[This post is part of a series about the Starship Century Symposium held May 21-22, 2013.]
Chris Lewicki is President and Chief Engineer of Planetary Resources, leader of its day-to-day operations and responsible for the strategic development of the company’s mission and vision. He was intimately involved with NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers and the Phoenix Mars Lander, serving as Flight Director for the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, and as Surface Mission Manager for Phoenix. Lewicki even has an asteroid named in his honor: 13609 Lewicki.
Earlier speakers at the Starship Century Symposium warned that humanity will need access to the resources of the entire Solar System to develop the technology and supply the large amounts of energy needed for an interstellar mission.
Chris Lewicki advised that the practical first step is commercializing space, prospecting and claiming the most valuable Near-Earth Asteroids.
Astronomers have discovered more than half-a-million new asteroids since 1997. Most asteroids are in the Main Belt.
There were 9,833 known Near-Earth Asteroids as of May 21. Near-Earth Asteroids (NEA) are generally defined as that population of asteroids which spends at least part of each orbit between 0.983 and 1.3 Astronomical Units from the Sun (1 Astronomical Unit is the Earth’s distance from the Sun).
Throughout the Solar System are over 1.5 million asteroids larger than one kilometer in diameter. Of these, 981 are Near-Earth Asteroids, and 17% of NEAs are energetically closer than the Moon. Several dozen asteroids could be reached with less energy than is required to put a television satellite into geostationary orbit.
Two NEAs have been visited by robotic spacecraft: 433 Eros by NASA’s NEAR mission, and 25143 Itokawa by Japan’s Hayabusa mission. NASA is currently working on the OSIRIS-REx mission to visit the carbonaceous asteroid 1999 RQ36 in 2019. (Asteroids are generally classified as C-type, carbonaceous, S-type, silicaceous, or M-type, metallic.)
Asteroids contain platinum group metals — ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium, and platinum (PGM). One in four manufactured goods requires PGM.
Some near-Earth asteroids contain PGM in much higher concentrations than the richest Earth mines. In space, a single platinum-rich 500 meter wide asteroid contains about 174 times the yearly world output of platinum, and 1.5 times the known world-reserves.
Asteroids also contain common metallic elements such as iron, nickel, and cobalt, sometimes in incredible quantities. In addition to water, other volatiles, such as nitrogen, CO, CO2, and methane, exist in quantities sufficient to warrant extraction and utilization.
Low cost commercial robotic spacecraft will explore asteroids and determine their position, composition, and accessibility of resources. Planetary Resources is creating robotic explorers to visit the best asteroid candidates, then access and process their resources during subsequent campaigns using a solar concentrator.
Water from asteroids can be both converted to and used directly as propellant, then shipped and stored at strategic locations set up as fuel depots. This fuel – supplied and sold to NASA or other in-space customers – will accelerate the pace of human spaceflight.
In Earth orbit, water from asteroids can also be converted and used to refuel satellites, increase the payload capacity of rockets by refueling their upper stages, reboost space stations, supply propellant needed to boost satellites from Low Earth Orbit to Geostationary Orbit, provide radiation shielding for spaceships, and provide fuel to space tugs that could clean up space debris.
The Starship Century anthology, Symposium edition, is currently available in paperback for $28 — click here.