Planetary Resources Receives Patent for Asteroid Prospecting & Mining

Spacecraft examine asteroid. (Credit: Planetary Resources)
Spacecraft examine asteroid. (Credit: Planetary Resources)

U.S. Patent No. 9,266,627
February 23, 2016
[Full Patent]

Method, apparatus, and system for asteroid prospecting and mining

Abstract

A method of prospecting asteroids for mining includes (a) launching at least one spacecraft, the spacecraft including a space telescope; (b) examining a plurality of asteroids using the space telescope to gather scientific data on the asteroids for characterization and cataloging; and (c) selecting one or more asteroids to mine from the plurality of asteroids examined by the space telescope and contained within the catalog. A system for prospecting asteroids for mining is also described.

Inventors: Anderson; Eric (Arlington, VA), Diamandis; Peter H. (Santa Monica, CA), Lewicki; Chris (Bellevue, WA), Voorhees; Chris (Bellevue, WA)

Applicant: Planetary Resources Development Corporation, Bellevue, WA

Summary

Prospecting satellite (Credit: Planetary Resources)
Prospecting satellite (Credit: Planetary Resources)

An embodiment of the present application relates to a method of prospecting asteroids for mining, comprising: (a) launching at least one spacecraft, the spacecraft including a space telescope; (b) examining a plurality of asteroids using the space telescope to gather scientific data for asteroid characterization and cataloguing; and (c) selecting one or more asteroids to mine from the plurality of asteroids examined by the space telescope and stored within the catalogue.

Another embodiment of the present application relates to a system for prospecting asteroids for mining, comprising: (a) at least one spacecraft; and (b) a space telescope mounted on the at least one spacecraft, the telescope adapted to locate, identify, and/or characterize a plurality of asteroids.

Detailed Description (Excerpts)

In step 110, coarse measurements can include flyby missions of the asteroids, for example, using a spacecraft having a space telescope. In step 120, more sensitive, capable and focused equipment can be utilized as the pool of candidate asteroids is reduced through the prospecting process. This can occur, for example, by rendezvous and orbital missions to the asteroids.

Prospecting telescope (Credit: Planetary Resources)
Prospecting telescope (Credit: Planetary Resources)

Ultimately, enough information on asteroid targets can be acquired to identify viable asteroids for mining, e.g., in step 130. According to an embodiment, the identification can be based at least in part on the concentration of desired materials, the homogeneity of materials, and the economic feasibility of extraction of materials to market.

Once commercially viable asteroids are identified from the candidates, in step 140, spacecraft can access and process (e.g., mine) the resources from the best identified asteroid(s), for example, during subsequent campaigns. This can include, for example, performing an initial proof of concept extraction, subsequent scaling up to larger quantities, and then industrialization and automation of the mining processes.

According to an embodiment, space resource extraction and development can focus on water-rich asteroids. Access to water and other life-supporting volatiles in space can provide hydration, breathable air, radiation shielding, and manufacturing capabilities, among other things.

Prospecting satellites (Credit: Planetary Resources)
Prospecting satellites (Credit: Planetary Resources)

Water’s elements, hydrogen and oxygen, can also be used to formulate rocket fuel. According to an embodiment, water can be mined from asteroids and transported to a network of orbital fuel depots (e.g., gas stations) set up across the solar system, thereby reducing the cost of space operations by 100 times or more. Using the resources of space to help fuel space exploration can enable large-scale exploration of the solar system, thereby providing a feasible opportunity for the sustainable development of space.

According to embodiments, in Earth orbit, water from asteroids can also be converted and used to refuel satellites, increase the payload capacity of rockets by refueling their upper stages, reboost space stations, supply propellant needed to boost satellites from Low Earth Orbit to Geostationary Orbit, provide radiation shielding for spaceships, and provide fuel to space tugs that clean up space debris.

Metals mined from the asteroids can be returned to Earth. To facilitate transportation back to Earth, the metals can be converted to a metal foam structure, however, other embodiments are possible. Details regarding the process of converting the metals to a metal foam structure can be found in applicant’s co-pending U.S. Provisional Application No. 61/794,976, filed on Mar. 15, 2013, the entire content of which is incorporated herein by reference. As an alternative to, or in addition to, bringing metals back to Earth, metals from asteroids can also be used directly in space. Metals like iron or aluminum can be moved to collection points in space for purposes such as space construction materials, spacecraft shielding, and raw material for industrial processes at, for example, a space station….

A considerable amount of information must be acquired about the ore-body before detailed “mine planning” can begin. In-situ extraction and processing technologies can be used to provide access to both asteroidal water and metals. Existing rovers, such as the Mars rover, can be fitted with exploratory and/or mining capabilities, such as drills, etc., for the purposes of mining asteroids. Additionally, many known technologies and techniques from mining on Earth can be applied to asteroid mining. An example of a tool can comprise a constellation of spacecraft that are modified to carry mining, extraction, and processing apparatus. Additional tools can include the use of concentrated solar thermal energy directed towards the asteroid from, for instance, a large space deployed solar collector array consisting of inflatable mirrored surfaces precisely angled to focus solar energy in specific directions upon command to process asteroid material through heating. Containment method can be used to manage material, an example of which may comprise a large inflatable or expandable storage unit made of material strong enough to contain raw asteroid materials. Common centrifuges modified for the space environment can be used to separate materials as necessary.

Fig. 7 (Credit: Planetary Resources)
Fig. 7 (Credit: Planetary Resources)

FIG. 7 illustrates an embodiment of a spacecraft approaching an asteroid for mining. According to embodiments, the mining spacecraft can comprise one or more relatively autonomous, robotic units that are operated in conjunction with a command and control housed in a ground station on Earth. The command and control can communicate with the mining spacecraft via long range radio antennae or laser communication system. The present application, however, is not limited to the mining spacecraft shown in FIG. 7.