Planetary Resources Outlines Plan for Asteroid Mining

Illustration of an asteroid retrieval spacecraft in the process of capturing a 7-m, 500-ton asteroid. (Image Credit: Rick Sternbach / KISS)

Not waiting for Tuesday’s press conference, Planetary Resources officials have outlined their plans for mining asteroids to The New York Times:

The president and chief engineer is Christopher A. Lewicki, who previously worked as a manager on Mars missions at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Based in Bellevue, Wash., the company employs about 25 engineers and has development contracts for technologies like laser communications that it believes it will need for prospecting and mining missions.

The plan is to launch the first spacecraft — a small telescope to find small nearby asteroids — within the next two years. Next, the company would send out a batch of small explorers to visit some of them. Actual mining would begin after that, first targeting water and then platinum.

From meteorites that have landed on Earth, scientists know that some asteroids have concentrations of platinum 20 times that of ore in a platinum mine on Earth. But the concentration of the platinum would still be tiny — perhaps a few hundred atoms per million — and the company would need to develop robotic technology to extract the element from the rocks.

“To do large, large-scale mining of asteroids, you’re talking about decades,” Mr. Anderson said.

One possibility the company is considering is to nudge a small asteroid, perhaps one as long as a football field, into an orbit around Earth closer than the moon. Then Planetary Resources — and possibly other companies — could try out their ideas of how to set up a mining operation. “As one of the many options of how we could start the resource development, that’s certainly among them,” said Mr. Lewicki, the company president.

As I thought, this sounds a lot like the recent asteroid mining study that the Keck Institute for Space Studies published three weeks ago. Lewicki was a member of the study team.