Astronaut joins effort to profit from harvesting raw materials in space

April 30, 2012

Planetary scientist and Northern Virginia resident Tom Jones is an astronaut who flew on the space shuttle four times. With a long-standing interest in asteroids, Jones recently signed on as scientific adviser for a new company, Planetary Resources, which has a big, science-fiction-esque goal: profiting from raw materials in space. The company is bankrolled by space business veterans and bigwigs from Silicon Valley and Hollywood, including Google guys Larry Page and Eric Schmidt and filmmaker James Cameron. Jones spoke in a recent interview about this new venture and the future of life in space.

Brian Vastag

To date, no one has figured out how to make money from space. How will Planetary Resources do so?

It begins by finding the resource-rich destinations in near-Earth space. Those are the asteroids. The company’s initial steps will involve a small and affordable search telescope to identify nearby asteroids. The next step will then measure their reflected sunlight to figure out their composition.

Isn’t a lot of this work already being done by NASA? Are there undiscovered asteroids?

Oh, yeah. NASA is funding at about $6 million a year a search program for the largest asteroids, the ones that are global hazards. By accident, we’ve found about 8,500 total near-Earth objects. But we think there are about a million big enough to both be a hazard and a resource, because they do come close to the Earth. So there’s a huge job ahead of finding the undiscovered asteroids. And I think NASA’s funding is such that the pace is too slow. Partnering with the commercial sector is a great thing for the country to do.

What valuable resources do asteroids contain?

The most valuable thing will be water. There’s a class of asteroids that contains up to 20 percent water by weight. We know this from meteorites. If we can find those asteroid types, simply by concentrating sunlight on the dirt on their surface you can extract distilled water. That could make rocket fuel, breathing oxygen, drinking water. It goes hand in hand with lowering the cost of future space exploration. At the same time, we might find rare, strategic metals that could be returned to Earth. That’s a long way off.

So the first step after identifying the right asteroids would be exploiting them in space.

That’s right. By doing so you enable exploration and you lower the cost of doing anything in space, which helps everything from tourism to setting up industrial concerns in space.

What hardware might the new company send into space?

First, a small telescope. The next thing you do is build small, prospecting robots. I’m talking shoe-box-size spacecraft that piggyback on an existing booster for some other mission. You get a cheap launch, then use solar electric or ion engines to get out to an asteroid. There the robot will sniff and scratch — that’s prospecting.

How did you get involved?

My interest in asteroids goes back to the 1980s, and I’ve got some practical space experience. [Jones helped build the international space station during a 2001 NASA mission.] People talking about space resources are a small circle. Now we finally have enough interested folks with resources, and my name came up. Another space veteran is Chris Lewicki, chief engineer of Planetary Resources, who is a Mars rover veteran.

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