Fuel Depot
Atist's conception of an evolved orbital fuel depot
There may be gold in them there spacerocks, but there's sure to be a bunch of other valuable stuff, too. When the news of Planetay Resources, a company created with the intent of mining asteroid and comets, hit the toobz a few weeks ago, it sounded almost surreal. Asteroid mining has been a staple of science fiction for decades, how real can it be? But after speaking with the company's chief scientist, Chris Lewicki, it sounds like they have put together a realistic game plan. Lewicki has been studying asteroids for most of his professional life and even has one named in his honor:
One important thing to understand about our company, we're not a government program. For NASA and other civilian agencies, failure is not an option. But for us it's the exact opposite: failure is an option. It has to be, just think of where we might be as a species or a nation if we only took on projects where success was a virtual certainty.
Lewicki makes a good point. To succeed beyond expectations, one has to be willing to make a few mistakes. Losing an unmanned vehicle is a public relations disaster for NASA and a huge loss of money for taxpayers, a national tragedy for manned spacecraft. Planetary Resources, on the other hand, is backed by a who's who of entrepreneurs, including Ross Perot, Jr., Larry Page, and Peter Diamondis, just to name a few. That kind of capital is critical: this is an expensive and risky endeavour. Just getting started will cost millions. These guys are willing to shoulder that risk.
The company's first step is categorize objects and create a list of candidate missions. To that end, they will be analyzing material from meteorites and pouring over data collected by every unmanned mission from Dawn to New Horizons.

Lewicki explained the first vehicle likely to be deployed will be an orbital telescope, observing atseroids and comets in every wavelength, from deep infrared to UV. That device will not only serve the company's preliminary prospecting goal, it will also allow them to test onboard systems and other technology under development by Planetary Resources and other newspace firms.

One of the things they'll be looking for right off the bat is H2O. Water is one of the most useful substances we can find in space. Not just for human consumption, but water refined in space and then broken down via solar power into hydrogen and oxygen might be orders of magnitude cheaper than shipping from the surface. Right now every drop of water astronuats consume on the space station, and every kilo of liquid fuel burned by booster rockets, comes from the ground up. The cost is prohibitive, thousands of dollars a pound for now and at least hundreds per pound in the best case scenario offered by future cargo rockets like the SpaceX Falcon Heavy.

Planetary Resources will select several candidate objects, probably smallish Near Earth asteroids or comet nuclei that have been wandering close to earth's orbit for millennia, as a start. Paving the way for the next phase, multiple unmanned missions to sample the surface and subsurface of candidate objects with an array of sensors looking for signs of water. What next?

The company will determine if water and other substances exist in enough quantity and purity to be collected and transported back to where they're needed. Some material could certainly end up back on earth, but what we're talking about developing here is an infrastructure in space. Orbital fuel depots resupplied by autonomous deep space probes plying the trade routes of the future. Eventually even maintenence stations where spacecraft could be repaired with metal alloy and other material produced by the company. And there's even more wealth to be made, both for investors and for mankind.

"A single small asteroid might contain more platinum than has been mined on earth in all history," noted Lewicki. "And this kind of resource survey could be a big boon to science. Make no mistake, this is a viable business model focused on turning a profit. But there certainly could be huge spin off benefits for planetary science in ways we cannot even imagine."

That's what really fires me up! Think of the industrial revolution that began two centuries ago. Capitalists didn't dig deep mines and factory foundations all over the world in pursuit of pure scientific knoweldge. But the sheer volume of material collected in the first 50 years of the 19th century ignited an explosion in every field of natural science. In the space of a few decades our understanding went from Genesis to paleo-geology. Dinosaurs and ancient ferns plants were classifed by species and time, the familiar geologic periods were developed, mass extinctions revealed, and soon naturalists were debating a new idea, that species might not be immutable after all, that living things evolve over time.

What rare secrets might be buried a few meters beneath the frozen and baked surface of a small asteroid or comet? What ancient mysteries might be revealed in the regolith of objects that are essentially time vaults locked up five billions years ago? If Planetary Resources is successful, we might find out in the next two or three decades.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Jun 17, 2012 at 07:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by SciTech and Astro Kos.


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