Planetary Resources Receives Patent for Asteroid Prospecting & Mining

Spacecraft examine asteroid. (Credit: Planetary Resources)
Spacecraft examine asteroid. (Credit: Planetary Resources)

U.S. Patent No. 9,266,627
February 23, 2016
[Full Patent]

Method, apparatus, and system for asteroid prospecting and mining


A method of prospecting asteroids for mining includes (a) launching at least one spacecraft, the spacecraft including a space telescope; (b) examining a plurality of asteroids using the space telescope to gather scientific data on the asteroids for characterization and cataloging; and (c) selecting one or more asteroids to mine from the plurality of asteroids examined by the space telescope and contained within the catalog. A system for prospecting asteroids for mining is also described.

Inventors: Anderson; Eric (Arlington, VA), Diamandis; Peter H. (Santa Monica, CA), Lewicki; Chris (Bellevue, WA), Voorhees; Chris (Bellevue, WA)

Applicant: Planetary Resources Development Corporation, Bellevue, WA


Prospecting satellite (Credit: Planetary Resources)
Prospecting satellite (Credit: Planetary Resources)

An embodiment of the present application relates to a method of prospecting asteroids for mining, comprising: (a) launching at least one spacecraft, the spacecraft including a space telescope; (b) examining a plurality of asteroids using the space telescope to gather scientific data for asteroid characterization and cataloguing; and (c) selecting one or more asteroids to mine from the plurality of asteroids examined by the space telescope and stored within the catalogue.

Another embodiment of the present application relates to a system for prospecting asteroids for mining, comprising: (a) at least one spacecraft; and (b) a space telescope mounted on the at least one spacecraft, the telescope adapted to locate, identify, and/or characterize a plurality of asteroids.

Detailed Description (Excerpts)

In step 110, coarse measurements can include flyby missions of the asteroids, for example, using a spacecraft having a space telescope. In step 120, more sensitive, capable and focused equipment can be utilized as the pool of candidate asteroids is reduced through the prospecting process. This can occur, for example, by rendezvous and orbital missions to the asteroids.

Prospecting telescope (Credit: Planetary Resources)
Prospecting telescope (Credit: Planetary Resources)

Ultimately, enough information on asteroid targets can be acquired to identify viable asteroids for mining, e.g., in step 130. According to an embodiment, the identification can be based at least in part on the concentration of desired materials, the homogeneity of materials, and the economic feasibility of extraction of materials to market.

Once commercially viable asteroids are identified from the candidates, in step 140, spacecraft can access and process (e.g., mine) the resources from the best identified asteroid(s), for example, during subsequent campaigns. This can include, for example, performing an initial proof of concept extraction, subsequent scaling up to larger quantities, and then industrialization and automation of the mining processes.

According to an embodiment, space resource extraction and development can focus on water-rich asteroids. Access to water and other life-supporting volatiles in space can provide hydration, breathable air, radiation shielding, and manufacturing capabilities, among other things.

Prospecting satellites (Credit: Planetary Resources)
Prospecting satellites (Credit: Planetary Resources)

Water’s elements, hydrogen and oxygen, can also be used to formulate rocket fuel. According to an embodiment, water can be mined from asteroids and transported to a network of orbital fuel depots (e.g., gas stations) set up across the solar system, thereby reducing the cost of space operations by 100 times or more. Using the resources of space to help fuel space exploration can enable large-scale exploration of the solar system, thereby providing a feasible opportunity for the sustainable development of space.

According to embodiments, in Earth orbit, water from asteroids can also be converted and used to refuel satellites, increase the payload capacity of rockets by refueling their upper stages, reboost space stations, supply propellant needed to boost satellites from Low Earth Orbit to Geostationary Orbit, provide radiation shielding for spaceships, and provide fuel to space tugs that clean up space debris.

Metals mined from the asteroids can be returned to Earth. To facilitate transportation back to Earth, the metals can be converted to a metal foam structure, however, other embodiments are possible. Details regarding the process of converting the metals to a metal foam structure can be found in applicant’s co-pending U.S. Provisional Application No. 61/794,976, filed on Mar. 15, 2013, the entire content of which is incorporated herein by reference. As an alternative to, or in addition to, bringing metals back to Earth, metals from asteroids can also be used directly in space. Metals like iron or aluminum can be moved to collection points in space for purposes such as space construction materials, spacecraft shielding, and raw material for industrial processes at, for example, a space station….

A considerable amount of information must be acquired about the ore-body before detailed “mine planning” can begin. In-situ extraction and processing technologies can be used to provide access to both asteroidal water and metals. Existing rovers, such as the Mars rover, can be fitted with exploratory and/or mining capabilities, such as drills, etc., for the purposes of mining asteroids. Additionally, many known technologies and techniques from mining on Earth can be applied to asteroid mining. An example of a tool can comprise a constellation of spacecraft that are modified to carry mining, extraction, and processing apparatus. Additional tools can include the use of concentrated solar thermal energy directed towards the asteroid from, for instance, a large space deployed solar collector array consisting of inflatable mirrored surfaces precisely angled to focus solar energy in specific directions upon command to process asteroid material through heating. Containment method can be used to manage material, an example of which may comprise a large inflatable or expandable storage unit made of material strong enough to contain raw asteroid materials. Common centrifuges modified for the space environment can be used to separate materials as necessary.

Fig. 7 (Credit: Planetary Resources)
Fig. 7 (Credit: Planetary Resources)

FIG. 7 illustrates an embodiment of a spacecraft approaching an asteroid for mining. According to embodiments, the mining spacecraft can comprise one or more relatively autonomous, robotic units that are operated in conjunction with a command and control housed in a ground station on Earth. The command and control can communicate with the mining spacecraft via long range radio antennae or laser communication system. The present application, however, is not limited to the mining spacecraft shown in FIG. 7.

  • ThomasLMatula

    And for their next trick they plan to patent the wheel, since no one seems to have done so. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Really this was all covered in John Lewis’ book “Mining the Sky” decades ago. At the very least they should be required to demonstrate it by providing a piece of metal mined from an asteroid to the Patent Office.

  • duheagle

    It looks as though Jeff Bezos has company as a patent-the-obvious IP troll. Even if this patent application was chock full of originality and borderline genius, filing it is an absurd waste of resources that would far better be applied to paying engineers, bending metal, hiring a rocket and getting on with things. Patents are generally granted for a period of 17 years from date of issue. That being true, the time to apply for the patent – if ever – would be when one is about to actually undertake real asteroid mining. That way, it might provide some marginal protection against interlopers during a period in which the intellectual property represented is actually being employed to make real money. As things stand, this patent is quite likely to be either expired or circling the drain by the time its owners are ready to strike out for The Belt with the outer space equivalent of a mule and a pickaxe. In general, though, it makes more sense to simply save the legal fees and rely on trade secrecy as much as possible. Doing this is one of Elon Musk’s largely unappreciated innovations in the space business.

  • Charles Lurio

    Really, what is the point of something as broad as this? Creating a legal annoyance for the competition? It makes about as much sense as patenting Euclidian geometry.

    Come on guys, you know better.

  • Douglas Messier

    I tend to agree. I don’t see anything new or innovative that would justify issuing a patent.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    There’s a lot of prior art in this patent. The past 20 years of flyby and rendezvous missions would establish prior art in the public domain. Assuming that does not stand in court, just do this. Include data from ground based telescope surveys in your selection pool of asteroids to mine. The patent, if it were to survive court, says they have a monopoly on surveying for asteroids with a space telescope. Well, let me tell you how many more asteroids were discovered and have data sets on them as compiled by ground based telescopes. Just include that data and a few candidates from the old surveys, and I think you’d break the claim of this patent.

  • Charles Lurio

    You could probably include data from a fair number of amateur astronomers as well.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Indeed. You would probably help your case just by including any data from the MPC (Minor Planet Center) in your parent population. That is a clearing house of data of all types as applies to minor planets. I believe all their data products are considered peer reviewed scientific publications, so you get both public domain as well as established prior art and scientific street cred.

  • Looks like the novelty here is based on having a space telescope on the mining spacecraft. That makes this pretty narrow.

  • I’m pretty sure that this is actually quite narrow. Both independent claims require the survey telescope to be mounted on the mining spacecraft, if I’m reading it correctly.

  • I’ve read about the proposed Arkyds to prospect for water rich asteroids years ago. I don’t see much new here or am I missing something?

  • mzungu

    Dear Investor, Give me your retirement fund, we make money on asteroid-snake-oil, because I have patent… ๐Ÿ˜›

  • ThomasLMatula

    What is really interesting is because they merely copied basic mining process, and never took any courses in mining engineering and view it just from a space perspective, they left out a couple of critical steps. If someone patents them this patent becomes useless because they would not be able to work it out without violating those patented steps.

    Yes, those years at NM Tech, and on the ASCE Asteroid Mitigation subcommittee studying the issue did have value ๐Ÿ™‚

  • If these guys and DSI are the future of space mining, we’re screwed. What do they do all day, sit around that island and think this crap up? Space mining is going to be an industrial affair, not a bunch of cube sats and space telescopes. This is embarrassing.

    Space telesccopes on cube sats is called science AFAIK, and you can’t patent that.

  • Andrew B

    Mounting a telescope on a spacecraft seems pretty obvious to someone ‘skilled in the art’ to me. There have been tons of robotic missions with “telescopes” on board including several that have actually visited asteroids….

  • But not one that surveyed, then went to mine. I was always told never to worry about obviousness in a patent; it’s an extremely low bar to be non-obvious.

  • Andrew B

    It’s not clear why you’d even want to do that, the orbit you’d want to be in to survey is not the orbit you’d like to be in to mine. And it can get kind of dangerous dust-wise when you’re processing material all over the place, so the telescope would need to be shuttered to protect it anyway. It seems much more likely that you’d have a survey satellite in one location, and a mining satellite in another location. The mission, power, and mechanical requirements of the two systems are totally different. (Vibrations from actual mining probably wouldn’t be too great for the telescope).

    But say that they did decide to do it with once spacecraft….the idea of looking at something with what amounts to a fairly fancy pair of binoculars and then deciding to hike over to it hardly seems patent-worthy.

    This is about as useful as Bezo’s attempt to patent barge landing.

  • Aerospike

    As others have eloquently pointed out above me, this just shows (again) how useless* the patent system has become.

    * = useless for anything else than employing lawyers and slowing down innovation.

  • That’s why this patent isn’t very valuable, even though it was allowed and issued.

  • Tom Billings

    You are making the mistake of equating “industry” with big “hunks of stuff”. That derives from the old Fredrich Engels definition of the industrial revolution being about steam engines, railroads, and production lines, which definition made it easy for communists to claim that they too were “industrialists”. Industrial society around the world consists of intercommunicating worldwide networks, …networks of markets, intellectual networks, physical networks, and more.

    In fact, many industries started small, and built larger infrastructure only as demand for their product increased. The first industrial ventures started with cloth manufacturing, and they grew from small household processing to large factories only when markets were already established. Only the “metal eaters” of Stalin’s “socialist camp” demanded otherwise.

    Industrial networks require information first, to allow each part of the network to see where they fit in participating for profit. That is where the telescopes come in as a start. Later prospecting probes will tell us more about individual sites. In this, Cubesats are cheaper, which means they don’t burn huge amounts of capital while you are making sure that a particular site has what you need, and that your processing techniques will work *for*that*site*. Mining is civil engineering, and is *highly*site*specific* in its application of technology.

    BTW, small size does not mean small returns. John Lewis noted over 20 years ago that there were already asteroid mining concepts that should return from carbonaceous chondrites with 100 to 1000 times the mass they launched with. Some of the water in a CC asteroid can be be used as propellant to get more water back to EML-1 to be processed into propellant.

    Indeed, patents on this stuff seems fairly useless to me, specifically *because* of that “site specific” nature of extraction operations. Why did they do it? Maybe someone on the BoD got a bug in their ear about people “stealing” their ideas, and the legal department wanted to humor them?

  • Vladislaw

    You know they still have not mentioned the Kickstarter probe or the free stuff they are supposed to distribute. I would like to see more action from them as far as hardware.. they are talking about 1.5 million dollar probes with several billionaires supposedly onboard yet they have to do kickstarter to find money to make a cubesat?

  • Vladislaw

    They still have not even acknowledged that on their facebook pages.. there is always someone complaining they gave money and didn’t get the rewards.

  • Vladislaw

    could you please define “tons” and put it in relative terms of commercial enterprises?

  • Vladislaw

    Are you suggesting this is like Bezo’s trying to patent the barge landing?

  • Your reminiscences are quait, but my perspective on this comes from actually doing this, myself, in the wild. I come from the ‘Badger State’. The very first thing new entrants did here was cut themselves a house out of the hillside, just to survive the winter.

    So when I arrive at an asteroid, the moon (not so much) and Mars and the moons of Mars and the planet Ceres, which will require me to be at the site due to communications delays (the moon not so much), the two most critical things I want, besides all the usual things required of a deep space spacecraft (and I am not talking about any Orion here, but a true spacecraft with plant growing capabilities), are two dimensional areas in which to set out solar panel arrays, materials for radiation shielding. and artificial gravity (the moon and Mars not so much). To do that you need to dig dirt, it matters not what it is, the composition, the topography etc, although clearly high ridges and deep crevasses are helpful. I am not going there to create any economy or trade with other asteroids, it’s just a place to go that is not ‘space’ with all its hazards and fuel consumption. And we already know where most of those spaces are. What a body in space offers is gravity (and low gravity bodies allow artificial gravity), two dimensional sunlit areas, some compositional material for radiation shielding and thermal buffering mass (for instance, atoms). Solving all your problems resolves to simply moving dirt, for instance, excavation and drilling and tunneling.

  • Vladislaw

    Thomas.. in a debate on another thread… it is about .. the least painful way the government can get capital flowing towards solution of a problem. It is a chicken and the egg… could you please take a look and provide some insight.. If I am WAY off base please do not hesitate I can take it …. smiles

  • I made a donation to P.R.. Can’t recall if it was a Kick Starter or Go Fund Me but something of that nature. But I didn’t donate expecting a reward. Rather I’m hoping to see PR enjoy success. I still regard that as a long shot though.

    Elon Musk regarded going public as a Faustian deal. Musk notes shareholders tend to look to the next quarter while he wants to take the long view. So I bought shares in Musk’s Tesla and Solar City. I’m one shareholder who shares his long range goals.

    If Planetary Resources or Deep Space Industry were to go public, I would certainly buy stock. I am hoping there are many like minded space enthusiasts who would do the same.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Sorry for the delay, I was traveling on business.

    Yes, DARPA is doing the kind of research NASA should be doing. This of course has military implications, which is why DARPA is funding it.

    About 15 years ago Dennis Wingo tried a similar venture for geo comsat serving based in Europe, I believe the Netherlands. They had no takers, probably because the geo comsats have already gotten comfortable with the risks and costs for their existing geo comsats and are reluctant to adapt to such a new idea. Yes, Old Space Squared ๐Ÿ™‚