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Old 25-04-12, 06:05   #1
The Enigma
 
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Default ...hunt for asteroids to mine in 18-24 months

Planetary Resources set to begin hunt for asteroids to mine in 18-24 months
By Dave Klingler


Arkyd 300 series spacecraft investigates an asteroid

Some time in the next 18 to 24 months, Planetary Resources, Inc. will launch a series of mass-produced 9" space telescopes, dubbed Arkyd Series 100 spacecraft. They're specifically designed to identify which of the roughly 8,900 near-Earth asteroids are both smaller than 50 meters and suitable targets for retrieval back to Earth orbit. These small near-Earth asteroids represent a transient population, with life spans in the millions of years, typically cut short by running into a planet or being thrown out of the solar system by Jupiter.

That mission, according to Planetary Resources co-founder Eric Anderson, will be completed well enough within the ensuing year or two that the follow-up spacecraft, the Arkyd Series 200, can track some of these asteroids as they fly by in high Earth orbit. Still later, Arkyd Series 300 swarm spacecraft can begin launching to survey those asteroids from a closer perspective, gathering information on spin, shape, and composition.

In theory, several spacecraft could be launched every year for as long as necessary. At some point, the company would have enough information to launch spacecraft built to travel to an asteroid and retrieve them over several years, ultimately delivering them to a high Earth orbit. By some time in the next decade, both robotic and manned spacecraft would be waiting in orbit for the asteroids as they arrived.

The Obama Administration has set 2025 as the year NASA would be set to attempt a human-asteroid rendezvous, which coincides with the Planetary Resources schedule. Humans would harvest asteroids from that point forward.

The announcement was made on Tuesday morning during a press conference at the Seattle Museum of Flight. Many luminaries from industries well outside space exploration attended the event, as well as scientists and engineers with significant space credentials. Several of those scientists and engineers are either part of the new company, involved in a predecessor company, Arkyd Technologies, or authors of a large enabling report on asteroid mining authored by the Keck Institute for Space Studies. Ars Technica provided some coverage of that report last week.

A model of the Arkyd 100 spacecraft sat on the stage near the podium during the announcement. Chris Lewicki, formerly JPL's flight director for the Mars Exploration Rovers and the Phoenix Mars Lander and now the president and chief engineer of Planetary Resources, detailed the contrast between the one-off approach of government space agencies and the low-cost, mass-production approach of Planetary Resources. But what's the target of that mass production?

Throughout decades of academic and industry conferences on engineering and operations in space, thousands of papers on the economics of asteroid mining have been presented by true believers to small rooms full of fellow true believers. The gist of the presentations is that asteroids theoretically contain large percentages of highly pure metals or other materials that would be highly valuable either in space or here on Earth.

One of the foremost materials mentioned enthusiastically in asteroid mining circles is platinum, along with other metals in the platinum group of elements. Palladium, in particular, is used in large quantities in the automotive industry and would be valuable on the Earth. Platinum group metals do not occur naturally in the Earth's crust (they mostly sank to the core with iron), so most or all platinum-group metals used today actually arrived from space in the form of asteroid impacts. So why not go to the source?

What might be a far more valuable resource in the near term is water, necessary for any kind of human presence in space. Because it's comprised of hydrogen and oxygen, it's also the best resource for putting together a propellant depot network throughout the solar system. According to Eric Anderson of Planetary Resources, an 80-meter asteroid the size of the museum gallery in which the press conference took place would certainly have $100 billion-plus worth of materials, whether it was water or platinum. A chondrite asteroid half that size would have enough water in it to power every single space shuttle ever launched.

Essentially, as was detailed in another recent Ars Technica article, propellant depots serve a role much like the one that gas stations quietly serve across the developed world: they make easy travel possible. And because water and oxygen and hydrogen are so difficult to bring up from the surface of the Earth, it's far easier to bring them back from near-Earth asteroids.

But that really isn't why Planetary Resources was formed, at least while there are so few humans in space. Each of the speakers seemed to have a different version of the reasoning.

Peter Diamandis (co-founder): "The mission of Planetary Resources is to gain access to the natural resources of space by mining near-Earth approaching asteroids. With technological advances that are coming out of exponential technologies and investors willing to bear the risk, small teams are able to literally do what only governments and large corporations were able to do before."

Eric Anderson (co-founder): "If it's successful we're going to make a lot of money, but we also understand that we're not going to make it overnight."

Tom Jones (advisor): "We can use most of the materials available on these asteroids to create a thriving economy in space."

Chris Lewicki (President): "Good morning, everyone. I'm Chris Lewicki, and I'm an asteroid miner.

Close on the heels of SpaceX, Planetary Resources will become the second company to enter modern mass production of spacecraft. Many years ago, the Soviets took a mass production approach to their space program, stockpiling rockets and spacecraft for decades to come. With the computerization of machine tooling, modern space companies can produce spacecraft even more cheaply."

Summed up, the short-term goal seems to be to establish the equipment and skills necessary to make a new industry of asteroid mining possible, and the long-term goal seems to be to make the colonization of the solar system by humankind possible. The investors in Planetary Resources would be properly termed "angel investors," since they do not expect to see a return in the short term. (Although, through contract work, the company is apparently operating at a profit at the moment.)

These angel investors form an amazing list. They include Google's CEO Larry Page and Chairman Eric Schmidt, Microsoft billionaire Charles Simonyi, Ross Perot Jr., and James Cameron. Charles Simonyi has been to space twice via one of Eric Anderson's previous ventures, Space Adventures. Ross Perot and James Cameron are also known as adventurers in their own right, and Cameron just returned from a solo submarine voyage to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. All are willing to contribute large sums of money at high risk of loss for what could be a long period of time.
Shouldn't the government put a stop to all this trillionaire tomfoolery?

The Outer Space Treaty, to which over 100 countries (including the US) have became signatories since 1967, states that "the activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty." That requirement remained completely theoretical for the most part over the intervening years. But since the X-Prize competition and the advent of companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic, the US has been hard pressed to keep up with the sudden burgeoning of the private space industry.

In recent years the FAA's Office of Space Transportation has worked hard to catch up with entrepreneurs. A company proposing to launch a rocket or spacecraft would now apply to that office for a launch permit, subject to continuously evolving standards set by the office. Launch sites must also apply for licenses.

There's no doubt that the Planetary Resources plans will cause a big scramble in the US government, not only at the FAA but within the entities responsible for deciding who owns mining resources in space—provisions don't exist for that kind of activity. A new body of law will need to be fabricated and detailed. The subject matter isn't entirely new; space law is already a growing field and many discussions have taken place over several decades regarding what would happen when this day arrived.

Beyond the legal issues, some people are fearful that an asteroid might be brought back to impact the Earth accidentally, or even used as a weapon. It would be surprising if there aren't several Congressional hearings on the subject called in the years before the first attempt to return an asteroid physically to Earth orbit. Congress is sure not to give up its right to speak about the matter extensively.

What might be surprising, though, is that other than as a recruitment device for space mining companies, NASA really has no involvement in what Planetary Resources is doing, no prior knowledge, and no hardware capable of matching the company's. Planetary Resources plans to essentially mass produce space telescopes, something NASA would never be able to do for political reasons, and one that's hard to justify scientifically. NASA's mission of space exploration will necessarily be informed by the information Planetary Resources (and its followers) will harvest, but NASA has no involvement before now.
Humanity's next big endeavor?

There's an old space industry joke that goes something like, "How do you make a small fortune in aerospace? Start with a large fortune!" And certainly, as practiced up until the present, that's been the rule for many companies. The US government has changed its mind often in the middle of business partnerships, the most recent case being the Congressional struggle with the Obama administration to slow down commercial space.

But in this particular case, perhaps optimism and capitalism will have their day. As was summed up at the press conference this morning, "The best way to predict the future is to make it happen."

Well here you go. No telling if this will be successful or not. Way too soon to tell. It's the dream of every space nut that ever turned a page.

Notice that they mention platinum in the graphic. Platinum is a sort of odd ball in that it is a rare element to find as an ore. The main one that has been supplying the earth with platinum exists in Canada and is where a large meteorite hit. There's another in South Africa being started to be built called 'Smell'. It is estimated the price of Platinum after the year 2020 will run around $2000 an ounce.

Automobile makers use platinum for the Catalytic Converter, which is part of the exhaust system on vehicles. So it is in high demand.

It would seem like one heck of a lot of expense to go fetch an asteroid. But what you have to look at, is that on the earth, ores from mines usually only return something like 12% or so actual metal. The rest is all trash, unless you have a mixed ore. So that's not a lot of return for the mining work that has to be done.

With asteroid, it's a different matter. Something like 80% or better is the return on mined ore, or at least that is the guesstimate. So payback would come quickly by platinum alone. There are also fair amounts of iron, nickel, titanium, water, cobalt, manganese, molybdenum, osmium, palladium, rhenium, rhodium, ruthenium, and tungsten, depending on the source asteroid.

There is also at least one side benefit. We know that there have been a series of life extinction events that have happened on the Earth. We think they are huge meteorites that made what is termed 'deep impacts', creating in some cases nuclear winter events or raging firestorms depending on where the location was from the impact. It is also suspected that this had something to do with the kill off. A fine layer of iridium isotope, known only to be found in space, surrounds the earth, about the time of the dinosaur die off.

Being able to be out there, is key to being able to divert an orbit, years ahead of the danger time in order to take a lower magnitude of energy to move the orbit of a asteroid. Such abilities are within our technological grasp now, provided we had the transportation to do so.

Being able to spot a near earth asteroid is not as easy as it sounds. You near can't see them coming at you out of the sun. The glare from the sun prevents the light grey from being seen. It's only after it has passed us by that it becomes easier to sight. Much to late for an impactor. So finding them and tracking them has been a top priority for some years now and we are still finding new ones every few years.
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Old 25-04-12, 17:32   #2
 
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Default Re: ...hunt for asteroids to mine in 18-24 months

Gr8 post--Thx photostill.
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