Why Mining an Asteroid for Water and Precious Metals Isn't as Crazy as it Sounds

Planetary Resources wants to start mining asteroids, and there's no good reason why they cannot

Arkyd Series 200 Interceptor, as Envisioned by Planetary Resources

Planetary Resources Inc.

Billionaire-backed space startup Planetary Resources has officially unveiled its business plan to much fanfare and with few surprises. The company's principals--which include X-Prize Foundation founder Peter Diamandis, Space Adventures co-founder Eric Anderson, and former NASA Flight Director Chris Lewicki--today pledged that Planetary Resources would make the abundant resources of space available here on Earth, and introduced a couple of the company's own spacecraft that will make such space prospecting possible. The rush for space resources is officially on.

Planetary Resources envisions a future in which the value of resources extracted from near earth asteroids (NEAs) totals tens of billions of dollars annually as robotic spacecraft deliver precious metals to Earth and water ice to orbiting space stations, outbound spacecraft, or space depots that will serve as orbital "gas stations" by processing water into hydrogen and oxygen, two key ingredients for chemical propulsion (oxygen could also be siphoned off for breathable air supplies).

How will Planetary Resources pull it off? Details are a bit scarce at this point, as admittedly Planetary Resources itself hasn't exactly figured out the entire process. (We speculated a few months back about possible approaches to space mining.) But the company is somewhat far along when it comes to laying the groundwork for the commercial space sector's eventual push into deep space.

The company unveiled designs for two new spacecraft it intends to deploy in the relatively near term--the Arkyd Series 100 Leo Space Telescope and the Arkyd Series 200 Interceptor--the former being slated for launch within the next two years. Further robotic spacecraft will be developed to evaluate asteroids for their water and mineral content and to eventually mine and perhaps relocate them to orbits more amenable to mining.

Most importantly, Planetary Resources plans to do all this on the cheap. The first Arkyd Series 100 telescopes are expected to be relatively inexpensive, on the order of $10 million dollars each, and will hitch rides to low earth orbit aboard existing satellite launches. And the company's philosophy is centered on opening up deep space and the asteroids that live there to exploration while keeping the company's value proposition intact.

Arkyd Series 100 Leo Telescope

Using inexpensive (sub-$10 million) space telescopes, Planetary Resources hopes to scour Earth's neighborhood for potential mining targets.Planetary Resources Inc.

Doing so is not going to be easy, but it does have its economic allure. There are roughly 9,000 NEAs currently on record, and that's estimated to be just one percent of the total NEAs out there larger than about 165 feet. A 1,600-foot diameter asteroid rich in platinum group metals--things like rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium, and platinum itself--could yield the equivalent of all the platinum group metals ever mined on Earth, the company says.

A single asteroid could offer up billions or even tens of billions of dollars (depending on size and composition) in mineral wealth even if it cost a billion or two to mine. That's not even factoring the water, which itself becomes a precious commodity in the decidedly dry climate of space. As such, initial exploration will focus on water-rich asteroids, as Planetary Resources appears to view its goal of establishing a means to harvest and supply water in space to be of equal importance to extracting precious metals. The H2O these NEAs provide will serve as a crucial enabler to further deep space exploration, and a linchpin in the in-space infrastructure Planetary Resources hopes to install at points beyond low earth orbit.

While Planetary Resources hasn't thrown back the curtain on exactly how their mining operation will unfold, it's important to note at this point that while some of this may sound like it's on the fringe of what's possible--and it certainly is--there's no great reason to doubt the company's ability to deliver on this goal. Planetary Resources has financial backing in spades, including the likes of Google's Eric Schmidt and Larry Page and Ross Perot Jr., son of the former presidential candidate and billionaire. And with funds in place, practical aspects become less daunting. Caltech's Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS) released a report (PDF) just this month on the feasibility of retrieving an asteroid from its orbit in deep space and placing it somewhere more accessible and convenient--perhaps at one of the Earth-Moon Lagrange points where the gravity between the two larger bodies would hold it more or less stationary (relative to the moon, anyhow).

The KISS analysis concluded that not only would something like this be safe--any orbital instability would send the asteroid toward the moon rather than Earth--but that given the current pace of technology, we could reel in a 500-ton asteroid by 2025 at a cost of roughly $2.6 billion. Given the value of the extractable resources, that might not be such a high price to pay.

Then there's the value that can't really be quantified with dollars. Planetary Resources is talking about cheaply and efficiently bringing vast supplies of platinum from space down to Earth. But the company is also talking about creating the technological and practical infrastructures needed to both establish a permanent presence at points far beyond low Earth orbit as well as to open up deep space for regular exploration via its in-space refueling stations. The company will also presumably hone humanity's capabilities when it comes to charting, characterizing, and eventually moving NEAs--skills that might come in quite handy should Earth find itself in the path of a so-called killer asteroid.

But perhaps most intriguingly, should Planetary Resources succeed it will mark a true turning point for commercial space as an industry. Under President Obama's mandate, NASA is scheduled to land a human on an asteroid sometime around 2025. But that mandate is somewhat nebulous, and looking in from the outside it's difficult to tell if NASA is actively pursuing that milestone given its already full plate.

NASA has a storied track record and Planetary Resources merely has some interesting Powerpoint slides, some big-money backers, and a press conference under its belt. But the fact remains that a successful Planetary Resources could at some point out-NASA NASA by doing things with (and on) asteroids that even the world's premier government-backed space agency hasn't yet accomplished. If Planetary Resources manages to do half of what it aims to do over the next decade or so, it will truly be venturing where no one has gone before.