Future Rock Stars

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It's been called the final frontier, but space has always lacked the feature that enticed people to frontiers of the past: the promise of getting rich. Everything about space is expensive, conventional wisdom says, and nothing about it has seemed profitable.

A number of companies have sprung up to challenge that assumption. Funded by some of the world’s wealthiest people and staffed by some of the top minds in aeronautics, they believe the time has come for a new multibillion-dollar space industry, with the Puget Sound region serving as its launch pad.

Some firms, such as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Bothell-based Tethers Unlimited Inc., are focused on developing technology that would cheapen space travel. Others, including Andrews Space in Tukwila and Aerojet Rocketdyne in Redmond, build equipment like satellite propulsion systems for current space exploration missions.

But among these players, one company in particular has become the poster child for space commercialization and its possibilities: Bellevue’s Planetary Resources, which wants to use unmanned spacecraft to mine asteroids for precious minerals.

The idea seems ripped from the pages of science fiction. But dismissing it becomes more difficult when considering those involved. The company has potentially deep pockets, with financing from Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, CEO and executive chairman, respectively, of Google; Sir Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group; Charles Simonyi, philanthropist and software guru largely responsible for Microsoft Office; and Texas billionaire Ross Perot Jr.

Cofounders Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson have a track record in aeronautic entrepreneurialism, having already sent tourists into orbit via the pair’s Virginia-based firm, Space Adventures. Former NASA engineers are handling technology development, and on governmental outreach is Peter Marquez, former director of space policy under Presidents Bush and Obama.

A pedigree like that doesn’t show up for pipe dreams, and as long shots go, asteroid mining could yield serious dividends. 

Thousands of near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) orbit in close proximity to our planet. Past analysis shows a single one could contain more platinum-group metals than have ever been mined on Earth. These materials are used in everything from computer hard drives to automobile engines. The value of such asteroids could therefore be, well, astronomical.

In a segment on The Daily Show last year, Jon Stewart was so excited by the company’s formation that he asked astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to offer a reality check. Tyson instead gave asteroid mining a stamp of approval, saying the concept is “not bullshit.”

Imagine that! One day, asteroid mining may become reality. So may space tourism, moon bases and other ventures that could make space exploration a booming industry. But as Planetary Resources prepares to launch its first equipment into orbit, the question hits home: Are we really there yet?

All the investment money in the world won’t matter if the technical issues around asteroid mining can’t be solved. Leading the charge is Chris Lewicki, Planetary Resources’ president and chief engineer. Lewicki is a 10-year veteran of NASA and one of the main people to design, assemble and operate NASA’s Mars rovers as well as the Phoenix Mars lander. He has been studying asteroids so long there’s actually one named after him — 13609 Lewicki.

Working with a team of fellow engineers with NASA backgrounds, Lewicki says Planetery Resources will begin mining asteroids by the early 2020s. It will start putting satellite telescopes into space as early as next spring to study NEAs in greater detail. Once the company has determined which asteroids could hold the biggest payoffs, it will send robotic spacecraft to explore the sites further before actually mining them.

“The technology to do this is already there,” says Lewicki. “There are engineering challenges we’ll have to work through. In terms of cost and technology, though, this is in the realm of do-ability.”

Still, some in the space industry are skeptical. Harry McSween is one of the chief meteorite researchers at NASA and chair of the surface composition group for NASA’s ongoing Dawn asteroid probe. He worked with Lewicki on the Mars rover program and, like Lewicki, is excited about space commercialization. While McSween believes asteroid mining could be possible, he thinks too many obstacles lie between it and profitability.

“Forget mining,” McSween says. “If there were big gold bars just floating around in near Earth space, it still wouldn’t pay off to go get them.” He notes that the cost of launching any space mission, let alone a complicated mining mission, is enormous, and that most asteroids have jagged shapes and unpredictable gravity fields. Tethering to them and operating mining equipment on them would be tricky, to put it lightly.

Lewicki disagrees, saying the technical issues are far from insurmountable, especially if asteroids can be researched closely beforehand. Furthermore, with its smaller staff and narrow focus, he says Planetary Resources can accomplish this goal for one-tenth the cost of a NASA mission. He avoids discussing a specific price tag but says the low billions are a ballpark figure for traveling to an NEA, mining it and bringing the materials back to Earth.

That’s a high number, but not uncommon in the resource-extraction business. Lewicki compares what Planetary Resources is doing to Shell Oil’s development of offshore drilling platforms in the 1980s. Shell invested billions of dollars to begin mining the ocean floor, but it yielded billions more.

“What we’re doing is the same as the U.S. Steels and Standard Oils of the past,” says Lewicki. “Billions of dollars in investment could lead to trillions in resources.”

Compared to the oil industry, Planetary Resources’ business model lies on shakier ground, even beyond the technical obstacles. For starters, the rarity of platinum group minerals is what makes them so pricey. Should Planetary Resources deliver a veritable mountain of these materials to Earth, their value could drop from billions to millions faster than a falling star.

Laws around asteroid mining are nonexistent, of course. The company has enlisted the White House’s former space policy director to navigate this terrain, but regulations on such issues as asteroid ownership could shutter the company before the first mining bot leaves the ground.

Finally, government contracts are vital for many commercial space companies. Lewicki says the technology is spun off and sold to such entities as NASA and the military, creating a revenue stream as the firm prepares for its prime directive. But with proposals in Congress to slash NASA’s budget by $1.2 billion compared to 2012’s allocation, that well could start to run dry.

Nevertheless, there is something about outer space that captures the popular imagination like nothing else. This past summer, Planetary Resources launched a Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund its first space telescope. Lewicki says a test version of the telescope, about the size of a large microwave oven, will be put into orbit next spring, launched from the International Space Station. Funders were offered access to the telescope’s data and the opportunity to take “space selfies” — pictures of themselves that would appear on the telescope’s screen as it orbits Earth. The campaign’s goal was $1 million; it raised more than $1.5 million.

In the burgeoning space industry, economic models feature a lot of uncertainty, but that’s always been the case with space endeavors. Especially during tough financial times, space exploration becomes a frivolous expenditure to some. But to others, Planetary Resources carries an important torch. In search of a new gold mine, it goes where no business plan has gone before. “We’ll fail plenty of times before we succeed,” Lewicki admits. “But what happens if we do this? It may seem like a ludicrous idea, but if we succeed, it’s history.”

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