Originally Published in Entrepreneur Country, July 2013
“Throughout much of history… ” writes Prof. Edward Barbier, “a critical driving force behind global economic development has been the response of society to the scarcity of key natural resources, such as land, forests, fish, fossil fuels and minerals. Increasing scarcity raises the cost of exploiting existing natural resources and creates incentives in all economies to innovate and conserve. However, economies have also responded to increasing scarcity by obtaining and developing more abundant sources of natural resources. Since the agricultural transition over 12,000 years ago, this exploitation of new ‘frontiers’ has often proved to be a pivotal human response to natural resource scarcity.”
The scarcity itself has come as a result of a number of factors including (but not limited to) astonishing population growth, industrialisation, increased lifespan and- of course- the depletion and destruction of the remaining resources on our planet. The pace of technological advance has allowed us to extract and exploit a wider range of resources, including those which are harder to reach- but the long-term picture remains grim. Humanity must find new sources of resources to support itself.
With the vision of “bringing the natural resources of space within humanity’s economic sphere of influence“, Planetary Resources (founded by Eric Anderson of Space Adventures, and Peter Diamindis of the X Prize) are developing “…low-cost robotic spacecraft to explore the thousands of resource-rich asteroids within our reach.” These audacious goals may sound like science fiction, but the company is close to making them a reality.
To learn more, I spoke to Chris Lewicki (President and Chief Engineer of Planetary Resources, Inc.). Chris is a veteran of space exploration, having been intimately involved with the lifecycle of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers and the Phoenix Mars Lander. He performed system engineering development and participated in assembly, test and launch operations for both Mars missions. He was Flight Director for the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, and the Surface Mission Manager for Phoenix. Chris is the recipient of two NASA Exceptional Achievement Medals and has an asteroid named in his honour: 13609 Lewicki
Q: What is the resource opportunity from asteroids?
[Chris Lewicki] It’s multi-fold. Firstly resources that are useful on Earth that we may get from outer space and secondly- which is perhaps a newer idea- is resources that will be useful in space itself.
There’s an enormous amount of material in space. Earth is just one of the smaller planets in the solar system, and there’s a lot of other stuff out there. In the inner solar system, what’s very useful is water. Water is the essence of life. On Earth it’s used to grow plants and within industrial processes but in space it takes on a whole new form. We can use water as a radiation shield. One cubic metre of water gives the same protection as Earth’s atmosphere and magnetosphere. Water is a molecule made of hydrogen and oxygen- and that happens to be rocket fuel …the most efficient chemical propulsion that’s theoretically possible! Being able to find a rocket fuel source in space is tremendously useful for anything else you may want to do in space in the future. For example: supporting people, moving materials around, starting industries, travelling to Mars…. You very quickly also come across structural metals. Imagine building large structures in space- whether habitats or devices. There are enormous quantities of Iron, Nickel and Cobalt which- because of their purity- are effectively stainless steel. You wouldn’t think of building structures out of iron, nickel and cobalt on Earth necessarily, but it’s so abundant that it becomes perfect for space.
Along with the Iron and Nickel, we’ve found a relative abundance of platinum group metals in the meteorite samples we’ve studied here on Earth. These are the materials that are valuable enough that we may return them to Earth. Not just for their financial-value, but also because they are extremely useful elements due to their temperature properties, catalytic properties and so on.
Q: Have there been any technological advances that have made asteroid mining and exploration feasible and economical?
[Chris Lewicki] It’s two primary things. From the early government exploration of space in the 1960’s through to our more contemporary exploration of objects in our solar system, our knowledge has been increasing exponentially. We have a lot more information about what’s out there- and what the opportunities are.
The other basic advance has been the progress of technology. All of the research we’ve done exploring space and putting better tools into engineer’s hands has now allowed small teams- with modest funds- to do what it once took entire governments to do. A great case in point is Burt Rutan’s team winning the Ansari X-Prize. They had around 2 dozen people, $30 million and 2 years and repeated what the US government did with Alan Shepard, and what the Soviet Union did with Yuri Gagarin. This is where we are… The design and collaborative power of an individual engineer or technologist is more powerful than it’s ever been. The tasks themselves are getting more accessible too. Putting a robotic spacecraft out into space is becoming fairly routine.
These two things have allowed companies like ours to get a founding, attract investment support and to pursue what would appear to most to be a fairly audacious goal.
Q: How close are you to engaging your first mission?
[Chris Lewicki] Much like mining on Earth, mining and prospecting in space contains a lot of the same activity. We need to learn about the resource, understand the bodies, characterise their values- and these are all activities that precede being able to make detailed plans on how to create a mine.
The focus of our company, at least in the near term- is that prospecting activity. We’re taking capability from NASA that used to cost billions of dollars, and we’re doing it for tens of millions of dollars. We want to learn that critical information necessary to develop those resources.
We’re putting our first hardware in space in less than a year. Next year we’re deploying our first prototype space craft. Our aim is to create robotic geologists that will go and explore the solar system’s most interesting asteroid targets, learn about them, and understand which are most promising to take to the next stage…. and ultimately, to mine them.
In about two years, we’ll have our rendezvous prospector deployed into Earth orbit. This exists as a space telescope. We’ll use this to identify new asteroids, view existing targets, and understand which are the best ones to send our full blown prospectors to.
Q: Will asteroid mining create a new business model and market?
[Chris Lewicki] Our mission statement for the company actually does not mention asteroid mining. Our mission is to expand the economic sphere of influence of humanity off the surface of the planet and into the solar system. Currently we have a vibrant economy in space that goes out to the geostationary belt- where the communication satellites are- and it stops.
It’s through resources that human beings have been able to open new frontiers and sustain themselves on those new frontiers. This will involve the creation of a new market and the intersection of a number of industries.
Q: Will asteroid mining impact the price structure of resources on Earth?
[Chris Lewicki] It will become part of the supply and demand of everything that is already out there today. In the beginning we will pursue water. We wouldn’t bring it back to Earth, but it’s valuable in space because it’s so expensive to put it there. If we can get it in space, that’s really the first economy we’ll be creating. The capability to bring some of these materials to Earth will happen slowly. We’ll start by bringing small samples back primarily for scientific research, but eventually we’ll see that things which were once scarce- will become abundant.
We saw this type of transition in several resources. 150 years ago, Aluminium was the rarest metal we knew of on the surface of planet Earth. Through technology we learned how to extract it from the bauxite in the Earth’s crust, and discovered it was the most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust. It was accessibility that we weren’t able to use it. We went from Napoleon serving Kings and Queens on the finest Aluminium plate-ware to the USA where we put a cap of pure Aluminium on the Washington Monument because it was so rare. Within 20 years, the price had dropped and there’s was much more money made on Aluminium than the 1860’s. We’ve also been able to find a multitude of uses for the metal from high tension cables and car bodies to aeroplanes and more. You couldn’t imagine a world without aluminium now, and it used to be as rare as gold.
Q: Are there any legal or political challenges to asteroid mining?
[Chris Lewicki] The legal challenge is one primarily of perception. This is an activity that is occurring not in any particular country’s territory or boundaries, and we have treaties written to constrain country’s from being able to claim new sovereign territories in space. We have an existing framework of treaties and laws that allow countries and companies to get a license to launch and put something in space, to deal with the liabilities of such activities and the allocation of resources.
The basic framework exists, and we have a number of great precedents- not from space, but form other industries that deal with constrained resources. For example in the fishing industry- a fishing company does not own any fish in the ocean. The obtain a license to fish, and when they catch those fish- they have a legally protected right to bring them to market. Similarly in the logging community, the businesses don’t usually own the land the trees are grown on- but they have a timber right to those trees. Even a mining company doesn’t always own the land on which a mine is situated- they have mineral rights for a period of time.
In much the same way- you don’t need to own anything to engage in asteroid mining but we have a number of precedents to show that when you invest in a resource and extract something of value, that ownership begins there. As a private company- we see that as a path to extract resources in space and bring them to the appropriate market.
Q: What are the investment opportunities in asteroid mining?
[Chris Lewicki] We have a number of notable investors in our company. Larry Page and Eric Schmidt of Google, Ross Perot Jr who is a resource and real-estate entrepreneur and even people like Charles Simonyi who created Microsoft Office and has travelled to space twice. They see a long term opportunity in the creation of a new industry. An industry that can scale to reach every individual on the planet, and can impact everything we do as a species.
It’s not just the resources that are involved in doing that- but the entire economy created around that. We have a number of visionary individuals involved, and we also have people and institutions now interested in the business opportunity. There are a number of companies, not just ours- who are interested in space. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk’s Space-X are just two that present strong business cases. There is a real critical mass now bringing interest to our industry.
This is certainly something that is not without risk. We are pursuing an audacious goal, and we very well might fail. The thing that has given me a great deal of confidence from a business standpoint links back to the first Moon landing. When NASA set that challenge, it created a whole series of capabilities and technologies that we previously could not have imagined. We have found in the establishment of our business that we have a technical roadmap and milestones that mean that before we ever return a resource from outer space, we have solved all sorts of technical, financial and business challenges that are of interest on Earth. That could be for NASA, for the robotics industry or other parties. We are making money today on contracts both with the government and with private entities deploying the technologies we’ve developed for applications here on Earth.