The Asteroid Miner's Guide to the Galaxy

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The Asteroid Miner's Guide to the Galaxy
Highlights
  • Nasa: There are potentially 100,000 near-Earth objects in neighbourhood.
  • Elon Musk's SpaceX is also expected to explore Mars this year.
  • "Do we have rockets? Yes. Have people gone to asteroids? Yes."
The tech firm Deep Space Industries (DSI) is headquartered on the second story of an aging office building at the edge of Nasa's Ames Research Center, not far from the town of Mountain View, California. Established in 1939 as a laboratory for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, a predecessor to Nasa, Ames is now part government research site, part industrial park, and part open-air museum - visitors pass rows of decommissioned rockets and the hulking skeleton of Hangar One, where the Navy once parked its experimental blimps in the 1930s. Shimmering nearby in the Pacific coast sun lies the sprawling aerospace facility owned by Google's Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

"The first time I came to Ames, I had the feeling I was standing between the history of spaceflight and its future," Sagi Kfir, an aviation attorney, told me when I visited earlier this year. "You've got Nasa labs here, but at the same time you're in Silicon Valley," he said. "Hard to think of a more exciting place to be."

Kfir is 43, with a high forehead, tawny hair he wears tied in a bun, and the kind of leanness that comes from hours of yoga practice. (His wife, Britta, is an instructor.) Since 2012, he has served as DSI's chief lawyer, a job that encompasses both legal-counsel duties - liaising with legislators, vetting contracts - and the full-time proselytization of his company's mission: laying the foundation for an asteroid mining industry that one day will lead to a sprawling and profitable space economy.

To evangelists of asteroid mining, the heavens are not just a frontier but a vast and resource-rich place teeming with opportunity. According to Nasa, there are potentially 100,000 near-Earth objects - including asteroids and comets - in the neighborhood of our planet. Some of these NEOs, as they're called, are small. Others are substantial and potentially packed full of water and various important minerals, such as nickel, cobalt, and iron. One day, advocates believe, those objects will be tapped by variations on the equipment used in the coal mines of Kentucky or in the diamond mines of Africa. And for immense gain: According to industry experts, the contents of a single asteroid could be worth trillions of dollars.

Kfir pitched me on the long-term plan. First, a fleet of satellites will be dispatched to outer space, fitted with probes that can measure the quality and quantity of water and minerals in nearby asteroids and comets. Later, armed with that information, mining companies like DSI will send out vessels to mechanically remove and refine the material extracted. In some cases, the take will be returned to Earth. But most of the time, it will be processed in space - for instance, to produce rocket fuel - and stored in container vessels that will serve as the equivalent of gas stations for outbound spacecraft.

This possibility isn't so unrealistic, Kfir said. Consider the recent and seismic growth of the space industry, he suggested, as we climbed the stairs to DSI's second-floor suite. Every year, the private spaceflight sector grows larger, and every year the goals become grander. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and the space exploration company Blue Origin, has spoken of the day "when millions of people are living and working in space"; Elon Musk's SpaceX is expected to reveal a Mars colonization plan this year.

"But how are they going to sustain this new space economy?" Kfir asked rhetorically. He nudged open DSI's office door. "Easy: by mining asteroids." Bezos, Musk, and the other billionaires who plan to be cruising around space in the near future won't be able to do so without celestial pit stops.

In his book, Asteroid Mining 101: Wealth for the New Space Economy, John S. Lewis, professor emeritus of Cosmochemistry and Planetary Atmospheres at the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and DSI's chief scientist, envisions a future where "ever more remote and ever more massive reservoirs of resources" take astronauts farther and farther from our planet. "First to the Near Earth Asteroids and the moons of Mars, then to the asteroid belt, then to. . .[the] Trojan asteroids and the outer moons of Jupiter, then to the Saturn system and the Centaurs," and so on, to infinity.

Copies of Lewis's book lined two shelves in DSI's headquarters, where the vibe was more nerd lair than sleek startup. A poster for the new Star Wars movie hung on a wall; a chunk of real meteorite, found over a century ago in Namibia, stood on display; and cans of Coke cluttered the snack table. Working inside what appeared to be an old utility closet, chief engineer Grant Bonin hunched over a desktop computer, designing the code that will help power the first asteroid probes that DSI plans to launch in 2017. Behind him, an electrical panel spouted a bouquet of colorful wires.

Kfir pointed me in the direction of his office. A resident of San Diego, Kfir commutes once a week to Ames, 1,000 miles round trip, but if the constant travel was wearing on him, it didn't show - his eyes were bright, his skin SoCal bronze. He wore slacks and a button-down, with cactus-patterned socks.

"You get used to the pace," he said, taking a pull from a large coffee mug marked "Kiss my Asteroid." "It's the life of a startup. You go, go, go seven days a week. Because you believe."

For now, belief - and a fervid sense of enthusiasm - represent the core of the DSI business model. After all, the company, and its only major competitor in the asteroid mining arena, Washington-based Planetary Resources, are dealing in hypotheticals: equipment that remains largely in the planning phase, a market that won't fully emerge for years, if not decades, and a science that has yet to be tested in any meaningful way.

Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that some critics have suggested Planetary Resources, which is backed by millions in venture capital - including cash from Eric Schmidt of Google - and the scrappier, less-moneyed DSI, are nothing more than vanity projects. Writing on the Discovery News website in April 2012, the month Planetary Resources co-founder Peter Diamandis unveiled his company's mission, space journalist Ian O'Neill dismissed the venture as "deliberately vague (who knows how many technological iterative steps are needed before a sustainable mining operation can begin anyway?)." He also argued it was wholly unrealistic: "In short, the only thing that seems unique about today's announcement is that a group of very well-respected and smart entrepreneurs and billionaires have clubbed together and thought asteroid mining seemed cool." For O'Neill and other skeptics, asteroid mining is, for the time being, a glitzy but far-fetched venture that will distract both attention and dollars from eminently more achievable - and perhaps more scientifically vital - missions, such as continuing the exploration of Mars.

For the 12-person team at DSI, and the 50-person team at Planetary Resources, however, asteroid mining isn't just a dream. It's the future - one in which all those deep-pocketed private spaceflight companies (to say nothing of Nasa) will be eager to pay by the bucket load for access to space's riches. DSI and Planetary Resources, both of which are determined to profit from a 21st-century extraterrestrial gold rush, might be the equivalent of the mining barons of yore.

But first, they have to get to the rocks.

The idea that outer space could one day be mined for sustenance or human gain stretches back centuries. As early as the late 1800s, for instance, the Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky prophesized the construction of mines on the surface of asteroids. In 1926, Tsiolkovsky released his 16-point plan for the colonization of the galaxy. Point 14 was "the perfection of mankind and society." Point 12 was "the exploitation of asteroid resources" to achieve autonomy from Earth.

Asteroid mining was very much on the mind of science-fiction writers such as Isaac Asimov, who in his 1944 short story Catch That Rabbit (anthologized in the 1950 book I, Robot), placed two bored corporate overseers on an asteroid, where they watched a team of robotic miners plying their trade. Celestial extraction also figured prominently in Jack Williamson's popular 1951 novel, Seetee Ship, set in a galaxy populated by roguish and well-armed miners, known affectionately as "rock rats."

Until relatively recently, however, policymakers and scientists alike assumed that if the technology were ever to be implemented in real life, it would be governments, not private contractors, with the money and the rockets to do the actual mining. The foundational tracts of space law articulate this notion.

While the 1967 Outer Space Treaty clearly states that no single country has the right to "appropriation by claim of sovereignty," the treaty doesn't address whether a country can exploit planetary resources for financial gain. Thus, an American entrepreneur considering mining asteroids would face something of a legal void: On the one hand, nothing in international law (or at least international law ratified by the United States) says the business isn't allowed. Then again, there is nothing that specifically says that it is. Meanwhile, the 1979 Moon Agreement bans the militarization of the moon and the "alteration" of celestial bodies. Only 16 countries are party to the agreement; the United States, concerned about the constraining effect the pact might have on its spaceflight programs, has declined to be involved.

For the most part, entrepreneurs weren't terribly public about their celestial designs until the late 1990s. Then Jim Benson, a headstrong Washington millionaire who had made his fortune on software, came onto the scene, touting his asteroid mining company, SpaceDev. Certain of the fortune to be made from the skies, Benson unveiled plans to probe the 4660 Nereus asteroid, roughly a year-long trip from Earth. Not only that, the businessman affirmed that he would not accept any government funding for the mission, writing in an email correspondence, "This will help draw attention to the need to establish private property rights in space." Benson would discover, however, that the hardware and computer chipsets required to get a rocket to an asteroid were costly, even for a millionaire, and he was forced to let go of the mission. (Unsuccessful in the asteroid business, Benson moved on to related ventures, including space tourism. In 2008, he died at the age of 63 after being diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.)

But computers continued to get faster and cheaper. By the mid-2000s, Silicon Valley was filled with young technologists interested in exploring outer space - often innovators who had become extremely rich with Internet startups and had money to spare. It was no longer just Nasa launching rockets into space: In 2010, Musk's SpaceX presided over the maiden voyage of its Falcon 9 rocket, proving that a private company could reliably get spacecraft into the stratosphere and back.

Planetary Resources was founded in 2009. Three years later, DSI launched during a time of profound optimism about spaceflight. The US shuttle program had recently ended, but Nasa  had managed to get its Curiosity Rover onto the surface of Mars. SpaceX by then was running regular deliveries to the International Space Station (ISS).

For would-be asteroid miners, such as Sagi Kfir, the stars were finally aligning. The technology was there; the interest in private spaceflight was there.

It was time to get to work.

Initially, the founders of DSI worked remotely from their homes, communicating by telephone. Kfir personally supplied some of the incorporation fees. Fundraising was a boot-strapped affair. "We opened with the friends and family round," Kfir recalled, "with our hands out, going, 'Hey, can you give us some money?'"

In approaching potential investors of the non-familial variety, DSI made sure to stress that however far-out its plan sounded, the groundwork was already there. Nasa had managed to get a probe into a near-Earth asteroid's orbit in 2000 and land on the rock in 2001. And in 2010, the Rosetta, a probe owned by the European Space Agency, had successfully passed an asteroid a full 280 million miles from Earth.

Kfir recited the company's appeal to investors for me: "Do we have rockets? Yes. Have people gone to asteroids? Yes. Have people landed on asteroids? Yes. Have people taken samples from asteroids? Yes. Have those samples been returned to the earth? Yes. So we're there."

Still, DSI quickly found that many potential investors were skittish. They understood that there indeed was money to be made, especially if DSI was able to lock down the market early and sign contracts with the largest of the private spaceflight companies, or even with Nasa. Yet there wasn't much precedent. "People would ask, 'Well, are you allowed to extract these minerals? Can you guarantee that an outside body' - the United Nations, say - 'isn't going to shut you down?'" Kfir told me.

If DSI was scuffling to gain footing with investors, Planetary Resources was flush with them. In addition to Schmidt, Larry Page, his Google co-founder, provided financial backing. Virgin's Richard Branson also invested in Planetary Resources, and filmmaker James Cameron signed on as an advisor. At the helm of the company was CEO Chris Lewicki, a Nasa scientist. He had served as flight director for the Spirit and Opportunity rovers and as surface-mission manager for the Phoenix Lander that reached Mars in 2008.

One of Planetary Resources's first missions was to develop a spacecraft, called the Arkyd, that the company hoped would eventually detect mineable asteroids. To help fill out its coffers, in 2013, Planetary Resources turned to Kickstarter. It raised $1,505,366 for what it called the "first publicly accessible space telescope," which would ride on board the Arkyd. (A version of the craft was successfully launched last year; Planetary Resources is preparing a comprehensive update for the Arkyd crowd-funding campaign.)

Despite its connections and fundraising prowess, however, Planetary Resources soon found itself running into the same problem as DSI. Investors were concerned about the legality of the venture. Financiers, said Peter Marquez, Planetary Resources's vice president for global engagement, needed to know that their money wasn't going to go toward fighting battles in a courtroom.

The solution, to Planetary Resources's execs, seemed to be the passage of a bill that would effectively legitimize, from an American legal perspective, the asteroid mining industry. In 2013, the company hired the veteran lobbying firm K&L Gates to advance its cause on Capitol Hill. (Planetary Resources declined to say how much it paid the firm.) In a memorandum addressed to lawmakers, Marquez laid out the company's case for legislation: "[B]eing the standard bearer for this strategic market has many benefits" for the United States, including more jobs and room for growth in the tech sector. Some other perks were political. If passed, this would be the first asteroid mining bill in global history. According to Marquez, his hope was that when it came time for other countries to pen their own legislation, they would use Washington's as a template.

In July 2014, Bill Posey, a Republican representative from Florida, and Derek Kilmer, a Democratic representative from Washington, introduced a bill on the House floor they called the Asteroids Act. "Our knowledge of asteroids - their number, location, and composition - has been increasing at a tremendous rate, and space technology has advanced to the point where the private sector is now able to begin planning such expeditions," Posey said in a statement. "Our legislation will help promote private exploration and protect commercial rights as these endeavors move forward."

Over the next year, Planetary Resources representatives traveled regularly to Washington, D.C., to meet with legislators and congressional aides. They were joined on the Hill by DSI, as well as staffers from Bigelow Resources, a tech startup that wants to build "private habitats" in space - orbiting condos, essentially - and others from Moon Express, a lunar mining concern from Mountain View. The companies may have been competitors in some sense, but they all wanted the same thing: a legal framework that would guarantee their future claims to outer space.

In 2015, their lobbying efforts paid off. The Asteroids Act was rolled into a larger bill called the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which protects the rights of private spaceflight ventures like Bezos's Blue Origin. It also states, in no uncertain terms, that any "United States citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource under this chapter shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained." The emphatic message to the asteroid mining sector? Go forth and conquer.

Last November, President Barack Obama signed the bill into law. By that fall, Planetary Resources had raised a total of $12 million (roughly Rs. 80 crores) from 16 investors since its inception, according to a 2015 SEC filing; DSI, based on its filings, had raised $1 million (roughly Rs. 6.6 crores).

By Silicon Valley investment standards, these are not exactly massive influxes of dough. In addition, plenty of technical challenges remain. Despite the lofty prognostications of representatives from DSI and Planetary Resources, asteroid mining is still very much in its infancy. Engineers are still perfecting the art of plopping down cleanly on asteroids and comets, let alone mining them. In 2014, the Rosetta probe dispatched a lander, dubbed the Philae, to the surface of a comet. But the craft failed to anchor itself adequately, and it took three bounces before landing. The Philae eventually completed its mission before going into hibernation mode.

DSI, for its part, has yet to attempt to launch a single craft. Bonin, the chief engineer, told me he hoped to have Prospector X, the company's first probe, into space before 2017 is out. Afterward, he said, DSI plans to land its first mission, Prospector 1, on an asteroid. "Its only purpose," Bonin said, "will be to map the amount of water on an asteroid to see if there's as much as we think there is." If there was - and only if there was - extraction would begin with the deployment of another specialized spacecraft. Otherwise, Prospector 1 would come home and the process would start again.

Planetary Resources is slightly further along than its chief competitor. In 2014, the company put a probe, the Arkyd 3, aboard an Orbital Sciences Corp. rocket bound for the ISS. Upon reaching the space station, the hope was for astronauts there to release the Arkyd from the air lock and put it into low-Earth orbit, where its avionics and control systems could be assessed by Planetary Resources. But the rocket failed to achieve full liftoff and crashed.

DSI penned a public "condolences" message, which it published on its website. "We know how hard [the engineers at Planetary Resources] have been working and the high expectations we all had for their first mission," wrote Daniel Faber, the CEO of DSI. "Even as we design and prepare our own spacecraft, we recognize that a loss for one of us is a loss for all."

Last year, Planetary Resources took to the skies again, this time placing a new device, the Arkyd 3R (A3R), on a rocket owned by SpaceX. The launch went off without a hitch, as did a 90-day test flight launched from the ISS. When I spoke to Lewicki this spring, he told me that the newest Arkyd spacecraft, the Arkyd 6 (A6) satellite, was being tested at Planetary Resources's headquarters in Washington before a scheduled June launch. Larger than the A3R, the A6 satellite will probably stay aloft for a full year, aiming its water-and mineral-sensing technology in the direction of Earth. This will allow Lewicki and his team to test the accuracy of those sensors and make any necessary adjustments. Like DSI, Planetary Resources sees the launch of actual mining vehicles as several years off.

In January, Lewicki traveled to the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to participate in a question-and-answer session with Nathan Ingraham, a senior editor at the tech site Engadget. Lewicki, who is young and handsome, with a coif of brown hair he wears parted neatly to one side, has a TED Talker's ability to distill the most complex technical matters to memorable and digestible cocktail chatter. Asteroid mining, he told Ingraham with a wide smile, is "how we're going to move into space and develop the next Vegas Strip."

About halfway through the discussion, Lewicki picked up a small object from the floor and held it forward for the crowd to see. The object, he explained, was a hunk of a millions-year-old meteorite found on Earth, which had been pulverized, powdered, and processed by a 3D printer. As the members of the crowd craned their heads forward to get a better look, Lewicki proclaimed that this was the "first time ever in history" an object had been 3D printed from an asteroid. It was a glimpse of the day when such technology, parked in space but receiving digital orders from Earth, will create on-demand tools and parts for the new space economy.

For Planetary Resources and DSI, a big part of their battle is to convince those around them that the future they are betting on will manifest - and that wealth will follow. In the meantime, both companies have sought to diversify their offerings, which is helping keep them afloat. Just consider how much Planetary Resources raised for its public telescope.

During my trip to the DSI offices, Kfir showed me into a small cubicle separated from the rest of the office by a translucent divider. Inside, tools and electronic parts were scattered across a makeshift workbench. Kfir picked up a square object. It was a small, lightweight consumer satellite, which could be launched into near-Earth orbit. The market in cubesats, as the small devices are known, is burgeoning. Universities, government agencies, and even individual consumers can buy the devices to conduct their own Earth-imaging or star-mapping projects. To build the satellites, which contain similar parts to the asteroid detecting probes DSI eventually plans to launch, the firm has partnered with Dutch tech company Innovative Solutions in Space. Kfir estimates the sale of the devices could help bring in millions for DSI.

"Look, the truth is, there may be super-passionate investors out there that say, 'OK, here's the money. Go asteroid mine. If it works out in seven to 10 years, fantastic, I made a fortune.' But others want to have an exit strategy of a couple years," he told me. "With these devices, we can say, 'Look, we're not just an asteroid mining company, we're a technology company.' We can be working on the science with short-term gain."

In February, not long before I visited the DSI offices, Luxembourg, home to one of the largest satellite companies in the world, announced plans to write its own asteroid mining legislation. According to news reports, it is likely the legislation will be similar to the act signed into law by Obama last year.

To Kfir, the news was evidence of the unstoppable momentum of the asteroid mining industry. "First the US, and now Luxembourg. I think the genie is out of the bottle," he told me. "For the next year or so, you might have lingering opinions on whether this is legal, but after a while, as more countries join and have their legislation, that will all stop."

For now, only a few countries have acknowledged publicly that they have designs on asteroid mining. Still unanswered is the question of who, in fact, owns space. What will happen when, one day, companies from two countries clash over the same rock? After all, while the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act codifies the rights of American space companies, it won't do much to prevent the emergence of international disputes over asteroid rights.

When I asked Kfir about that possibility, he suggested that a multinational body might emerge in the mode of the Geneva-based International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which coordinates the orbital slots for the thousands of satellites circling Earth. With an asteroid mining equivalent, he said, companies might approach the committee and inform the secretariat that they are seeking claim to asteroid X or asteroid Z. Rights would be granted on a first-come, first-served basis.

Frans von der Dunk, a professor of space law at the University of Nebraska, forecasted the gradual adoption of international "customary" law pertaining to the mining of asteroids - not ratified and policed international legislation, but generally agreed-upon practices and customs. In the case of disputes, companies could proceed to arbitration at the national level or take their cases to an international court. "If an international asteroid mining framework is going to emerge, it will be bottom-up," von der Dunk predicted.

Meanwhile, as the legal debate enters its next phase, the DSI team is soldiering on. After my tour of the offices, Kfir and I climbed into my rental car and drove around the Ames campus. Kfir recalled how four years ago, everyone he met would look at him strangely when he mentioned "asteroid mining." DSI was a big risk - wouldn't he have been better staying in aviation law, with its dependable paycheck?

Outside, the shadow of Hangar One, the old blimp garage, flickered past. Kfir smiled.

"To me, this is all the fulfillment of something I'd wanted when I was a kid: to be involved in getting further into space, to be part of the space industry," he explained. "It's just one step at a time."

© 2016 The Washington Post

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