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How Billionaire Asteroid Miners Make Money — Without Mining Asteroids

Alex Knapp, Forbes Staff

Earlier this week, space startup Planetary Resources announced its existence to the world. Promising to vastly expand the presence of business in space, the company announced its long-term intention, which was to mine asteroids for water and precious metals.

Arkyd100 How Billionaire Asteroid Miners Make Money    Without Mining AsteroidsArtist conception of an Arkyd 100-series space telescope. (Credit: Planetary Resources)

To me, even more audacious than the claim that the company will mine asteroids was co-founder Peter Diamandis’ claim that Planetary Resources is already “a positive cash-flow company.”

So when I had a chance to discuss the technology and business of asteroid mining with Chris Lewicki, the company’s President and Chief Engineer, one of my first questions was about that statement – is it true that Planetary Resources is already making money?

“That’s correct,” he said. “When we started the company, one of the first things we did was to identify the roadmap that would get us from now until we got to the asteroids. That way, we could identify who would be interested in the things we’d be developing along the way. We already have contracts with NASA, some private companies, and even a few private individuals.”

“We’re the first to admit this is a long term endeavour,” says Lewicki. “Despite the fact that we have the backing of wealthy funders, it’s irresponsible to just throw money away. We’re building a business, not performing a stunt.”

Part of the reason why the company expects to make money on an ongoing basis is that fact that they’re focused on low cost delivery. To get to that point, they’re bringing current approaches to building spacecraft into the 21st century by focusing on mass production and taking advantage of technologies available from other companies so that they don’t have to develop everything in-house.

“In space exploration, it has been the case that you build a machine fine tuned to a mission and just build one.  That has contributed to the cost. For our needs, though, we need to make swarms that travel to different asteroids. That means moving from a crown jewel that you have to touch with kid gloves to a commodity. I’d love to get to a place that they’re so common that our engineers have to move them off their desks to eat lunch.

“It’s like computers,” he continued. “They used to be in clean rooms and handled by guys in isolation suits. Now they’re in your pocket and it’s no big deal if you drop it. That’s what we want to bring to robotic space exploration.”

From Space Telescopes To Robot Swarms

The first phase in Planetary Resources’ plans is its Arkyd 100 series. These spacecraft will be telescopes with remote sensing technology, to be launched within about 18-24 months. For its first cycle of testing, the company will be launching “probably a half-dozen” of the telescopes into low Earth orbit. To save on costs, the telescopes will be launched as a secondary payload. That is, they’ll be piggybacking on a launch that’s already planned. Lewicki confirmed that the company has already been in talks with several launch providers.

“Enough people solving that problem [of space launches] that we don’t need to solve it, too.  We can do what we need to do with cost of launches today.  Our plans are only going to be enhanced by the face that costs are going down,” said Lewicki.

IMGP5210a 300x200 How Billionaire Asteroid Miners Make Money    Without Mining Asteroids

How far off is Lunar Staking?

Putting space telescopes into Earth orbit provides several business opportunities for Planetary Resources. Being in orbit, they’re in a position to identify and track near-Earth asteroids that can’t be seen from Earth’s surface. The Arkyd 100s will also be equipped to determine the size of asteroids, determine their orbits, and use light spectra to compare to meteorites to arrive at estimates of the asteroid composition. In addition, the telescopes are capable of being pointed at Earth for observati0n, as well. All of this potential for gathering data is a potential opportunity to sell that data to universities, businesses, and government.

In addition, Lewicki confirmed to me that they’ll also be putting Arkyds on the market, as well as a tool for private scientific work. There’s not a price set yet, though it will be in the “low single-digit millions,” with the possibility of alterations for specific use and the ability to carry payloads for the conducting of experiments.

Once the technology in the Arkyd 100 series has been refined through iteration, the company will move on to development of the Arkyd 200 series. The Arkyd 200 series will be equipped with additional equipment and launched to a higher orbit to better track asteroids. It will also be equipped with a propulsion system so that it can move into various positions.

One of the main business opportunities presented by the Arkyd 200 is the potential for deep space communications networking. According to Lewicki, who worked for NASA on some of the Mars rover projects, the deep space communications network is 50 years old, based on radio and giant, Earth-based antennae. For the Arkyds, the company wants to develop a small, low power, optical communications ability. This ability would be “tech enabling,” according to Lewicki, and would offer some better communications opportunity that the limited bandwidth of NASA’s network.

The final phase of Planetary Resources’ Arkyd program is the 300 series. This will comprise a robotic swarm of several Arkyds, which will be networked through a local area network to coordinate the tasks involved in determining whether an asteroid is right for mining.

 

“One of the robots might be relaying messages to Earth, while another takes pictures and yet another takes pictures from a different angle,” said Lewicki.

Part of the reason for using a swarm is rather than just one Arkyd is, counter-intuitively, the cost. “The key is redundancy and safety in numbers. We’re planning for a certain amount of failure, and it’s a lot cheaper to work for 80% reliability than it is for 99.9% reliability.”

One of the challenges of developing the Arkyd 300 will be developing the artificial intelligence and communications necessary for the robots to cooperate as a swarm. This is something that the company plans to do in collaboration with other companies.

“We’re at a point now where engineers develop technology very differently than they did at the beginning of the space age. We want to use outside participation, work out contracts, and even experiment with crowdsourcing. With respect to design, it’s time to bring space up to date,” said Lewicki.

How To Mine An Asteroid

When I wrote about Planetary Resources’ press conference earlier this week, the primary point that frustrated me is that the company provided few details about how they actually intended to extract resources from asteroids and return them to Earth. As it turns out, part of that reason is because they’re still very much in development.

“The short answer is that it will take prospecting and in situ spacecraft to determining the most effective way to extract those resources,” said Lewicki.

asteroid 300x225 How Billionaire Asteroid Miners Make Money    Without Mining AsteroidsNot that they don’t have any idea how to proceed – as Lewicki points out, people have been thinking about this problem for decades, and there are some “attractive techniques,” such as using the heat and cold differential where the sun hits the surface of the asteroid to provide the energy needed to extract resources.

“The devil is in the details,” said Lewicki. “But at this stage, we’re not going to worry about it. We’re confident that we can work out the specifics, and recognize that there’s already a lot of research in this area. Our focus as a company is to develop low-cost solutions for the spacecraft we’ll need to determine how best to mine asteroids. While we’re doing that, we’re also focused on building a sustainable business.”

Once they are able to mine asteroids, some critics have suggested that the company may be shooting itself in the foot. That’s because by being able to put a high supply of precious metals on the market, they might very well depress prices significantly, which would harm their investment return.

Lewicki’s response to this criticism was to the point, “Of course, it’s all about supply and demand, and we’re subject to those risks as much as any other company. But if we as engineers had materials that were best for job and could those materials all the time without thinking of the costs, it would change the world.

“It’s not about scarcity,” he continued. “It’s about access. Fundamentally, that’s what we’re focused on. We want to take opportunities and deliver value just like any other business. Only our business will extend the economic sphere into the solar system.”

Originally Posted Here


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