Pushing Asteroid Mining on the Wow! Signal Podcast

26 06 2013

Just a quick note today on a fun, recent interview I gave with Paul Carr on the Wow! Signal Podcast, where I had the opportunity to discuss the very conceptual genesis of my personal scientific journey as a geologist and space scientist: the lure, importance, and incredible promise of asteroid mining and capitalizing on extraterrestrial resources!


My original 2004 NASA KC135 proposal for an asteroid mineral separation “mining” system. …Still looking for an opportunity to fly this thing…

(Paul is a space systems engineer, skeptical investigator, and a prolific writer who keeps not only the aforementioned podcast but also his own blog and several websites, most of which communicate a fascination with space and life in the cosmos…  Thanks for reaching out, Paul!)

So, for any readers interested in hearing me attempt to talk extemporaneously while simultaneously trying to keep a lid on my enthusiasm for the potential in space resources, now’s your chance. =)

Additionally, I should note that I had the good fortune to share the podcast airspace with engaging planetary system scientist (and dabbler in numerical astrobiology) Dr. Duncan Forgan, as well as Isaac Stott of Stott Space Inc., future asteroid miner and ardent proponent of space resources development.

The only thing that could have made the podcast more of a kick was if the interviews had been temporally-simultaneous and supplied with science-fueling spirits of some kind…  All in good time, I suppose…


Rhinegold, Space Cowboys, and “Planetary Resources”

19 04 2012

The internet is alight with rumors concerning the James Cameron/Charles Simonyi/Peter Diamandis/Eric Anderson-backed superproject, not yet more than a speculation-frothing logo, to be announced April 24th:

These rumors go on to speculate that the venture will be a full-fledged asteroid-mining venture, sparked in no small part by the media alert sent by the company yesterday, which stated that it “will overlay two critical sectors — space exploration and natural resources — to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP.”

Let’s just say that’s where I was given pause.  Of course it’ll be extraterrestrial resources, (as if the name isn’t overt enough,) but I agree – they’ll likely be going after nickel-iron asteroid bodies and platinum-group metals, to start.

Why would I say so?  Well, I calculated those very same numbers 13 years ago.

The Rhinegold Project

Set the time machine back to 1999 for a moment.

There, at the University of Wyoming, in the back corner of an undergraduate physics course, you’d find a couple of young, idealistic astrophysics majors ignoring the lecture on frictionless surfaces and discussing the problems that brought us there: Dark Energy, (though it hadn’t been named that, yet; it was the High-Z Problem at that time,) Dark Matter, and Space Colonization.

Rhinegold Project logo. (Credit: Ben McGee/ITD)

Yes, one of these young scientists-to-be was yours truly.  The other was one of my best friends (and future jazz compatriot), Chris Hackman.  And it was there, in the back corner of that lecture hall, that I performed my first back-of-the-envelope calculations on harvesting the material in a single, mile-sized nickel-iron-rich asteroid.

On its face, the number was in the trillions of dollars.

I knew this was a rough number, an overestimate.  -But even accounting for flooding the terrestrial nickel and iron markets, the number was still (literally) astronomical.  It would more than pay for the cost of development, should only someone front the (we calculated) four-to-ten-billion dollars required to get the program running.

Literally trillions of dollars of harvest-able material is waiting, ripe for the plucking, between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars, should someone only figure out how to get to it and bring it back.

So, we decided to try and lay the groundwork ourselves under a non-profit science research institute I founded in 2002, called the Institute of Temporal Dynamics (now retired).  We called the project The Rhinegold Project.

(Being music geeks as well, we liked the metaphor to the Wagner opera.  Like the legend, we planned to harvest the material and forge it into a ring – in this case, a Von-Braun-ian, artificial-gravity space station.)

I rallied friends of mine to the cause: Aspiring chemical engineers; mechanical engineers; other geology students.  We worked out orbital interception scenarios as well as in-situ harvesting architectures.  And as far as we could tell, we were amongst the first to approach the problem seriously.

Space Cowboys

Our Microgravity Centrifugal Smelter NASA proposal, ca. 2004.

Our project matured as did our degree paths.  By 2004, I’d switched to planetary geology and had taken the lead on an interdisciplinary college team to attempt the first in-situ asteroid-mining proof-of-concept for NASA’s KC-135 “Microgravity University” grant program.  Our team?  The UWyo “Space Cowboys,” and our project: the “Microgravity Centrifugal Smelter,” or MCS.

Ultimately, our project was not selected to fly – a devastating blow being that we lost to another University of Wyoming team testing their second year of a resistance exercise machine, something far less ambitious, in our opinion.  (We had a microwave reactor ready to go and breakthrough phase-transition boundary-condition chemical engineering showing that our low-temperature resource-and-matrix analogue asteroid would perform like a real one at lower “smelting” temperatures.)

The UWyo Space Cowboys then graduated and scattered to the wind.

Full Circle – Astrowright and the University of North Dakota

Well, my passions being what they are, I was never content to simply walk away from the concept of asteroid mining or MCS research.  A recent paper for graduate school at UND last semester assessed the validity of the “gold rush” metaphor commonly invoked by proponents of asteroid mining, and at my spaceflight consulting firm, we’ve been trying to find ways to fund more modern incarnations of MCS research.

Coming full circle to my back-of-the-envelope days, it looks to my eyes like the folks at Planetary Resources have finally found a way to identify and/or convince those venture capitalists who are willing accept the risk and take the plunge to go after an asteroid.  (In short, it looks like they beat me to it. *grin*)

The cost, as I mentioned earlier, will be truly astronomical.  However, the reward may be equally as great.

The good news?  The finding of my recent asteroid/Yukon comparison paper is that on the frontier, cooperative competition is necessary for survival, so it seems there is room enough for all.

The final analysis?  Perhaps with Planetary Resources breaking new ground in the resources market, others will be made aware of the tantalizing possibility that asteroid resource operations present and decide to jump in as well.

Maybe this is the start of the “21st-Century Gold Rush” many of us have been waiting for.

I can’t wait to see what these guys are all about.

Plans afoot for snaring a space rock

2 10 2011

Trajectory of 2008EA9 before and after orbit maneuver. (Credit: Hexi et al., 2011)

Researchers at the Tsinghua University in Beijing recently published a plan just daring enough to work/make people nervous.

After an extensive review of the orbits of thousands of candidate near-Earth objects, the research team headed by Associate Professor Baoyin Hexi identified a small asteroid that with a nudge at the opportune moment would settle into a temporary Earth orbit.

The 410-meter-per-second-boost required to snare 30-foot-wide asteroid 2008EA9 is but a fraction of the propulsion cost required, for instance, for our spacecraft to get to low Earth orbit, (8,000 meters-per-second).

Attempting such a technical feat would be a boon for space logistics and exploration research by providing a simple, local target for investigation by astronauts.  Further, the experience would exponentially improve our asteroid diversion know-how and spur the development of space resource/mining techniques.

Despite the terror-stoking hype that any asteroid-grab project is bound to inspire, the risks in this case are relatively low: few realize that asteroids of similar size (5-10 meters in diameter) hit the Earth’s atmosphere annually.  While still packing the punch of an mid-twentieth century atom-bomb, these objects are small enough to vaporize in the upper atmosphere, and typically no one is the wiser for it.

I say let’s go for it.  Any eccentric, research-minded philanthropists want to drop a fortune on lassoing a giant lump of primordial solar system?

Lockheed Martin’s asteroid gambit

24 09 2010

Orion capsule docked w/ Orion Deep Space Vehicle modification. (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

The Obama Administration’s recent space initiative scraps former President Bush’s Orion moon program and planned moon base in favor of three basic components: Private industry, an asteroid rendezvous by 2025, and a manned Mars orbit by 2035.

Not wasting any time on nostalgia, aerospace industry giant Lockheed Martin, who had been helming the all-but-cancelled Orion spacecraft development, has seized on the suggestion and released a comprehensive proposal for how NASA can make the next off-world visit using their existing (or nearly-existing) Orion technology.

Citing a trinity rationale, “Security, Curiosity, and Prosperity,” Lockheed Martin’s proposal details how two Orion capsules and service modules (or one standard Orion capsule plus a SuperOrion they call the Orion Deep Space Vehicle,) can rendezvous with and explore one of a small class of Near-Earth-Objects (read: asteroids) that happen to swing close to Earth.

Orion spacecraft parked in orbit of an asteroid. (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

So, what does, “Security, Curiosity, and Prosperity” mean?  Lockheed Martin ventures that security is a reason to visit an asteroid so that we can develop necessary interception know-how and experience should we ever have to try and divert one.  Curiosity is reason to visit according to the plan because of the potential scientific boon exploring an asteroid would be for solar system formation research and planetary geology.  Lastly, they mention prosperity due to the fact that there is a very real possibility that “mining” an asteroid for natural resources could be quite lucrative.

What are the pitfalls?  The primary added risk of the asteroid mission over a lunar mission is distance.   Should something mechanically or medically go wrong, the shortest possible emergency return trip is on the order of months instead of days.  There is also a more prolonged exposure to radiation to consider.

However, the risk of an asteroid mission is also significantly reduced compared to a lunar mission in that two return capsules are taken along, so if something goes wrong with one, astronauts can still use the other to get home.  More importantly, there is no landing module, no landing and launch logistics to manage, and therefore no real chance of crashing.  Because an asteroid of this nature is so small (and its gravity weak), astronauts could literally park their Orion spacecraft next to the asteroid and spacewalk over to it.

Personally, I think this is fantastic.  This may just the geologist in me talking, but I think Lockheed Martin’s “Security, Curiosity, Prosperity” concept is a home run.  We really should be developing skills necessary in case we find an inbound asteroid with a high probability of a strike.  (Else, why are we spending so much time and effort looking out for asteroids that might hit us?)  The curiosity factor is a given, and I have personally been championing the “resourcing” of asteroids, (if I can make that a verb,) for years as a way of enabling larger space endeavors while reducing the “resource load” on Earth…

It’s also worth noting that the general experience of traveling through deep space would also be very, very useful experience for future trips to Mars.

So, will NASA go for it?  I think they’d be wise to.  They’ll be hard-pressed to find a more well-motivated mission with acceptable risk, redundancy, and potential payoff.

(Declaration of) Space Independence

6 07 2010

Sean Connery as William O'Niel, a Federal Marshal assigned to a mining outpost on Jupiter's moon Io in the film Outland. Credit: Warner Brothers

Well, being that we recently celebrated Independence Day here in the United States, I’d like to lob a few ideas into the fray regarding the political future of our own activities in space.  Namely, I’d like to talk about the idea of space sovereignty.  “Commercial space” is ramping up, and when thinking seriously about the political realities of working for extended periods of time off-world, practical questions inevitably arise:

  • Under whose laws are astronauts in orbit governed?
  • Who has legal jurisdiction in space?
  • Can laws even be enforced in space when there is no good (or at times even possible) way to police astronauts?
  • Will new or different laws be necessary for the orbital frontier?  For other worlds?
  • Is it a necessary eventuality that those working in space will declare themselves a sovereign “nation” – delivering a new Declaration of Independence from Earth?

Nathan Fillion as post-space-civil-war rebel Captain Malcom Reynolds on the TV series Firefly. Credit: Fox Television

These topics have been addressed fairly extensively in the science-fiction genre.  Popularly, Outland, a film starring Sean Connery in the 1980s, follows a “federal marshal” of sorts whose job it is to maintain the rule of law on the rough-and-tumble mining stations of Jupiter’s moon, Io.  The cult hit Firefly follows a less-than-law-abiding private starship crew eking out an existence in the aftermath of an interplanetary civil war where frontier independence was attempted and failed.  The common themes here recognize that space is truly a frontier, and those who are the first to work there will necessarily be far (the farthest yet!) from those that make and enforce the laws that allegedly govern them.  Obviously this presents problems.  It’s no surprise that these stories tend to fall into the “space western” camp, because perhaps the best parallel human history possesses for how space will be populated is, ahem, how the west was won.

The topic has also been legitimately addressed, at least insofar as it has had to be.  Many people don’t realize that legally today, spacecraft are considered “native soil” of the country that owns them.  The U.S.-owned modules of the International Space Station, for instance, are considered American soil, the Russian-owned modules are Russian soil, and so on.  One can imagine quite a childish scenario should our countries ever declare war, where astronauts and cosmonauts each retreat to their own modules and close the hatches, awaiting their return trip home on separate spacecraft.

U.S.S.R. Cosmonaut Lenov and U.S. Astronaut Stafford meet during the Apollo-Soyuz rendezvous in orbit. Credit: NASA

However, I suspect a little civil disobedience would rule the day in orbit should terrestrial nations with cooperative astronauts ever come into conflict.  The harsh realities of space can only bring into sharp relief human limitations, and as a result, space has historically and consistently been a frontier of cooperation.  Long before the Berlin Wall came down, the ideological and political barriers of the Cold War were surpassed by cooperation in orbit between the United States and the Soviet Union starting with the Apollo-Soyuz program.  This cooperation continued with Shuttle-Mir missions through to the construction of the International Space Station.

Space Shuttle Atlantis connected to Russia's Mir Space Station as photographed by the Mir-19 crew on July 4, 1995. Credit: NASA

Today, the International Space Station itself represents one of the most, (and perhaps the greatest,) globally-cooperative projects in human history, involving 15 nations so far with more in line to participate.  So, I don’t buy that these men and women, who have formed bonds and a working kinship practically impossible for any of us who have not been there to understand, will simply turn their backs on each other because someone on the ground tells them to.

The real wildcards to me in this hypothetical future, however, are the multinational corporations.  What if everything those of us who support “private space” are hoping for succeeds, and private corporations loft their own spacecraft and stations into space?  Well, who’s sovereign soil are those spacecraft?  The country that launched them?  I don’t think that logically follows…  And as I said, if a corporation “resides” and legally operates in more than one nation, is it a free-for-all, like international waters – which would in turn require its own set of laws?

Just a few thoughts.  As always, comments welcome.

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