Planetary Resources CEO Chris Lewicki wants to let Mars-bound rockets carry five times more cargo than what’s possible today — but he doesn’t plan on simply making bigger rockets.
The asteroid-mining company believes that rockets can free up some extra space by refueling in space, rather than taking it up all at once from the ground. The key is to use the water extracted from asteroids.
The hydrogen and oxygen in H2O are “the same elements that are the most powerful rocket fuel in the physical universe on the periodic table, and we can detect that relatively easily on asteroids,” Lewicki said Wednesday at the Global Cookout, an event presented by the Trade and Development Alliance of Greater Seattle at Olympic Sculpture Park.
The next step in Planetary Resources’ quest is to have its Arkyd 6 nanosatellite sent into Earth orbit.
The Arkyd 6A satellite measures 4 by 8 by 12 inches, or roughly the size of a desktop tower computer. It’s due to launch as a secondary payload aboard an Indian PSLV rocket later this year, with Seattle’s Spaceflight Industries providing a logistical assist.
If all goes well, Arkyd 6B will follow its twin into space for additional tests.
Lewicki said the Arkyd 6 model, which is equipped with a midwave infrared imager, will serve as a platform to try out different ideas — particularly ideas that could reduce the cost of asteroid exploration by a factor of 20.
“We’re testing those out on the Arkyd 6, and the things we learn on that we’re going to move into our next satellites — ones that by the end of 2020 will find their way to a near-Earth asteroid,” he told GeekWire before his Global Cookout talk.
A year ago, Planetary Resources raised $21 million in a funding round that was meant to support the development of an Earth-observing satellite constellation called Ceres. But now the Redmond-based company’s focus appears to be swinging away from Ceres and back toward asteroid mining.
The company certainly has support on its side to pursue asteroid mining. The small European country of Luxembourg is investing $225 million in asteroid mining initiatives, and Planetary Resources now has an office there.
Lewicki noted that the company has grown from five to 70 employees over the past six years, and he’s looking to grow his team even more, in the U.S. as well as in Luxembourg.
He also applauded the U.S. government for making space resources and space property rights more of a priority. “There’s action going on in Congress, in the U.S., on figuring out the best ways to essentially make sure that we’re playing along with all the laws and rules, and there’s progress in that area,” he said.
In 2015, Congress passed legislation opening the way for U.S. citizens to own any asteroid resources they extract. Planetary Resources recently recruited space law expert Brian Israel from the State Department’s Office of the Legal Adviser to serve as the company’s general counsel.
Lewicki’s talk at the Global Cookout focused on how Earth-based businesses can work together to take advantage of commercial opportunities in space. The dozens of attendees included representatives from academic institutions, government agencies, startups and big-name companies such as Boeing and Microsoft.
“Planetary Resources [is] developing many more relationships with leading mining and energy companies who are seeing this as the inevitable future of their business,” Lewicki said.
During his speech, he hailed commercial space achievements such as the installation of Bigelow Aerospace’s inflatable habitat for the International Space Station. Even Goldman Sachs is now taking an interest in space, Lewicki said.
“Goldman Sachs released a report with an analysis really comparing these projects in space as being, at this point in time, not much different than large projects on Earth,” he said. “The finances and the risk are the same, the technology is equally accessible, and they said it’s very likely that we’ll see this time of extension into space as we do with traditional mining for all the same reasons.”