Asteroid Mining is Getting Closer to Reality. Planetary Resources Arkyd-6 Satellite Just Launched

The launch of the PSLV-C40 rocket from the First Launch Pad at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre. Credit: ISRO

In 2009, Arkyd Aeronautics was formed with the intention of becoming the first commercial deep-space exploration program. In 2012, the company was renamed Planetary Resources, and began exploring the ambitious idea of asteroid prospecting and mining. By harnessing Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) for their water and minerals, the company hopes to substantially reduce the costs of space exploration.

A key step in this vision is the deployment of the Arkyd 6, a CubeSat that will begin testing key technologies that will go into asteroid prospecting. Last week (on Friday, January 12th), the Arkyd-6 was one of 31 satellites that were launched into orbit aboard an Indian-built PSLV rocket. The CubeSat has since been deployed into orbit and is already delivering telemetry data to its team of operators on the ground.

The launch was not only a milestone for the asteroid prospecting company, but for commercial aerospace in general. For the purposes of creating the Arkyd 6, the company modified commercial-available technology to be used in space. This includes the mid-wave infrared (MWIR) sensor the spacecraft will use to detect water on Earth, as well as its avionics, power systems, communications, attitude determination and control systems.

The Arkyd-6 deploying from the PSLV rocket that carried it into orbit. Credit: ISRO

This process is central to the new era of commercial aerospace, where the ability to adapt readily-available technology will allow companies to have control over every stage of the development process, as well as significantly reducing costs. As Chris Lewicki, the President and CEO Planetary Resources, said in a recent company statement:

“The success of the Arykd-6 will validate and inform the design and engineering philosophies we have embraced since the beginning of this innovative project. We will continue to employ these methods through the development of the Arkyd-301 and beyond as we progress toward our Space Resource Exploration Mission.”

The company hopes to mount the Space Resource Exploration Mission by 2020, which will involve multiple spacecraft being deployed as part of a single rocket launch. These will be carried beyond Earth’s orbit and will use low-thrust ion propulsion systems to travel to asteroids that have been prospected by Arkyd-301. Once there, they will collect data and collect samples for analysis.

During the course of the Arkyd-6’s flight, 17 elements will be tested in total, the most important of which is the MWIR imager. This instrument will be the first commercial infrared imager to be used in space and relies on custom optics to collect pixel-level data. With this high-level of precision, the imager will conduct hydration studies of Earth to determine how effective the instrument is at sniffing out sources of water on other bodies.

Planetary Resources onfographic, showing the process of asteroid prospecting. Credit: Planetary Resources

Based on the findings from this initial flight, the company plans to further develop the sensor technology, which will be incorporated into their next mission – the Arkyd-301. This spacecraft will be the first step in Planetary Resources plan to make asteroid mining a reality. Using the same technology as the Arkyd-6 (with some refinements), the spacecraft will be responsible for identifying sources of water on Near-Earth Asteroids.

These asteroids will be the target of future missions, where commercial spacecraft attempt to rendezvous and mine them for water ice. As Chris Voorhees, the Chief Engineer at Planetary Resources, said:

“If all of the experimental systems operate successfully, Planetary Resources intends to use the Arkyd-6 satellite to capture MWIR images of targets on Earth’s surface, including agricultural land, resource exploration regions, and infrastructure for mining and energy. In addition, we will also have the opportunity to perform specific celestial observations from our vantage point in low Earth orbit. Lessons learned from Arkyd-6 will inform the company’s approach as it builds on this technology to enable the scientific and economic evaluation of asteroids during its future Space Resource Exploration Mission.”

All told, there are over 1600 asteroids in Near-Earth space. According to Planetary Resources own estimates, these contain a total of 2 trillion metric tons (2.2 US tons) of water, which can be used for the sake of life support and manufacturing fuel for space missions. By tapping this abundant off-world resource, they estimate that the associated costs of mounting missions to space can be reduced by 95%.

Much like SpaceX’s ongoing development of reusable rockets and attempts to create reusable space planes (such as the Dream Chaser and the Sabre Engine), the goal here is to make space exploration not only affordable, but lucrative. Once that is achieved, the size and shape of space exploration will be limited only by our imaginations.

And be sure to check out this video from Planetary Resources that outlines their Exploration Program:

“The success of the Arykd-6 will validate and inform the design and engineering philosophies we have embraced since the beginning of this innovative project,” said Chris Lewicki, President and CEO, Planetary Resources. “We will continue to employ these methods through the development of the Arkyd-301 and beyond as we progress toward our Space Resource Exploration Mission.”

Further Reading: Planetary Resources

Can We Own Space? Buying Your Own Piece of the High Frontier

Space for Sale!
Space for Sale!

Compared to a regular human, the Earth is enormous. And compared to the Earth, the Universe is really enormous. Like, maybe infinitely enormous.

And yet, Earth is the only place humans are allowed to own. You can buy a plot of land in the city or the country, but you can’t buy land on the Moon, on Mars or on Alpha Centauri.

It’s not that someone wouldn’t be willing to sell it to you. I could point you at a few locations on the internet where someone would be glad to exchange your “Earth money” for some property rights on the Moon. But I can also point you to a series of United Nations resolutions which clearly states that outer space should be free for everyone. Not even the worst rocky outcrop of Maxwell Montes on Venus, or the bottom of Valles Marineris on Mars can be bought or sold.

However, the ability to own property is one of the drivers of the modern economy. Most people either own land, or want to own land. And if humans do finally become a space faring civilization, somebody is going to want to own the property rights to chunks of space. They’re going to want the mining rights to extract resources from asteroids and comets.

We’re going to want to know, once and for all, can I buy the Moon?

Until the space age, the question was purely hypothetical. It was like asking if you could own dragons, or secure the mining rights to dreams. Just in case those become possible, my vote to both is no.

The Sputnik spacecraft stunned the world when it was launched into orbit on Oct. 4th, 1954. Credit: NASA

But when the first satellite was placed into orbit in 1957, things became a lot less hypothetical. Once multiple nations had reached orbitable capabilities, it became clear that some rules needed to be figured out – the Outer Space Treaty.

The first version of the treaty was signed by the US, Soviet Union and the United Kingdom back in 1967. They were mostly concerned with preventing the militarization of space. You’re not allowed to put nuclear weapons into space, you’re not allowed to detonate nuclear weapons on other planets. Seriously, if you’ve got plans and they relate to nuclear weapons, just, don’t.

Can’t kill killer asteroids with nukes. Credit: Los Alamos National Lab

Over the years, almost the entire world has signed onto the Outer Space Treaty. 106 countries are parties and another 24 have signed on, but haven’t fully ratified it yet.

In addition to all those nuclear weapons rules, the United Nations agreed on several other rules. In fact, its full name is, The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.

Here’s the relevant language:

Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.

No country can own the Moon. No country can own Jupiter. No country can own a tiny planet, off in the corner of the Andromeda Galaxy. And no citizens or companies from those countries can own any property either.

And so far, no country has tried to. Seriously, space exploration is incredibly difficult. We’ve only set foot on the Moon a couple of times, decades ago, and never returned.

But with all the recent developments, it looks like we might be getting closer to wondering if we can own dragons, or a nice acreage on Mars.

Perhaps the most interesting recent development is the creation of not one, not two, but three companies dedicated to mining resources from asteroids: Planetary Resources, Kepler Energy, and Deep Space Industries.

Just a single small asteroid could contain many useful minerals, and there could potentially be tens of billions of dollars in profit for anyone who can sink robotic mining shafts into them.

Asteroid mining concept. Credit: NASA/Denise Watt

The three different companies have their own plans on how they’re going to identify potential mining targets and extract resources, and I’m not going to go into all the details of what it would take to mine an asteroid in this video.

But according to the Outer Space Treaty, is it legal? The answer, is: probably.

The original treaty was actually pretty vague. It said that no country can claim sovereignty over a world in space, but that doesn’t mean we can’t utilize some of its resources. In fact, future missions to the Moon and Mars depend on astronauts “living off the land”, harvesting local resources like ice to make air, drinking water and rocket fuel. Or building structures out of Martian regolith.

Mining an entire asteroid for sweet sweet profit is just a difference of scale.

In order to provide some clarity, the United States passed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015. This gave details on how space tourism should work, and described how companies might mine minerals from space. The gist of the law is, if an American citizen can get their hands on materials from an asteroid, they own it, and they’re free to sell it.

The Interplanetary Transport System blasting off. Credit: SpaceX

As you know, SpaceX is planning to colonize Mars. Well, so far, their plans include building the most powerful rocket ever built, and hurling human beings at Mars, hundreds at a time. The first mission is expected to blast off in 2024, so this is quickly becoming a practical issue.

What are the legalities of colonizing Mars? Will you own a chunk of land when you stumble out of the Interplanetary Transport Ship out on the surface of Mars?

Right now, you can imagine the surface of Mars like a research station on Antarctica. If SpaceX, an American company, builds a colony on Mars, then it’s essentially US government property. Anything that happens within that colony is under the laws of the United States.

If a group of colonists from China, for example, set out on their own, they would be building a little piece of China. And no matter what kind of facility they build, nobody within the team actually owns their homes.

If you’re out on the surface, away from a base, everything reverts to international law. Watch out for space pirates!

The space pirates were everywhere. Monday suddenly got a lot more interesting. Credit: NASA/JSC/Pat Rawlings, SAIC

Under the treaty, every facility is obliged to provide access to anyone else out there, which means that members of one facility are free to visit any other facility. You can’t lock your door and keep anyone out.

In fact, if anyone’s in trouble, you’re legally bound to do everything you can (within reason) to lend your assistance.

The bottom line is that the current Outer Space Treaty is not exactly prepared for the future reality of the colonization of Mars. As more and more people reach the Red Planet, you’d expect they’re going to want to govern themselves. We’ve seen this play out time and time again on Earth, so it won’t be surprising when the Mars colonies band together to declare their separation from Earth.

That said, as long as they’re reliant on regular supplies from Earth, they won’t be able to fully declare their independence. As long as they have interests on Earth, our planet’s governments will be able to squeeze them and maintain their dominance.

We've been dreaming about a Mars colony for a long time, as the lovely retro drawing shows. Will SpaceX finally give us one? Image: NASA
Credit: NASA

Once a Mars colony is fully self sufficient, though, which Elon Musk estimates will occur by 1 million inhabitants, Earth will have to recognize a fully independent Mars.

Space law is going to be one of the most interesting aspects of the future of space exploration. It’s really the next frontier. Concepts which were purely theoretical are becoming more and more concrete, and lawyers will finally be the heroes we always knew they could be.

If you’ve always wanted to be an astronaut, but your parents have always wanted you to be a lawyer, now’s your chance to do both. An astronaut space lawyer. I’m just saying, it’s an option.

How Private Space Companies Make Money Exploring The Final Frontier

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo soars in a powered flight test on Sept. 5, 2013. Credit: and Clay Center Observatory

TORONTO, CANADA – There’s a big difference in thinking between governments and the private companies that participate in space. While entities such as NASA can work on understanding basic human health or exploring the universe for the sake of a greater understanding, companies have a limitation: they need to eventually make a profit.

This was brought up in a human spaceflight discussion at the International Astronautical Congress today (Oct. 1), which included participants from agencies and companies alike. Below are some concepts for how private companies in the space world today are making their money.

“We have in space a movement towards more privatization … and also for more use of space activities in general and human space activity in the future by individual private persons,” said Johann Dietrich Worner, chairman of the executive board of DLR (Germany’s space agency), in the panel.

“You can imagine that even for the upcoming 10 to 20 to 30 years, the public funding is the basic funding for [space] activities while in other areas, we are already seeing that private money is doing its work if you look to communication and if you look to other activities, like for instance, research in space.”

But commercial spaceflight is already taking place, as some of these examples show.

Commercial crew

Would you ‘Enter the Dragon’? First look inside SpaceX Dragon V2 next generation astronaut spacecraft unveiled by CEO Elon Musk on May 29, 2014. Credit: Robert Fisher/AmericaSpace
Would you ‘Enter the Dragon’?
First look inside SpaceX Dragon V2 next generation astronaut spacecraft unveiled by CEO Elon Musk on May 29, 2014. Credit: Robert Fisher/AmericaSpace

The two successful companies in NASA’s latest round of commercial contracts — SpaceX (Dragon) and Boeing (CST-100) — are each receiving government money to develop their private space taxis. The companies are responsible for meeting certain milestones to receive funds. There is quite the element of risk involved because the commercial contracts are only given out in stages; you could be partway through developing the spacecraft and then discover you will not be awarded one for the next round. This is what happened to Sierra Nevada Corp., whose Dream Chaser concept did not receive more money in the announcement last month. The company has filed a legal challenge in response.

Private space travel

Sir Richard Branson hugs designer Burt Rutan as they are surrounded by employee's of Virgin Galactic, The SpaceShip Company and Scaled Composites watch as Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip2 streaks across the sky under rocket power, its first ever since the program began in 2005. Burt's wife Tonya Rutan is at right taking their photo. The spacecraft was dropped from its "mothership", WhiteKnight2 over the Mojave, CA area, April 29, 2013 at high altitude before firing its hybrid power motor. Virgin Galactic hopes to become the first commercial space venture to bring multiple passengers into space on a regular basis.
Sir Richard Branson hugs designer Burt Rutan, surrounded by employees of Virgin Galactic, The SpaceShip Company, and Scaled Composites, and watch as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip2 streaks across the sky under rocket power, its first ever since the program began in 2005. Burt’s wife Tonya Rutan is at right taking their photo. The spacecraft was dropped from its “mothership,” WhiteKnight2, over the Mojave CA area on April 29, 2013, at high altitude before firing its hybrid power motor. Virgin Galactic hopes to become the first commercial space venture to bring multiple passengers into space on a regular basis.

Virgin Galactic and its founder, Richard Branson, are perhaps the most visible of the companies that are looking to bring private citizens into space — as long as they can pay $250,000 for a ride. The first flight of Virgin into space is expected in the next year. Customers must pay a deposit upfront upon registering and then the balance before they head into suborbit. In the case of Virgin, Branson has a portfolio of companies that can take on the financial risk during the startup phase, but eventually the company will look to turn a profit through the customer payments.

Asteroid mining

Artist concept of the ARKYD spacecraft by an asteroid. Credit: Planetary Resources.
Artist concept of the ARKYD spacecraft by an asteroid. Credit: Planetary Resources.

The business case for Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, the two self-proclaimed asteroid mining companies, hasn’t fully been released yet. We assume that the companies would look to make a profit through selling whatever resources they manage to dig up on asteroids, but bear in mind it would cost quite a bit of money to get a spacecraft there and back. Meanwhile, Planetary Resources is diversifying its income somewhat by initiatives such as the Arkyd-100 telescope, which will look for asteroids from Earth orbit. They raised money for the project through crowdsourcing.

Space station research

The International Space Station in March 2009 as seen from the departing STS-119 space shuttle Discovery crew. Credit: NASA/ESA
The International Space Station in March 2009 as seen from the departing STS-119 space shuttle Discovery crew. Credit: NASA/ESA

NanoRacks is a company that has research slots available on the International Space Station that it sells to entities looking to do research in microgravity. The company has places inside the station and can also deploy small satellites through a Japanese system. While the company’s website makes it clear that they are focused on ISS utilization, officials also express an interest in doing research in geocentric orbit, the moon or even Mars.

If You Mine An Asteroid, Who Does The Property Belong To?

An astronaut retrieves a sample from an asteroid in this artist's conception. Credit: NASA

There have been several proposals in recent months to visit asteroids — NASA is talking about sending astronauts to an asteroid sometime, and both Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries have outlined distant plans to mine these space rocks for resources.

But once the stuff is extracted, who does it belong to? A bill being considered by the U.S. House of Representatives says it would belong to “the property of the entity that obtained such resources.”

In a blog on Space Politics, aerospace analyst Jeff Foust outlined a discussion on the bill at the NewSpace 2014 conference last week. There are still a few wrinkles to be worked out, with one of the most pressing being to define what the definition of an asteroid is. Also, the backers of the bill are talking with the U.S. State Department to see if it would conflict with any international treaty obligations. (Here’s a copy of the bill on the Space Politics website.)

A single radar image frame close-up view of 2014 HQ124. Credit: NASA
A single radar image frame close-up view of 2014 HQ124. Credit: NASA

The panel also noticed there is precedent for keeping and even selling samples: the visits to the Moon. Both Apollo astronauts (with the United States) and the Luna robotic missions (from the Soviet Union) returned samples of the Moon to the Earth. Some of the Apollo rocks, for example, are on display in museums. Others are stored in the NASA Lunar Sample Laboratory Facility at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

That said, extraterrestrial property rights are difficult to define. For example, the United Nations Moon Treaty (more properly known as Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies) allows samples to be removed and stored for “scientific purposes”, and during these investigations they may “also use mineral and other substances of the moon in quantities appropriate for the support of their missions.” But it also adds that “the moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind.”

Could Asteroids Solve The Fuel Problem In Space? Planetary Resources Video

A screenshot from Planetary Resources' "The Trillion Dollar Market: Fuel in Space From Asteroids." Credit: Planetary Resources/YouTube (screenshot)

While we as a community love exploring space, we also recognize it can be expensive. Launch costs, manufacturing and keeping a mission going all take money, which is why NASA (for example) runs reviews every couple of years to figure out which ongoing missions are providing the best return.

Planetary Resources — one of the companies that wants to mine asteroids, and is searching for them with NASA — has produced a new video envisioning a solution to that problem: harvesting fuel from asteroids. Leaving the legal concerns aside, the company points out this could be a way of better opening up exploration of the solar system.

“In space one resource above all others is extraordinarily expensive and without cheap access to it, growth is limited…FUEL,” Planetary Resources wrote. “The catalyst for rapid expansion into every frontier in history has been access to cheap, local resources. And in space, access to rocket fuel is currently neither cheap, nor local.

“But on asteroids,” it continued, “abundant quantities of hydrogen and oxygen can be used to create rocket fuel, the same stuff used by the space shuttle. This allows companies like Vivisat fuel spacetugs that will be used to keep satellites in their Geostationary slots, or fuel up your spacecraft before zooming off to Mars. The possibilities are endless!”

Read more about their ideas here.

Arkyd Telescope Reaches $1M Goal, But Still Looking For Planet-Hunting Funds

Artist concept of the Arkyd telescope in space. Credit: Planetary Resources Inc.

With more than $1 million in crowdfunded money secured for a public asteroid-hunting space telescope, the ultimate question arises: what about the promised planet chase?

Planetary Resources’ Arkyd-100 telescope reached its $1 million goal yesterday (June 20). But the self-proclaimed asteroid-hunting company has an ambitious aim to add extrasolar planet searching  to the list if it can double that goal to $2 million.

The Kickstarter campaign for Arkyd still has 10 days remaining. To keep the funds flowing, the group behind it has released several “stretch” goals if it can reach further milestones:

$1.3 million: A ground station at an undisclosed “educational partner” that would double the download speed of data from the orbiting observatory.

Example of an orbital 'selfie' that Planetary Resources' ARKYD telescope could provide to anyone who donates to their new Kickstarter campaign. Credit: Planetary Resources.
Example of an orbital ‘selfie’ that Planetary Resources’ ARKYD telescope could provide to anyone who donates to their new Kickstarter campaign. Credit: Planetary Resources.

$1.5 million: This goal, just released yesterday, is aimed at the more than 20,000 people who signed up for “space selfies” incentive where uploaded pictures are photographed on the telescope while it is in orbit. For this goal, “beta selfies” will be taken while the telescope is in the integration phase of the build.

$1.7 million: The milestone will be announced if Arkyd reaches 15,000 backers. (It has more than 12,000 as of this writing.)

$2 million: The telescope will hunt for alien planets. Planetary Resources added this goal last week following technical problems plaguing NASA’s Kepler space telescope that could derail the agency’s prolific planet finder.

Also, a hat-tip to NASA’s Peter Edmonds, who works in public affairs for the Chandra X-ray Observatory, for pointing out the campaign’s Kickstarter video in Klingon. Check it out below:

NASA’s Sci-Fi Vision: Robots Could Help Humanity Mine Asteroids

An artist's conception of a spacecraft designed to pick up an asteroid. Credit: NASA/Advanced Concepts Laboratory

In a few generations of robotics, we’ll see mighty machines able to fully construct themselves and operate from the surface of asteroids — providing applications for mining, NASA researchers say in a new study.

The scientists are convinced that this type of research is not only possible, but also able to support itself financially. (Costs overruns are a notorious factor in space exploration as it pushes frontiers both literally and engineering-wise.)

“Advances in robotics and additive manufacturing have become game-changing for the prospects of space industry. It has become feasible to bootstrap a self-sustaining, self-expanding industry at reasonably low cost,” the researchers stated in a new study.

A couple of factors are pointing to this, researchers said: private industry is willing and able to get involved. Advances in technologies such as 3-D printing are making off-world work more feasible. Also, humanity’s surveys of space resources has revealed the elements needed to make rubber, plastic and alloys needed for machinery.

NASA proposes a robotic flotilla could mine nearby space rocks. They caution the technology won’t be ready tomorrow, and more surveys will need to be done of nearby asteroids to figure out where to go next. There is, however, enough progress to see building blocks, the agency stated.

An artist's conception of a space exploration vehicle approaching an asteroid. Credit: NASA
An artist’s conception of a space exploration vehicle approaching an asteroid. Credit: NASA

“Robots and machines would just make the metal and propellants for starters,” stated Phil Metzger, a senior research physicist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, who led the study.

“The first generation of robots makes the second generation of hardware, except the comparatively lightweight electronics and motors that have to be sent up from Earth. It doesn’t matter how much the large structures weigh because you didn’t have to launch it.”

A computer model in the study showed that in six generations of robotics, these machines will be able to construct themselves and operate without any need of materials from Earth.

Artist impression of the Arkyd Interceptor, a low cost asteroid mission that enables accelerated exploration. Credit: Planetary Resources.
Artist impression of the Arkyd Interceptor, a low cost asteroid mission that enables accelerated exploration. Credit: Planetary Resources.

At least two startups would agree with the optimism: Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources.

In the past year, members of both firms have proposed asteroid mining ideas, and since then, Planetary Resources has also unveiled other projects such as a public space telescope (perhaps in a bid to diversify revenues and attract more attention.)

In early 2013, when NASA submitted its fiscal budget request for 2014, it also got in on the hubbub: the agency proposed robotically venturing out to an asteroid and bringing it back to Earth.

That’s received many questions from critics (including at least one government space committee), but NASA has argued it is feasible and a way to unite innovation across various sectors.

“Because asteroids are loaded with minerals that are rare on Earth, near-Earth asteroids and the asteroid belt could become the mining centers for remotely-operated excavators and processing machinery,” NASA stated.

Asteroid 951 Gaspra
Asteroid 951 Gaspra. Credit: NASA

“In the future, an industry could develop to send refined materials, rare metals and even free, clean energy to Earth from asteroids and other bodies.”

Check out more details of the new report in the Journal of Aerospace Engineering.

A side note, this isn’t the only NASA-funded group looking at asteroid mining. In September, NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts office offered Phase 1 funding to a Robotic Asteroid Prospector proposal.

Source: NASA

Bringing Space to the Masses: Q&A with Planetary Resources’ Chris Lewicki

Chris Lewicki in the clean room. His role as flight director for the two MER rovers and surface operations manager for the Phoenix mission required an intimate knowledge of all the spacecraft systems. Image courtesy Chris Lewicki.

Chris Lewicki is the President and Chief Engineer for one of the most pioneering and audacious companies in the world today. Planetary Resources was founded in 2008 by two leading space advocates, Peter Diamandis, Chairman and CEO of the X-Prize Foundation and Eric Anderson, a forerunner in the field of space tourism. In from the earliest days of the company, in turning to Lewicki, Anderson and Diamandis have gained scientific and management expertise which reaches far beyond low Earth orbit.

Chris is a recipient of two NASA Exceptional Achievement Medals and has an asteroid name in his honour, 13609 Lewicki. Chris holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Arizona.

In this exclusive interview with Nick Howes, Lewicki gives us a feel for what lies behind Planetary Resources most compelling step yet in their quest to bring space to the masses.

Chris Lewicki is the President and Chief Engineer for Planetary Resources, Inc. Image courtesy Planetary Resources.
Chris Lewicki is the President and Chief Engineer for Planetary Resources, Inc. Image courtesy Planetary Resources.

Nick Howes – So Chris, what first inspired you to get in to astronomy and space science?

Chris Lewicki – So, I guess it wasn’t a person as most would say, but a mission that got me started on this road. Even before college, and you have to remember I grew up in dairy country in Northern Wisconsin, where we didn’t really have much in the way of space. I wanted to do something interesting, and found I was good at math. When I saw the Voyager 2 spacecraft flyby of Neptune and Triton, I thought “wow this is it,” and wanted to work at JPL pretty much from that moment onwards. Thinking that this was a “really special place.”

Voyager 2's encounter with Nepture. Credit: NASA
Voyager 2’s encounter with Nepture. Credit: NASA

NH – At college were you determined to work for someone like NASA, and was your time at Blastoff a good stepping stone in to this?

CL – I think it really did start even before college, like I said, from the Voyager 2 encounter and all the subsequent missions which JPL were involved in this was kind of the goal. Ahead of JPL though, was my first encounter with Peter (Diamandis) and Eric (Anderson) when we worked on where I was a web developer. Prior to that I’d had a spell at the Goddard Space Flight Centre, but with Eric and Peter, we really did form a bond. Starport didn’t last too long though, as it was at the time of the dotcom boom and bubble, but it taught me some valuable lessons in those months.

Then I took up a position at JPL, but as you probably know, not everything they do is mission design and planning, and while it is an amazing place, I wanted to get my hands on some real mission stuff, so moved on after just under a year.

Then came Blastoff which kind of set a lot of the wheels in motion for ideas relating to the Google Lunar X-Prize. We had a lot of fun there designing rovers and exploratory missions to the Moon, lots of great people with great ideas.

I was then at a small satellites conference in Utah, when a representative of JPL came up to me after my talk, gave me his business card and effectively said I should come and do an interview for them. Peter and Eric didn’t really want me to go, but I told them “I really have to go off and learn how to build rockets.” Thus really started the real journey working with NASA on some of the most exciting missions in recent history.

NH – How thrilling was it being the flight director for two of the most successful missions in NASA’s history?

A view of the Flight Control room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory during the landing of the Spirit Mars Exploration Rover, Spirit, with Chris in the  Flight Director hotseat. Credit: NASA/JPL.
A view of the Flight Control room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory during the landing of the Spirit Mars Exploration Rover, Spirit, with Chris in the Flight Director hotseat. Credit: NASA/JPL.

CL – Thrilling really doesn’t come close to covering it. There I was, 29 years old, thinking “should I really be doing this?” but then, realising “yes, I can do this” sitting in the flight directors desk for two of NASA’s most audacious missions, being Spirit and Opportunity. It was my role to get them safely down on the surface, and boy did we test those missions.

The simulators were so realistic; we’d be running so many different scenarios for years prior to the actual EDL phase, now known as the “7 minutes of terror”. It really doesn’t feel quite real though when it’s actually happening, you just know it is because the room is full of TV cameras, and you have that extra notion in the back of your mind saying it’s not a sim this time. The telemetry though in the simulations was so close to the real data, just a few variations, it kind of showed how much testing and planning went in to those missions, and how it all paid off.

NH – With Phoenix you’d obviously experienced the sadness of the loss of Polar Lander before hand; did that teach you any valuable lessons which you have now carried forward to your role at Planetary Resources?

CL – Phoenix started with a failure review, but that’s what I think is so important about engineering and indeed life in general. You have to fail to understand how to make things better. During that design review we figured out a dozen more reasons for things that could have gone wrong with Mars Polar Lander, and implemented the changes for Phoenix. You have to plan for failure so much with missions of this type, and it’s quite an exhilarating but in some ways stressful ride, and one that after Phoenix I felt like I needed to pass the mantle on to for Curiosity.

NH – On the topic of Planetary Resources, when did you start to think about being part of a company of this magnitude?

Artist concept of the ARKYD spacecraft by an asteroid. Credit: Planetary Resources.
Artist concept of the ARKYD spacecraft by an asteroid. Credit: Planetary Resources.

CL – Well working with Peter and Eric again was mooted as long ago as 2008, the company ideas being formulated then when it was called Arkyd Astronautics, a name which stuck with us until 2012. Eric and Peter approached me about possibly coming back. As I said, I’d pretty much resigned myself to not working on Curiosity, and having to put myself through all of the phases associated with that landing, and there’s a quote which many people believe comes from Mark Twain, but is really from Jackson Brown, that basically says

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover” I decided to throw off the bowlines and set sail with Planetary Resources.

NH – How do you see your relationship with a company like Planetary Resources with the major space agencies? Do you see yourselves as complimenting them or competing?

CL – Complimenting totally. NASA has over 50 years of incredible exploration, missions, research, development and insight, and a great future ahead of them too. With NASA recently transferring some of their low Earth orbit operations in to the commercial sector, we feel that this is really a great time to be in this industry, with our goals for being at the forefront of the types of science and commercial operations that the business sector can excel in, leaving NASA to focus on the amazing deep space missions, like landing on Europa or going back to Titan, missions like that, which only the large government agencies can really pull off at this time.

NH – The Arkyd has to be one of the most staggering Kickstarter success stories ever, raising aaround $800,000 in a week…did you imagine that the reaction to putting a space telescope available for all in to orbit would garner so much enthusiasm?

Artist concept of the ARKYD telescope in space. Credit: Planetary Resources.
Artist concept of the ARKYD telescope in space. Credit: Planetary Resources.

CL – Staggering again doesn’t really do it enough justice. This is the biggest space based Kickstarter in their history, as it’s also in the photography category; it’s the biggest photographic Kickstarter ever too. We have many more surprises planned which I can’t go in to now, but in setting the $1 million minimum bar to “test the water” with public interest in a space telescope, we’ve not really exceeded expectations, but absolutely reached what we felt was possible. From talking to people ahead of the launch, and just seeing their reaction (note from author, I was one of those people, and my reaction was jaw dropping) we knew we had something really special. The idea of the space selfie we felt was part of the cornerstone of what we wanted to achieve, opening up space to everyone, not just the real die hard space enthusiasts.

NH – With the huge initial success of the Arkyd project, do you see any scope for a flotilla of space telescopes for the public, much like say the LCOGT or iTelescope networks are on Earth?

CL – Possibly in the future. You yourself know with your work with the Las Cumbres and Faulkes network and iTelescope networks that having a suite of telescopes around the planet has huge benefits when it comes to observations and science. At present we have the plan for one telescope for public use as you know.

The Arkyd 100, which will be utilising our Arkyd technologies, which we’ll be using to examine near Earth asteroids. If you think, that in the last 100 years, the Hale’s, Lowell’s etc of this world were all private individuals sponsoring and building amazing instruments for space exploration, it’s really just a natural progression on from this. We’re partnering closely with the Planetary Society on this, as they have common goals and interests to us, and also with National Geographic. We feel this really does open up space to a whole new group of people, and it’s apparent from the phenomenal interest we’ve had from Kickstarter, and the thousands of people who’ve pledged their support, that this vision was right.

NH – Planetary Resources has some huge goals in terms of asteroids in future, but you seem to have a very balanced and phased scientific plan to study and then proceed to the larger scale operations. Does this come from your science background?

CL – As I said, I grew up in dairy country in Wisconsin, where I had to really make my own opportunities be a part of this industry, there was no space there. On saying that, I have been an advocate of space pretty much all my life, and yes, I guess my scientific background, and experience with working at JPL has come to bear in Planetary Resources. We have a solid plan in terms of risk management with our “swarm” mentality, of sending up lots of spacecraft, and even if one or more fails, we’ll still be able to get valuable science data. I see it really in that lots of people have big ideas, and set up companies with them, but then after initial investment dries up, the ideas may still be big and there, but there is no way to pursue them.

We’ve all come from companies which have seen this kind of mindset in the past, and now, whilst we love employing students and college graduates who have big ideas, who take chances, we have a plan, a long term, and sustainable plan, and yes, we’re taking a steady approach to this, so that we can guarantee that our investors get a return on what they have supported.

NH – Can you give us a timeline for what Planetary Resources aim to achieve?

CL – Our first test launch will be as early as 2014, and then in 2015 we’ll start with the space telescopes using the Arkyd technology. By 2017 we hope to be identifying and on our way to classification of potentially interesting NEO targets for future mining. By the early 2020’s the aim is to be doing extraction from asteroids, and starting sample return missions.

NH – You were and still it seems from all I have read, remain passionate about student involvement, with SEDS etc, what could you say to younger people inspired by what you’re doing to encourage them to get in to the space industry?

CL – Tough one, but I’d say that looking at the people you admire, always remember that they are not superhuman, they are like you and me, but to have goals, take chances and be determined is a great way to look forward. The SEDS movement played a big part in my early life, and I would encourage any student to get involved in that for sure.

NH – In conclusion, what would be your ultimate goal as a pioneer of the new frontier in space exploration?

CL – Our ultimate goal is to be the developer of the economic engine that makes space exploration commercially viable. Once we have established that, we can then look at more detailed exploration of space, with tourism, scientific missions, and extending our reach out even further. I’ve already been a part of placing three missions on the surface of Mars, so nothing really is beyond our reach.

Nick’s closing comments :

I first met Chris at the Spacefest V conference in Tucson, where he gave me a preview of the Arkyd space telescope. There is no doubt in my mind that after meeting him, that he and the team at Planetary Resources will succeed in their mission. A quite brilliant individual, but humble with it, someone who you can spend hours talking to and come away feeling truly inspired. This interview we talked for what seemed like hours, and Chris said I could have written a book with the answers he gave, I hope this article gives you some taste however of the person behind the missions which, at the new frontier of exploration, much like the prospectors in the Gold Rush, are charting new and unknown, yet hugely exiting territories. As the old saying goes…and possibly more aptly then ever… watch this space.

You can find out more about the ARKYD project at the Planetary Resources website.

Planetary Resources Looks to Crowdfund a Space Telescope for the Public

Example of an orbital 'selfie' that Planetary Resources' ARKYD telescope could provide to anyone who donates to their new Kickstarter campaign. Credit: Planetary Resources.

How much would you donate to have access to a space telescope … or just to have an orbital “selfie”? Planetary Resources, Inc., the company that wants to mine asteroids, has launched a Kickstarter campaign for the world’s first crowdfunded space telescope. They say their Arkyd-100 telescope will provide unprecedented public access to space and place the most advanced exploration technology into the hands of students, scientists and a new generation of citizen explorers.

To make their campaign successful, they need to raise $1 million in Kickstarter pledges by the end of June 2013. Less than 2 hours into their campaign, they have raised over $100,000.

Last year, Planetary Resources revealed their plans to develop a series of small spacecraft to do a little ‘space prospecting’ which would eventually allow them to mine near Earth asteroids, extracting valuable resources.

Their announcement today of the crowdfunded Arkyd-100 space telescope will allow them to begin the search for asteroid they could mine, while involving the public and providing access to to the space telescope “for inspiration, exploration and research” or have a commemorative photo of those who donate displayed above the Earth, such as the image above.

During a webcast today to announce the Kickstarter campaign, Chris Lewicki, President and Chief Engineer for Planetary Resources said the telescope would have 1 arcsecond resolution, with the benefit of being above atmosphere.

A wide array of scientists, space enthusiasts and even Bill Nye the Science Guy have voiced their support for Planetary Resources’ new public space telescope.

Artist concept of the Arkyd telescope in space. Credit: Planetary Resources Inc.
Artist concept of the Arkyd telescope in space. Credit: Planetary Resources Inc.

“The ARKYD crowdfunding campaign is extraordinary,” said Sara Seager, Ph.D., Professor of Physics and Planetary Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Not only does the telescope have the technical capability to increase our understanding of space, but it can be placed in orbit for an incredibly low cost. That is an economic breakthrough that will accelerate space-based research now and in the future.”

The space telescope is being built by Planetary Resources’ technical team, who worked on every recent U.S. Mars lander and rover.

“I’ve operated rovers and landers on Mars, and now I can share that incredible experience with everyone,” said Lewicki. “People of any age and background will be able to point the telescope outward to investigate our Solar System, deep space, or join us in our study of near-Earth asteroids.”

Planetary Resources will use the proceeds from the Kickstarter campaign to launch the telescope, fund the creation of the public interface, cover the fulfillment costs for all of the products and services listed in the pledge levels, and fund the immersive educational curriculum for students everywhere. Any proceeds raised beyond the goal will allow for more access to classrooms, museums and science centers, and additional use by individual Kickstarter backers.

However, if they fail to reach the $1 million goal, they receive none of the money. According to Jeff Foust at the NewSpace Journal quoted Lewicki as saying, if that happens, they’ll proceed with their current plans, including development of a small prototype satellite, called Arkyd 3, that is planned for launch next year.

Here are a few of the donation levels:

• Your Face in Space – the #SpaceSelfie: For US$25, the team will upload an image of the campaign backer’s choice to display on the ARKYD, snap a photo of it with the Earth in the background, and transmit it to the backer. This space ‘photo booth’ allows anyone to take (or gift) a unique Space Selfie image that connects a personal moment with the cosmos in an unprecedented, yet tangible way.

• Explore the Cosmos: Higher pledge levels provide students, astronomers and researchers with access to the ARKYD main optic for detailed observations of the cosmos, galaxies, asteroids and our Solar System.

• Support Education Worldwide: At the highest levels, pledgers can offer the K-12 school, science center, university, or any interested group of their choice access to the ARKYD for use in interactive educational programming to strengthen STEM education worldwide. The full pledge list and ARKYD technical specifications can be found here.

See all the levels at Planetary Resources’ Kickstarter Page.

“When we launched Planetary Resources last year, we had an extraordinary response from the general public,” said Peter Diamandis, Co-Founder and Co-Chairman of Planetary Resources, Inc.. “Tens of thousands of people contacted us and wanted to be involved. We are using this Kickstarter campaign as a mechanism to engage the community in a productive way.”

During a webcast today to make their Kickstarter announcement Diamandis said, “In the last 50 years, space exploration has been led by national governmental agencies with their own set of priorities. Imagine not having to wait for Congress to decide what missions will fly!”

ARKYD Infographic

How Planetary Resource’s Asteroid Search Could Help Find Exoplanets

Planetary Resources is the private company that wants to eventually mine asteroids for profit. But initially, the group will focus on developing Earth orbiting telescopes to scan for the best asteroids, and then later, create low-cost robotic spacecraft for surveying missions and then actual spacecraft to do the mining.

But in the meantime, Planetary Resources has opened up the option of allowing access to their Arkyd-100 space telescope to others, and put out the question: “What would you do if you had access to our Arkyd-100 space telescopes?”

An MIT Researcher said he could use the Arkyd telescope to find alien planets.

Dr. Vlada Stamenkovic, a post-doctoral researcher at MIT who searches for exoplanets – distant alien worlds beyond our solar system — sent in this video to Planetary Resources with his explanation:

“It’s inspiring to think that the Arkyd can help researchers like Vlada discover Earth-like planets, and perhaps, someday, even life out there among the stars,” Planetary Resources said on their website. “We’re excited to see such enthusiasm around our projects.”

Another of the aims of Planetary Resources is to open deep-space exploration to private industry, much like the $10 million Ansari X Prize competition, which Planetary Resources member Peter Diamandis created. In previous talks, Diamandis has estimated that a small asteroid is worth about “20 trillion dollars in the platinum group metal marketplace.”

If you have something smaller in mind, perhaps similar to the proposal by Stamenkovic, Planetary Resources has opened up the possibility for anyone to submit a request for using their telescopes. If you have an idea, record a 90-second video on how you’d like to use the Arkyd-100, and share it with Planetary Resources. That can be done by creating a video response to this You Tube video or adding a link to your video on PRI’s website.

“Tell us the WHAT and the WHY. The videos getting the most likes will drive elements of our Kickstarter Campaign and get posted to the PRI website.”

Lead image caption: Artist concept of the Arkyd-100 series telescope. Credit: Planetary Resources.