Satellite Technology Feature Article
Bechtel Bets on Planetary Resources Asteroid Mining
By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor
Privately owned engineering giant Bechtel is investing in the asteroid mining startup, Planetary Resources, Inc.
Bechtel will be a “collaborative partner in helping Planetary Resources achieve its long-term mission, which is to mine near-Earth asteroids for raw materials, ranging from elements used in rocket fuel to precious metals, through the development of innovative and cost-effective robotic exploration technologies,” according to a Planetary statement.
Founded in 2009, Planetary Resources is currently building a series of low-cost robotic space telescope missions to identify the most commercially viable near-Earth asteroids. These initial missions will assist the company in enabling the retrieval of raw materials from these select asteroids, ranging from water to precious metals.
Bechtel’s investment comes at an opportune moment for Planetary, and the asteroid community at large. In its FY 2014 budget request, NASA set its sights on grabbing a 500-ton asteroid with a robotic mission and moving it into cis-lunar orbit for a visit by astronauts in the 2021-2025 timeframe.
Investing in Planetary Resources gives Bechtel a ringside seat to how it can apply its engineering, construction and project management skills to space operations.
NASA will need potential retrieval targets, fitting in quite nicely with Planetary’s survey plans. The company plans to launch at least one Arkady-100 space telescope to sweep the skies around Earth, cataloging asteroids for mining.
Planetary plans to mine asteroids for water and platinum-group metals, with the former being used for rocket fuel and the latter brought back to Earth for profit.
Bigger opportunities from NASA’s asteroid grab may also be available. Once it identifies a suitable target, NASA plans to launch a solar-electric satellite to rendezvous with the rock, capture it in a big bag, and then slowly move it into an orbit around the moon. The agency wants to send up a manned mission using the SLS and Orion space capsule to rendezvous with the satellite and its 500-ton payload.
Astronauts would then conduct one or more EVAs to extract samples for return to Earth.
Following the manned mission, there’d still be about 500 tons (less a couple hundred pounds of samples) of asteroid in a stable parking orbit, just waiting for Planetary and other mining ventures to test zero-G mining and processing techniques. An asteroid mining company could even cut a deal with NASA to process the rock for usable resources it could then use for its own and/or NASA operations and other ventures.
Planetary Resources already has the financial backing of Google’s CEO Larry Page, Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt (News - Alert), and Ross Perot, Jr., Chairman of Hillwood and The Perot Group – and a board of advisors including film maker/explorer James Cameron and former Chief of Staff, United States Air Force General T. Michael Moseley (Ret.).
Edited by Braden Becker