What happened to that crazy asteroid mining plan?

The ambitious idea to extract precious minerals from asteroids has been scaled back a bit.

By MSN Money Partner May 8, 2014 4:12PM
Credit: © Sciepro/Science Photo Library/Corbis

Caption: Computer artwork of an asteroidBy Andy Pasztor, The Wall Street Journal

Two years ago, a group of Silicon Valley luminaries and space entrepreneurs introduced a startup whose goal seemed straight out of science fiction: extracting precious minerals from asteroids.

With much fanfare, Planetary Resources Inc., the closely held company financed partly by Google (GOOG) Chief Executive Larry Page and Chairman Eric Schmidt, and supported by British billionaire Richard Branson and space tourist Charles Simonyi, outlined plans to mine platinum or other rare metals with robotic spacecraft and return the metals to Earth.

Backers described the project, with its potential to reach tens of millions of miles into space and generate billions of dollars in profits, as "the future of entrepreneurial space."

Now, largely without publicity, the team of former National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials that runs Planetary Resources has shifted the company's focus to a more mundane space resource: water.

Water found on or near asteroids, their theory goes, could be processed into fuel to extend the useful lives of aging commercial satellites.

"I still consider that mining," Planetary Resources co-founder Eric Anderson said in a recent interview disclosing the new game plan. "We're going to take the resources of space and turn them into a usable material."

The company's new course underscores the huge challenges facing commercial space projects, even those with the stablest funding and most impressive scientific pedigrees. Space experts and entrepreneurs have been buzzing for months about the change.

Planetary Resources originally envisioned using orbiting swarms of small telescopes -- some weighing as little as 30 pounds -- to survey some of the thousands of sizable asteroids that come closest to the Earth or the moon, looking for evidence of mineral deposits. A second wave of unmanned spacecraft many times larger would have been dispatched to do the mining.

In mapping out the new trajectory, however, Mr. Anderson acknowledged that technical hurdles and cost considerations have turned the initial vision into a distant dream.

Instead, he said, the company's immediate focus is on establishing orbiting fuel depots, essentially gas stations for many hundreds of decaying satellites, which otherwise would burn up as they plummeted back to Earth. The plan calls for robotic spacecraft designed to retrieve water from asteroids or their vapor trails -- without ever landing on them -- and break it down into hydrogen and oxygen for use as propellants. Solar power would be used to heat up asteroids to create water vapor, and the intense cold of space would freeze it for later use.

Commercial communication satellites running low on fuel after a decade or more in service would adjust their orbits to reach the depots and refuel, potentially gaining more years of life. Planetary Resources also envisions scientific, military and even spy satellites, along with deep-space scientific probes, benefiting from such fill-ups.

"Quite honestly, it's more sexy to talk about . . . bringing something back to the Earth," Mr. Anderson said. But that goal, he said, is much more difficult and requires first establishing the same kind of fuel depots the company is emphasizing now. "That certainly will be the emphasis in the early years."

By some measures, selling fuel at orbiting depots could be as lucrative as digging up minerals. The company, though, continues to talk about eventually setting up remote-controlled mining operations for metals.

But at least for now, even Planetary Resources' scaled-back proposal faces major hurdles, including the fact that at least two established space companies already have devised competing satellite-rejuvenation projects that don't depend on such elaborate techniques.

Alliant Techsystems (ATK) is marketing a simpler solution. Its plan calls for launching a family of vehicles that would rendezvous with larger, aging satellites and latch onto them. The vehicles would remain attached to the satellites, serving as a propulsion system and replacement fuel tank to keep both spacecraft in orbit.

Alliant's approach avoids the complex business of tapping into the host spacecraft's existing fuel lines, an operation that can cause dangerous collisions or venting of chemicals.

Mr. Anderson, however, says his company's strategy would be substantially less expensive in the long run, because it would avoid the significant cost of launching fuel from the ground. So far commercial satellite operators generally have been ambivalent about signing on to any proposals to extend the lives of their satellites. Alliant has indicated it has at least two firm customers, but it hasn't identified them.

A spokeswoman said Alliant's strategy is less risky and more versatile, because it also can be used "to take over for a satellite with a damaged or inoperable propulsion or attitude-control system."

Despite the risks, Mr. Anderson remains upbeat. He said test launches are slated for the end of this year and 2015, followed by plans for "sending our first swarm [of telescopes] to an asteroid target" in 2016. He compares Planetary Resources' proposed depots to building a highway for deep-space exploration. "If it works, it's a total game-changer."

The company isn't seeking any federal financing, unlike a previously announced, high-profile effort to send the first manned spaceship to circumnavigate Mars around the end of the decade. Championed by Dennis Tito, who became the world's first space tourist with his visit to the international space station, that project is belatedly seeking government help to cover launch costs.

"We don't need money" from federal sources, said Mr. Anderson, who has been reluctant to break our specific projected costs. But he added that Planetary Resources would be looking for Washington's support when it came to international rules and treaties dealing with resources discovered on asteroids.

Chris Lewicki, the company's president and chief engineer, said water is one of the easiest and most valuable resources "to remotely prospect" and use. It could cost about $50 million to transport a single ton of water from the Earth into orbit, according to Planetary Resources. Mr. Anderson has suggested it is likely to cost substantially less to carry out the entire 2016 mission to start identifying virtually unlimited sources of water on asteroids.

More from The Wall Street Journal

May 8, 2014 11:08PM
Talk about pie-in-the-sky thinking!  So many first-order engineering problems readily identifiable as to make the refueling or latch-on propulsion module proposals quite sophomoric:
1) Many spacecraft today will have some sort of major system failure well before they exhaust their on-board propellant supply.
2) Most spacecraft designers and the people who buy spacecraft will not pay upfront for the extra hardware, control systems and related software, thermal control, monitoring/diagnostic sensors, etc., required for on-orbit refueling---nor accept the additional non-revenue-producing weight associated with such---in the expectation that at some undefined future time refueling might be available.
3) Either concept generally requires at least one side of the spacecraft to be free of appendages (e.g., antennas), cooling radiators, attitude sensors, etc., so as to have clearance for the other vehicle to dock to it . . . this is not easily accomplished.
4)  A latch-on propulsion module will greatly disrupt the spacecraft's center-of-mass and moments-of-inertia, probably making spacecraft attitude control and delta-V maneuvers all but impossible with the programmed ACS software and fixed locations and orientations of the original attitude control/delta-V thrusters.
5)  It is very likely that the cost of the refueling mission or latch-on propulsion mission will exceed the depreciated value the spacecraft has whenever it runs out of propellant (design mission life for modern comsats is in the 10-15 years range), precluding such endeavors from becoming economically viable . . . if refueling worked, tax deductions taken for asset depreciation would have to be paid back, probably with interest. 

Certain companies are either sugar-coating what they propose, or are in dire need of some spacecraft and propulsion domain knowledge.

BTW, autonomous on-orbit spacecraft refueling was demonstrated back in 2007 using spacecraft explicitly designed for such (Google "Orbital Express spacecraft").
May 8, 2014 5:00PM

I'm surprised Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, aren't in on this deal too???


May 9, 2014 9:55AM
It should still happen but make it a prison asteroid for greedy grubbers. Our world has had enough of them. 
May 9, 2014 1:42AM
Fool me Once....Yeah, I thought it was some kind of problem like that..;(  ;)
May 9, 2014 7:11AM
In other words they are a bunch of idiots !
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