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Interview: Diamandis’ Planetary Resources To Claim High Value Asteroids With Robotic Beacons

It’s no secret Peter Diamandis is a spaceman. He’s co-founder of companies like Zero Gravity Corporation and Space Adventures. And his X Prize Foundation’s inaugural prize went to SpaceShipOne for the first private manned spaceflight in 2004. But in 2012, Diamandis and co-founder, Eric Anderson, announced his most ambitious space project yet—an asteroid mining venture called Planetary Resources. Singularity Hub got a moment to question Diamandis about Planetary Resources at FutureMed 2013.

<a href="http://www.linkedtube.com/xZAMVeuZDOQ096346042e4f5ab98876ae57eeb9db50.htm">LinkedTube</a>

The first step to becoming a successful space mining outfit is finding resource rich asteroids. To that end, the firm recently completed the Arkyd-100 satellite prototype. Diamandis told us, the Arkyd-100 will be “pound for pound or kilogram for kilogram” the most sophisticated spacecraft out there.

The satellite will use its telescope to look for suitable near-Earth asteroids from low-Earth orbit. Later expeditions will rocket out to prospective real estate, do spectral analysis, and if the asteroid contains valuable resources, lay claim with a beacon. (See here for NASA/JPL-Caltech’s near-Earth asteroid census.)

Eventually, says Diamandis, Planetary Resources will send robotic miners to asteroids as they cross Earth’s orbit, leave the robots to mine for a few years as their rock loops around the sun, and bring them home as it re-approaches Earth. Following is a video from Planetary Resources’ Chris Lewicki (President and Chief Asteroid Miner) on the Arkyd-100:

Once they’ve figured out how to get to an asteroid and how to mine it—what will they mine? Near-Earth asteroids contain abundant iron, nickel, platinum group metals, and water. If space is to be the “final frontier,” we’ll need to live off the land—and asteroids are a low gravity (in other words, cheap) way to harvest materials.

Of those materials, Planetary Resources says “water is the key to the solar system.” Water is essential for humans to live in space for the obvious reason, hydration, but explorers can also use it to shield themselves from radiation, make oxygen to breath, and manufacture rocket fuel.

Arkyd-100 prospecting satellite.

In fact, that last one may be the first line of business for Planetary Resources—a network of space-based fuel depots to top off satellites, space stations, or missions to Mars and elsewhere in the Solar System.

After water, the firm plans to mine metals. The most valuable of these are the rare (on Earth) platinum group metals.

According to Planetary Resources, “In space, a single platinum-rich 500 meter wide asteroid contains about 174 times the yearly world output of platinum, and 1.5 times the known world-reserves of platinum group metals (ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium, and platinum).”

And while mining and bringing home abundant Earthly metals like iron or nickel may not make economic sense right away—it will make good sense to use them as building materials in space. Though launch costs are falling, it’s still astronomically expensive to bring building materials for space stations, ships, or dwellings for explorers from Earth.

But if many of those materials already exist in space—we need only launch the tools to utilize them. Maybe years in the future, humans will send robotic miners, refiners, and 3D printers to pre-construct bases or ships out of resources discovered on asteroids. Already, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have shown interest in 3D printing basic structures on the moon.

Asteroid mining in the future.

To those of us raised on NASA-sized space budgets, it seems a massive undertaking. But Diamandis believes technology now enables small groups to do extraordinary things. And financial backing from billionaire investors like Eric Schmidt, Larry Page, Ram Shriram, and Ross Perot, Jr. doesn’t hurt either.

Further along, Planetary Resources may sell the technology they develop to finance operations or maybe even take the company public. But it’s still early days. The first five to ten years are about prospecting and laying claim. After that, asteroid miners will need to solve the significant challenges of low-gravity mining.

As to when they’ll break ground on their first space rock—Diamandis told me we’ll save that one for our next conversation.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech; Planetary Resources

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8 comments

  • Improbus Liber
    Improbus Liber says:

    Remember who made all the money in the last “gold rush”?

  • Sebastian Mai says:

    Rhodium – not Rubudium :D they are some of the most different metals there are :P

  • Greendogo says:

    These beacons won’t really be a “claim” to these asteroids. Most likely, smaller outfits will just use the beacons to seek out high profit asteroids that Planetary Resources conveniently tagged for them.

    Also, claiming things like that out in space is immoral. Just because you send out billions of beacons to tag everything in the solar system does not mean you own them.

    I like the idea for cataloging and locating the asteroids, though.

    • fireofenergy says:

      How could they mine it if they don’t claim it? Besides, they will probably only claim the ones that they spent good money prospecting for.
      They have that moral right.
      Once competitors enter the picture, there will probably be lawsuits (what a shame).
      So I hope Chris claims a bunch BEFORE all this lawsuit crap begins to take place in space (lest legal costs ground the whole vision)!

  • Alan Scrivener says:

    Claim with a beacon? The U.S. signed a treaty in 1966 that, if I read it right, prohibits claims in outer space.

    http://www.unoosa.org/oosa/SpaceLaw/outerspt.html

  • Babu Ranganathan says:

    ASTEROIDS, COMETS, AND METEORS ORIGINATED FROM EARTH: In the Earth’s past there were powerful volcanic explosions propelling millions of tons of earth soil and rock (now asteroids and meteors which may contain organic molecules or organisms) into space. Read my popular Internet article, ANY LIFE ON MARS CAME FROM EARTH. The article explains how millions of tons of Earth soil may exist on Mars, and how debris we call asteroids and meteors could have originated from Earth. According to a Newsweek article of September 21, 1998, p. 12 that quotes a NASA scientist, SEVEN MILLION tons of Earth soil may exist on Mars! How could this be possible? Read and find out.

    Even if the right chemicals exist, life cannot arise by chance. The molecules that make-up life have to be in a sequence, just like the letters found in a sentence. Please read my popular Internet articles listed below:

    SCIENCE AND THE ORIGIN OF LIFE, NATURAL LIMITS OF EVOLUTION, HOW FORENSIC SCIENCE REFUTES ATHEISM, WAR AMONG EVOLUTIONISTS (2nd Edition), DOES GOD PARTICLE EXPLAIN UNIVERSE’S ORIGIN? ANY LIFE ON MARS CAME FROM EARTH, NO HALF-EVOLVED DINOSAURS

    Check out my most recent Internet articles and sites: THE SCIENCE SUPPORTING CREATION and WAR AMONG EVOLUTIONISTS (2nd Edition)

    Babu G. Ranganathan*
    B.A. Bible/Biology

    Author of popular Internet article, TRADITIONAL DOCTRINE OF HELL EVOLVED FROM GREEK ROOTS

    *I have given successful lectures (with question and answer period afterwards) defending creation before evolutionist science faculty and students at various colleges and universities. I’ve been privileged to be recognized in the 24th edition of Marquis “Who’s Who in The East” for my writings on religion and science.

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