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Interview: Planetary Resources’ Chris Lewicki Wants to Mine Some Asteroids

Water-Rich-Asteroid

by on May 8, 2012

Sorry, Michael Bay fans: When it comes to giant rocks in space, Bruce Willis-types probably won’t be our go-to guys for drilling into asteroids. Chris Lewicki, president & chief engineer of Planetary Resources, has a different plan, and it involves robots. And James Cameron. But rather than terminating anything, he plans on opening up a whole new frontier. We spoke to Chris to find out more.

Nerdist: Tell us a little bit about Planetary Resources, for those of us who are fairly new to the concept.

Chris Lewicki: Planetary Resources is a newly announced company whose intent is to develop the resources of space through mining asteroids.

N: Without government funding, how do you start something as ambitious and expensive as space exploration?

CL: Yeah, space exploration has been something that’s been the domain of government activity for quite some time, from when the space age started 50 years ago. In the recent past, there have been a lot of new companies going out on their own with small teams and private funding, commercial opportunities… and some government funds. We’re essentially proving and finding that the ability for small teams to explore space outside the government is something that’s becoming possible today. So our aim, with the backing of some of the famous people and investors that you’ve read about in the news, is to develop new technologies and find commercial opportunities along the way that will allow us to have sustainable development of space resources and robotic space exploration to commercial markets.

N: How far away do you reckon you would be right now from launching the first vehicle out of the atmosphere?

CL: We’re only about 18-24 months from putting our first demonstrator of core technology platform up in space. It’ll be in lower orbit; it is a commercially available space telescope called the Leo.

N: And how far away would you estimate that the nearest viable asteroid would be, and how long would it take to get there?

CL: Near-Earth asteroids themselves are really just a wonderful opportunity, and they’re some of the most accessible destinations in the solar system. Of all the asteroids that you might know of, of course the main belt is something that everyone’s familiar with — between Mars and Jupiter. There’s over a half-million asteroids that we’ve discovered so far, and of course millions and millions more that we haven’t, and with numbers like that there are also a group called the near-Earth asteroids, that — just like their title — kinda falls close to the Earth’s orbit, and there’s almost 10,000 of those. And of those asteroids close to the Earth, there’s a group — almost 1,500 of them — that are easier to get to than landing on the surface of the moon. The distances vary: they could be tens of thousands of kilometers to millions of kilometers, but in space, it’s all about energy and change in velocity. A lot of these things are very accessible and quite close. Some of them even are easier to get to than putting a satellite in geostationary orbit around the Earth.

N: What kind of volume of material do you need to bring back to recoup all the costs, do you think?

CL: Our initial aim and our primary plan is actually not to bring anything back to Earth. That is something that has been thought about in asteroid mining, mining the moon and other space resources for a long time, but really the value of a lot of these materials is for their continued use in space. So on asteroids, particularly a type called the carbonaceous asteroid, many of them have as much as 20% of their weight in water. And water, as you know, is a really useful thing. It’s also very heavy. It costs currently over $20,000 to put a liter of water into deep space. So to be able to already find that water in space and just move it around from point to point, wherever we need it in space, is something that is extremely valuable. It’s good for humans, for drinking, for growing plants, for respiration — you can break the oxygen off and have something to breathe, and then hydrogen is the same kind of rocket fuel that’s used to fuel the space shuttle. So you can make fuel depots in space as well.

N: When you say asteroid mining, a lot of people probably think of Armageddon, but it sounds like your vehicles are going to be unmanned. Is the plan that they’ll all be unmanned?

CL: All of our activities are with robots, robotic spacecraft, unmanned things. Certainly with the progress in technology that we’ve seen in the last 10-20 years, it has been growing exponentially in terms of information technology and autonomous and embedded systems. If you can imagine ten years out from now how much farther along we’ll be, we think it’s extremely likely that everything we’ll be doing will be possible either with robots or using things like tele-presence.

N: With raising funds, has there been interest from corporations for, let’s say, Target naming their own asteroid?

CL: Yeah. We just announced last week, and we have in-boxes that are bursting at the seams with people who are interested in getting involved, so there may very well be interest like that. I can’t really comment on that today.

N: Have the people at NASA been in touch to ask you to share any results?

CL: Yeah, well, we have many friends at NASA. Many of us, myself included, spent some time there. Our goals and NASA’s goals overlap in a lot of ways. NASA has a charter to send humans to an asteroid for deep-space exploration capability by 2025; in order to do that, they need to learn a lot more about asteroids than they know today. So the survey programs, the characterization programs, the trajectory analysis are all types of things that we are mutually interested in. And the work that we’ll do in terms of learning the cost and learning about target asteroids for potential resource development are things that NASA will be interested in.

N: But how much of that knowledge would be proprietary stuff that you wouldn’t share with them, being a private company and probably wanting to have some degree of corporate secrecy?

CL: That’s certainly an option for us, and it all really depends on what the competitive environment is. We expect, anticipate and would be elated to see the field develop and have competitors, and there might be a need in that situation to keep some of the information proprietary. But some of the information is very important and very rewarding to make public as well, because we can get the help of the rest of the world in interpreting the information. And ultimately we’ll be the ones operating at the asteroid, so it’ll be a benefit to us to share as much as is appropriate.

N: Has the military shown any interest in the applications?

CL: Oh yes, they have. The capability to have a very low-cost remote sensing platform is something that is of military interest, in terms of just lowering the cost of the different things that our government needs to do, and we’ve been contacted by a couple of different folks who are interested in exploring how we might work together in those areas.

N: You mentioned that you could anticipate competitors developing. Are there any now, to your knowledge?

CL: This is something that has been talked about for quite a while, and people have considered it now and then. To our knowledge, we’re the only company that’s been formed with the primary purpose of exploring this. There are a number of companies exploring the resources of the moon, and we think that’s great too.

N: Do you think we’re getting to the point where there will be regulation of space mineral rights by treaties, and it’s important to get out there before all that comes down?

CL: Things like that will develop, and we’ll need to work hand-in-hand as the details come out. No one’s needed to write any regulations in this area, because no one’s doing it, but as soon as someone sees a need, they’ll get around to considering the details. By us announcing our company and our objectives, there’s certainly been a lot of discussion in that area, and we look forward to helping define how this will be operated.

N: What is James Cameron’s role? Is it more imaginative/creative, or do things like his recent deep dive have space applications?

CL: James Cameron is an advisor to the company, and he is an explorer. He’s been spending a lot of time in the deep oceans and talks about how they’re a frontier we know even less about than space. In the space area, he’s actually a co-investor in a NASA mission that is en route to Mars right now, in the camera that is on the Mars science laboratory. He has a great interest, when we start going out and doing the prospecting activity, in being part of the mission, learning about the asteroids right there along with us.

N: There was a conservative Christian website that just ran an article calling Cameron a huge hypocrite for making a movie opposing the taking of a planet’s natural resources, while supporting asteroid mining. Did you see it? How would you respond to that argument?

CL: I haven’t seen that particular one, but of course asteroids are airless, lifeless bodies of rock out in space. There are millions and millions of them, and no indigenous species or anything like that. It’s a lot like what you’d find out on the beach. There’s useful material on them, and we’re only talking about a tiny, tiny percent of material that is out there in the solar system, that could just really change the way space is explored.

N: If someone reading this article wanted to become involved, could they? Are you guys hiring?

CL: Yes. We’re always looking for exceptional people who are passionate about the company’s mission to open up the resources of space and lower the cost of space exploration. We have a job application on our website – go to planetaryresources.com/careers. We’re not looking for people who just want a job; we’re looking for people with room to dedicate themselves to this goal, and to that end your resume and a cover letter are of course required, but we have a fun questionnaire to learn more about you, see what makes you tick and see if you’ll fit in with the culture here at the company.

N: In broad strokes, who would be the ideal candidate?

CL: Someone who likes to experiment, has an emphasis on history and some experience behind them in actually creating a product and bring that product to public use. Whether it’s space or not. We’re actually looking for innovators and thinkers who are working in areas outside of space exploration, because a lot of our progress recently hasn’t been innovated by NASA and the government; it’s been innovated by private industry. We’d like to have some of that capability and put it to use in space exploration.