Colonies on Mars? Interview with asteroid miner Chris Lewicki
Our friends at All About Space magazine spoke to the President and Chief Engineer of Planetary Resources about their plans to create a new trillion-dollar space industry.
How did you get involved with Planetary Resources?
I’m an aerospace engineer and I spent the first 10 years of my career working for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. During that time I was the flight director when we landed the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars and I was the mission manager for the Phoenix lander, which landed on the Mars pole in 2008. And right around the time when we were finishing up that mission my old friends Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis talked to me about the company they were starting, Planetary Resources. I thought the world was ready for this idea, the time was right, and was very excited about getting involved.
Why is asteroid mining so important?
The mission of the company is to expand the economic sphere of influence off the surface of the planet and into the Solar System. Our space exploration for the last 50 years has been primarily government activities in exploration and science, and maybe even at the start in politics in terms of the space race. And that’s not really sustainable in the long term. We see near-Earth asteroids as being key to unlocking the Solar System and helping to have a permanent human presence in space.
What resources are most valuable?
Asteroids have a wide variety of resources, from materials that can be used in fuel out to precious metals. So that is a long-term interest. In the near term the first resource that will be available for use in space is the very simple molecule of water. Water is the essence of life, it is of course important for humans and plants to support us, but in space it takes on another dimension in that it can be used to shield us from the harmful effects of radiation.
Why is water so useful?
A metre of water has as much protective power as the entire atmosphere does on Earth. Water is present on carbonaceous asteroids and in some cases it as much as 20% of their weight, and this water may exist as just frozen water from ice. And also you can take the molecules of water, the H2O, and break it into hydrogen and oxygen, and then you have the most efficient chemical propulsion fuel that is theoretically possible, the same fuel that of course launched all the Space Shuttles into space.
What are you guys working on day-to-day?
All of mining starts with prospecting and learning more about the resources that are out there. We have a very experienced spacecraft development team here in Bellevue [Washington, USA] of about 40 engineers, many of whom like me have spent parts of their careers working with NASA. We have several members who helped put Spirit, Opportunity, Sojourner, Pathfinder and even Curiosity on the surface of Mars. And now we’re working on the prospecting technology, the robotic geologists that we will send out to the asteroids to do this prospecting.
How have other asteroid exploration missions helped with your plans?
JAXA’s Hayabusa is an excellent example of a previous mission that has really just done spectacular things. It was a relatively low cost mission done by the Japanese space agency to the smallest asteroid we’ve yet visited, 25143 Itokawa, and even through they only brought back a tiny sample it was enough to understand the formation history of Itokawa. The Japanese have another mission in the works with Hayabusa 2 and the USA has its OSIRIS-Rex mission [in 2016], and these missions have really laid the groundwork and have done the parts of the science that is necessary for companies like ours to be able to use that information and take it further.
Missions like NASA’s upcoming OSIRIS-Rex in 2016 are quite expensive. How will you lower the costs to make asteroid mining feasible?
OSIRIS-Rex is a billion dollar mission, and it’s done in a fairly traditional way in how missions have been done over time. It’s got a very large team, and it’s got a very intricate and complex science mission. That is something that drives the cost up. When we look at this from a commercial standpoint we can do things for prospecting an asteroid and learning about the resources that in the early days don’t require bringing a sample back, which is very expensive. And additionally we see the possibility to do these missions with substantially fewer people. We actually think that within the next 10 years we’ll be able to send missions out to asteroids for as cheap as just a few million dollars each.
How will things progress in the next few decades?
We really see these resources as being central to every activity that we plan on doing in space in future. I think certainly by 2050 we’ll be well beyond just finding asteroids, we’ll be on the surface of the Moon, we’ll have colonies and habitats on the surface of Mars, and we’ll really be able not only to develop resources of the asteroids but resources of the rest of space. We’ll look back in time just as we do with aviation today and wonder how the world got along before that happened.
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