22 August 2012

Planetary Resources' Plans: Interview in Slate

Planetary Resources officials Eric Anderson and Chris Lewicki were interviewed regarding their company's plans to mine asteroids in space:
PM: You want to put space telescopes in orbit to seek out asteroids rich in precious metals or water, and then send out robotic spacecraft to study and mine them. Are you serious?

Chris Lewicki: Yes. We're launching the first telescopes in 18 months, and we're actually building them ourselves in our own facility in Bellevue, Wa. We have a team of more than 30 engineers with long experience of doing this kind of thing at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, myself included. Many of our team worked on designing and building NASA's Curiosity rover, and I was a system engineer on the Spirit and Opportunity rovers—and flight director when we landed them on Mars.

PM: How many asteroid-spotting telescopes will you need, and are they anything like Hubble?

Eric Anderson: We'd like to put up at least 10 or 15 of them in orbit in the next five years, some of them on Virgin Galactic rockets. They're a lot less capable than Hubble, which is a billion-dollar space vehicle the size of a school bus. Our telescopes, which we call the Arkyd 100 spacecraft, are cubes half-a-meter on a side and will cost around $1 million each, though the first one, of course, will cost much more. But when they are developed to a high level of performance, we want to print them en masse on an assembly line. They will have sub-arc-second resolution, which is just a mind-blowing imaging capability.

CL: The smaller we can make them the lower they cost to launch. Making them the size of a minifridge, with 22-centimeter-diameter optics, hits the sweet spot between capability and launch cost.

PM: How can you tell if an asteroid might have platinum, gold, or water deposits?

CL: We'll characterize them by studying their albedo—the amount of light that comes from them—and then with the appropriate instruments we can start to classify them, as to what type of asteroid they are, whether they are stony, metallic, or carbonaceous. We're starting with optical analyses, though we could use swarms of Arkyd 100s with spectroscopic, infrared, or ultraviolet sensors, too, if needed.

PM: Once you spot a likely asteroid, what then?

EA: We'll send other spacecraft out to intercept and study them. They will be rocket-assisted versions of the telescope—the Arkyd 200 for nearer Earth space, and the Arkyd 300, which is the same except that it will have a deep-space communications capability. We'll make sure we understand every cubic inch of that asteroid. We'll find out where it is, what its inertia is, what its spin rate is, whether it has been burned, impacted, or is carbonaceous or metallic. We'll know that asteroid inside and out before we go there and mine it.

PM: Will you be able to tell, remotely, if a space rock has lucrative platinum deposits, say?

CL: Probably not. But we would be able to tell metals from water or silicates. There's an asteroid out in the main belt right now called 24 Themis, and we've been able to sense water ice on its surface from way back here on Earth. Identifying metals will require spectrometry and direct analysis of the materials returned. The Arkyd 300 will get right up to the asteroid, land on it, and take samples—like NASA's NEAR and Japan's Hayabusa missions did—then return pictures, data, and grain samples back to Earth for analysis.

PM: Digging up ore on an asteroid 50 to 500 meters wide in zero gravity will be a tough task, even for robots. What technology will you use?

CL: The data the 300-series gathers will allow us to design the mining spacecraft. There are many, many different options for that. They could vary from very small spacecraft that swarm and cooperate on a bunch of tasks, to very large spacecraft that look seriously industrial. Before we can begin the detailed design of a mining spacecraft, we need to actually go there, explore the asteroid and learn where the specific opportunities are.

PM: You've suggested an asteroid could be brought closer to the Earth to make it easier to mine. Is that really feasible?

EA: It is. One of the ways that we could do that is simply to turn the water on an asteroid into rocket fuel and burn it in a thruster that nudges its trajectory. Split water into hydrogen and oxygen, and you get the same fuels that launch space shuttles. Some asteroids are 20 percent water, and that amount would let you move the thing anywhere in the solar system.

Another way is to set up a catapult on the asteroid itself and use the thermal energy of the sun to wind up the catapult. Then you throw stuff off in the opposite direction you want the asteroid to go. Conservation of momentum will eventually move the thing forward—like standing on a skateboard and shooting a gun.

CL: This is not only our view. A Keck Institute "return an asteroid study," involving people at JPL, NASA Johnson Space Center and Caltech, showed that the technology exists to place small asteroids a few meters wide in orbit around the moon for further study.

PM: Can you think of any other uses for asteroid repositioning?

EA: There is one incredible concept: We could place the asteroid in an orbit between the Earth and Mars to allow astronauts who want to get there to hop on and off it like a bus. Think about that. You could make a spacecraft out of the asteroid. _Slate
The use of an asteroid as a spacecraft is particularly exciting for anyone who wants to see a more rapid expansion of human activity into space. Not only could an asteroid be converted into an Earth to Mars roundtrip shuttle, but similar asteroid shuttles could be nudged into orbits going beyond Mars, to the asteroid belt and further yet.

And anyone wishing to travel interstellar on a "generation ship" could not wish for a better vehicle than a hollowed asteroid.

Stay tuned. Between SpaceX, Planetary Resources, Stratolaunch, etc., humans may just find a profitable and sustainable way to live in space -- and live well.

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Blogger kurt9 said...

Low-cost bootstrap manufacturing capability is necessary for space settlement:


Biomeme technology is also necessary. The relevant synthetic biology could be developed around 2030 or so.

I think seasteading is a good first step. Seasteads make for good platforms to develop the necessary biomeme and other technologies essential for space settlement. At least you have fresh air to breath in case your experimental biomeme goes bad on a seastead.

Establishing seasteads by 2030 or so seems feasible to me, both technologically and economically (which could be financed by asteroid mining). The development of the necessary technologies and market competition driven reduction in space transportation costs over the following 20 years should make fabrication of the first space settlements feasible around 2050.

Business opportunities for seasteads include:

medical tourism - advanced stem cell regeneration and anti-aging therapies not available in other places due to excessive government regulation.

casino resorts and eco-tourism - diving among the vast artificial reefs as part of the city-state construction.

Biotechnology, nanotechnology, and other advanced technology start-ups that may be inhibited by government regulation.

International banking

Space launch - if the city-state is located on the equator.

Wednesday, 22 August, 2012  
Blogger Eric said...

NASA is looking to tackle long term travel problems with synthetic biology, which is a good idea considering how the decreasing cost and increasing usefulness (partially driven by IT):


If you look at the timescale they are looking at going to Mars by 2030, and putting up a colony around 2040. Now all we have to do is get Aubrey to nail this whole aging problem and we'll be in business.

Thursday, 23 August, 2012  
Blogger kurt9 said...

I have no confidence in anything that NASA does. It is a government bureaucracy. Successful space settlement will come about only through the efforts of private parties. This is why I think the first human settlements will not be until 2050-2060. A lot of robotics stuff will be done in space by this time, and the robots and automation systems (as well as additive manufacturing, etc.) will definitely improve over the next few decades.

There is a lot of technology that must be developed and debugged before space settlements become practical. I think seasteads make a good platform for the development of such technologies, and I do think these are practical by the 30's.

Thursday, 23 August, 2012  
Blogger al fin said...

Elon Musk wants to take SpaceX to Mars a lot sooner than 2030. It all depends upon how profitable his earlier enterprises can be, and how quickly the necessary support technologies and industries can grow.

A lot also rides on political developments. Governments may decide to shut down private space enterprise altogether, and that would be all she wrote, for all practical purposes.

Seasteads are practical now. Think of an independent floating oil rig that leases a profitable oil field and produces enough oil & gas to support itself and the development of new profitable enterprises, such as offshore banking, gambling, sex tourism, etc... Or a mobile seafloor mineral harvester... Such businesses could be family or multi-family enterprises, with children being brought up in the trade with special skills.

Politics could shut it all down, but if Al Fin social forecasters are correct, we are entering an age of widespread anarchy in the third world (I know, how could you tell the difference?) where international cooperation is likely to be strained by proxy wars for resources.

In such an environment, there is a lot of room for activities that slip between the cracks, so to speak. A very dangerous world to be sure, full of pirates, genocides, and 4 am raids on peaceful settlments. But also a world of opportunity.

Thursday, 23 August, 2012  
Blogger kurt9 said...

Seasteads are practical now. Think of an independent floating oil rig that leases a profitable oil field and produces enough oil & gas to support itself and the development of new profitable enterprises, such as offshore banking, gambling, sex tourism, etc...

I'm not sure I would feel comfortable on a floating oil rig in the middle of the ocean. Sea-water corrosion and rogue waves make for a very demanding environment. Indeed, I think space is actually a more benign environment for structural materials than the open seas. If carbon nanotubes can be made in lengths sufficient to make an ocean city state (perhaps using a hyperboloid structure), I would be more comfortable with that rather than existing steels.

I was also thinking in terms of manufacturing costs. Current ocean platforms are quite expensive (probably a billion dollars for a good one). China's Broad Group with their automated manufacturing of high rise buildings is a step in the right direction to making seasteads affordable. I'm assuming that the progression of such automated manufacturing, and 3D printing of large structures, should make it much more affordable to construct seasteads in the 2030 period.

we are entering an age of widespread anarchy in the third world

This is certainly true, and not just the third world either. The developed countries (Japan, Europe, and U.S.) face serious sovereign debt and other economic stresses around 2030. Hopefully, these will distract existing governments enough to make seastead autonomy possible (as well as commercial space development).

Thursday, 23 August, 2012  
Blogger kurt9 said...

I had another thought about the economics of seasteading vs. space colonization. Freeman Dyson put paid to the original O'niell/L-5 scenario with his paper "Pilgrims, Saints, and Spacemen" (look up the paper, its quite good) when he pointed out that space colonization will not be practical until it can be financed for around $300,000-500,000 per person. Self-financing is necessary for space settlement.

Since I assume that self-financing will be necessary for seasteadin as well, I use this same figure for calculating when seasteading becomes practical (for people like myself). This requires at least one order of magnitude of capital cost reduction from current capital costs of oil platforms today. Automated manufacturing (e.g. Broad Group's Skycity) and 3D-printing/additive manufacturing ought to deliver the necessary cost reduction for seasteads by 2030 or so. This is the primary reason for my 2030 date.

One also looks forward to the radical reduction of capital cost of making anything from advances in robotics, automation, and 3D-printing. Not just for the city-state itself, but everything in it.

Thursday, 23 August, 2012  
Blogger al fin said...

The early phases of seasteading are unlikely to be particularly cheap nor particularly safe. The same will probably apply to the early stages of space colonisation.

But as you suggest, improved technologies of construction and production technologies -- better and cheaper robotics and animation -- are likely to improve both safety and affordability.

Mining of all sorts is likely to become much more automated, and as the economics of mining robotics improves, extended-family and relatively small cooperative mining operations -- including deep sea mining, coal mining, gas hydrate mining, and oil & gas production -- are likely to pop up, as counter-intuitive as that may seem now.

Friday, 24 August, 2012  
Blogger kurt9 said...

The early phases of seasteading are unlikely to be particularly cheap nor particularly safe. The same will probably apply to the early stages of space colonisation.

Which is why redundancy is needed. Making these things must be cheap enough so that we can make 4-5 of them at a time, not just one. Or a modular approach. Any seastead or space colony has to be modular anyways, to allow for organic growth as its economy take off and more people immigrate to the city-state.

Friday, 24 August, 2012  

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