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Chris Lewicki
Chris Lewicki

People heading off on an interstellar journey may soon have one of the prerequesites for a road trip: gas stations. Planetary Resources Chairman Chris Lewicki told the Future in Revew conference this week that his company wants to take asteroids and turn them into interstellar pit stops, where spaceships could stop and refuel.

The Bellevue-based asteroid mining company believes that it can extract hydrogen, carbon, oxygen and nitrogen from asteroids and then mix those elements together to create rocket fuel. Spaceships could then stop by the asteroids and top off their tanks before continuing on further. It’s unclear whether the refueling asteroids will have a mini-mart attached, however. 

If the plan works, it could significantly extend the range of spacecraft launched from Earth. Right now, anything humans send up has to be packed with enough fuel for its entire voyage. That restriction is alright for short trips, but causes problems for longer voyages. Planetary Resources’ plan could fix that: if ships only need enough fuel to make it to the first gas station, and then only enough to make it to the second, it could greatly increase how far we could send spacecraft.

In addition, Lewicki said that the company will continue to push forward with its plan to mine near-Earth asteroids and send minerals back home. Right now, asteroids are being discovered at a rate of about three per day, and there are some asteroids with platinum concentrations that exceed Earth mines by a factor of 70.

Planetary Resources should have a continuing stream of asteroids to choose from, as well. The company is working with NASA to provide a cash bounty for improved asteroid detection software that would help find asteroids on a collision course with Earth as well as give Planetary Resources more potential mining targets.

Eric Anderson, co-founder of Planetary Resources, noted in a talk last year that humans will be migrating off Earth in the next 30 years.

“This migration of humans leaving the earth is happening this century,” he said. “If we do our job right at Planetary Resources, and Elon [Musk] does his job right atSpaceX and Richard Branson does his job right at Virgin Galactic, we’re going to be doing this in the next 30 years.”

Planetary Resources may have the team to accomplish that bold goal.

Lewicki was the Flight Director for the Mars Rovers Spirit and Opportunity missions. The company was founded by Anderson of Space Adventures and Peter Diamandis of the X Prize Foundation. Investors and advisers to Planetary Resources include Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, filmmaker James Cameron, and early Google investor Ram Shriram.

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