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Robot Swarms to Swing a Pickax for Asteroid Mining Venture

Human dreams of mining asteroids won't become a reality without space robots. The billionaire-backed company Planetary Resources has announced plans to do the dirty, dangerous job of space mining with its new line of robotic spacecraft.
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Human dreams of mining asteroids won't become a reality without space robots. The billionaire-backed company Planetary Resources has announced plans to do the dirty, dangerous job of space mining with its new line of robotic spacecraft.

Planetary Resources laid out a careful step-by-step approach involving space telescopes and robotic swarms prospecting for the most valuable asteroids orbiting near Earth. The company wants to harvest asteroid wealth such as expensive platinum — worth about $1,500 per ounce on Earth — and water that could serve as rocket propellant and life-support supplies for deep-space exploration.

"We're working to do a very hard thing — create robots that go into deep space and learn how to mine asteroids," said Eric Anderson, co-founder and co-chairman of Planetary Resources Inc. during a news conference April 24.

The first in a new line of "Arkyd 100-series" space telescopes could launch by the end of 2013, Anderson said. Next, "Arkyd 200-series" space telescopes with propulsion systems could move toward asteroids approaching Earth for a closer look. Such Arkyd spacecraft would help the company figure out the most promising targets among near-Earth asteroids within a decade.

Robot mining challenges

There are two ways to go about mining asteroids — mine whatever resources you want on the spot or haul the space rock back to Earth. Mining on the spot requires smart robots capable of doing the job or riskier human mining operations far from home. Bringing the asteroid back to Earth makes mining easier, but at a higher cost. [ Asteroid Mining Is Possible for $2.6 Billion, Study Says ]

Planetary Resources plans to do whatever mining it needs to do on the spot, said John Lewis, a professor emeritus at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory of the University of Arizona. He joined with Planetary Resources as an adviser and perhaps the most recognized asteroid mining guru among planetary scientists.

"You can devise schemes for turning almost the entire mass of asteroids into usable products, but this is not at all what we expect to be doing in the first few years of project," Lewis told InnovationnewsDaily. "We're retrieving materials with a demonstrated value on the market, so we're only bringing back a tiny fraction of the asteroid."

Any space mining outfit must also select carefully from the most valuable asteroids near Earth, so that its robotic spacecraft can reach their targets without paying too high a cost in energy. Planetary Resources has identified about 1,500 known asteroids that would require about the same energy cost as going to the moon.

Smart swarms of robots

Once prime targets have been identified, Planetary Resources plans to send out swarms of "Arkyd 300-series" probes to examine asteroids up close. Such "swarm expeditions" would work together with shared capabilities so that the loss of one or two doesn't mean mission failure, said Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer of Planetary Resources.

"Half a dozen spacecraft would be collaborating to learn more about the target asteroid," Lewicki said. "That's distributing the risk among multiple spacecraft and allowing us to do things that couldn't be done with one spacecraft."

The swarm approach stands in contrast to single-spacecraft missions such as NASA's OSIRIS-REx — an effort to collect a small space rock sample from an asteroid called 1999 RQ36 in 2020. But swarm robots face a similar challenge of needing the robot "brains" to do their job without human supervision, because of the communication delay with Earth.

"The sampling part [of OSIRIS-REx] is autonomous," said Tim Swindle, director of the Lunar and Planetary Lab at the University of Arizona, where OSIRIS-REx scientists are based. "It will be at least minutes of light travel away, so you can't give every command as you do it. But it will be getting commands fairly frequently."

Making the robotic revolution

Space prospecting and mining represents an even more complex challenge than what OSIRIS REx faces. That's why Planetary Resources plans to "achieve an unprecedented level of autonomy" for its robotic spacecraft by drawing on cloud-computing technology and lessons from cognitive science, Lewicki said.

But smarter doesn't mean more expensive. Whereas NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission cost is about $800 million to collect a small asteroid sample, Planetary Resources wants to slash the cost of robotic explorers by 10 or even 100 times to tens of millions of dollars. The company envisions using "Silicon Valley"-style innovation to someday launch its missions for under $10 million.

Sending up swarms of cheap robots would also allow the company to tolerate failures as part of a learning curve for figuring out how to make space mining work, Lewicki said.

"We can't just build one precious jewel that we treat with kid gloves and worry about scratching it and nobody touches it," Lewicki said. "We need to make an assembly line."

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