The Space Rock Race: Mining Asteroids
A Redmond company uses amateur astronomers and stargazers to train its spaceships on asteroids for their valuable resources, such as water—and a larger store of platinum than has ever been mined on Earth.
Chris Lewicki knows how to harness resources. As a space-crazed eighth-grader in chilly northern Wisconsin, Lewicki couldn’t read enough about the 1989 flight of the Voyager 2 past Neptune. So he started a space club at his school to score an educational discount on NASA data.
Today Lewicki is president and chief engineer of Planetary Resources, a company devoted to mining asteroids. (Yes, really.) The Redmond startup was founded in 2010 by Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis, who between them cofounded the X Prize and space tourism company Space Adventures. The goal is to extract water, platinum, and more from the rocks that hurtle through our solar system, a process that starts with the most abundant resource here on Earth: bored people on the Internet.
In June, Planetary Resources launched Asteroid Zoo (asteroidzoo.org), a simple web app that allows anyone to search for space rocks. Using a technique that predates computers, viewers see four consecutive night-sky images in the world’s shortest flip book. Then they tag tiny movements from small blurry smudges—which are, presumably, asteroids.
More than a million photos were surveyed by amateur astronomers in the first two weeks after the app went live, each entry honing Planetary Resources’ recognition programs. “Even an eight-year-old human brain can find these little patterns better than your average computer can,” says Lewicki. (For now; he figures “humans can help train the machines, and the machines will eventually overthrow us.” You’ve been warned.)
Why the search? Because there’s gold in them there space rocks, or rather more platinum than has ever been mined on Earth. Plus, did you know there’s water on asteroids? And in space terms, its value extends well past thirst quenching: The hydrogen and oxygen found in the water on a single asteroid the size of a football field could have fueled all of NASA’s 135 shuttle launches.
This fall Planetary Resources will launch its first craft to scout minefields. It’s a brave new legal world of resource extraction. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prevents earthlings from claiming space as sovereign territory, but thanks to its vague verbiage on mining, Lewicki estimates his company will be extracting asteroid booty by 2021.
Even as they finesse complex tech, Lewicki’s bringing amateurs into the fold. A $1.5 million Kickstarter campaign will fund a telescope the company will attach to its second spacecraft, due to launch next year. The 17,614 backers can control its viewfinder and project a photograph to take a “space selfie.”
Lewicki himself was the flight director of two of NASA’s Mars rovers, but over time he saw the agency grow increasingly risk averse. “When failure is not an option, success gets really expensive,” he says. He wants to be like NASA in the 1960s, when it was willing to “throw nine things at the moon and keep going until something worked.”
Planetary Resources is backed by enough deep pockets—including those of Larry Page of Google, Charles Simonyi of Microsoft, and Ross Perot Jr. of Texas—that Lewicki can afford to fail and keep trying. This fall’s probe, launched to and then from the International Space Station is “probably not going to be perfect,” he says, but the launches will continue until one succeeds. Until then, he’ll turn us all into his personal space club.
This article appeared in the September 2014 issue of Seattle Met.