might be able to check into Bigelow's hotel in Low Earth Orbit?
C.L.: Well, Bigelow, I believe is going to be putting the Beam module on the International Space Station. I'm not sure of the exact date, but I believe it's within the next year.
G.B.: I've always wondered about combining swimming with zero gravity. In Low Earth Orbit, you can have a spherical swimming pool — dive in, surface tension can be kept strong so the sphere does not fragment. You swim across and pop out. I'm sure there will be a lot of interesting zero gravity sports.
C.L.: Well, have you seen the amount of fun that the astronauts have had, just playing with particles of water in space?
It challenges everything that we know about our environment and how gravity works, and the ups and downs.
One thing that I'm passionate about and looking to help students understand and become more familiar with is weightlessness. Imagine how every one of our lives would be different if we spent a week in space and experienced what it is to float around, and to eat, bathe and play with things in zero gravity. The way we would approach designing things for space would be totally different.
G.B.: So, that's the thrust for plans for resources. I've always wondered though, why not call yourselves Interplanetary Resources?
C.L.: Planetary or interplanetary, they really are resources on a Planetary scale, and we no longer need to limit our thinking to the resources as constrained by this one planet we happened to get started on.
G.B.: Right. Maybe the most profound effect of the space program, so far, was the photos looking back, to see our Earth as a single entity, as a planet. What do you think will come from the industrialization of near-Earth space?
C.L.: I certainly think this is in our very nature as humans to climb up a hill and then look at what we see from that vantage point. Often the reaction is “Oh, I see a horizon out there. I want to go climb the next hill.”
I think another thing that I've come across with people who are very concerned about the industrialization of space is well, we haven't figured it out here on this planet and it's caused lots of problems. So, we should just stop. I think that the real answer could be further from that in that we have learned all the ways not to do it.
We have an opportunity, as we develop space, to actually take better care of this planet than any of our ancestors ever have, because we can take aspects that are a necessary fact of life -- producing energy and gathering materials that we need—into space, and not do those activities in anyone's back yard. We can create an environment where families and societies can thrive and do whatever they need, and not worry about a limitation of resources. It's an abundant future.
G.B.: Indeed. The point about space in some ways is that it's the great processor, if you have waste products from smelting platinum metals in the future, you can let them ride out on the solar wind and leave the entire Solar System.
C.L.: Absolutely. If I could wave a magic wand and solve any one problem it would be to create an infinite source of energy. In engineering, you learn a lot about energy, and what it takes to do anything. Everything around you in your daily life is defined by a lack of energy.
When you realize just how much it defines our lives, if we were able to use resources from asteroids to harness that ball of fusion in the middle of our Solar System (the Sun) effectively. There's trillions and trillions of watts hitting the planet unused. So to gather that energy and be able to do anything we want with it, I think, it solves most every problem that we have.
G.B.: So, it's actually an old story, the higher you go, the grander the horizon.
C.L.: Yes. I look forward to getting into Solar System and stretch our arms a bit.
G.B.: It's terrific you guys are doing this. I look forward to seeing your next triumph -- particularly, looking for the first platinum coming from an asteroid.
C.L.: It will redefine the mining industry as we know it. I'm looking forward to that.
G.B.: Excellent. Well thanks Chris Lewicki. That's been a really admirable summary of where your company is going. You have many fans out here and we're looking for every one of your achievements. Indeed I'm looking to find out where I can check into the Bigelow hotel myself.
C.L.: Absolutely. We're really happy to have everyone following the company, contributing to what we're doing. We can't hire everyone on the planet, but that doesn't mean you can't get involved in something that moves us forward. If you don't see someone doing it, take it up yourself and go get it done.
Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Space.com.