Asteroid-mining companies will harvest asteroid water to introduce in-space refuelling economy by 2025

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Asteroid Boulder To Be Plucked And Hovered Around The Moon
IN PHOTO: Asteroid (representational image), photo credit: NASA NASA

In 10 years, an in-space refuelling economy could start to deliver water from asteroids into rockets in space. Asteroid-mining companies aim to transform asteroid water into fuel and harvest valuable and useful platinum-group metals from space rocks.

Chris Lewicki, Planetary Resources president and chief engineer, said that within the decade or before 2020, they aim to create a space-based business that will be an economic engine and opens up space to the rest of the economy.  Planetary Resources and another company, Deep Space Industries, aim to assist humanity to explore the solar system farther by tapping asteroid resources, but at the same time, make profit from the project.

The Washington-based asteroid-mining company, Planetary Resources, already launched its first spacecraft from the International Space Station in July, and plans to launch a series of advanced probes over the next few years. The off-Earth resources project will start in tracking asteroid water, which is plentiful in a type of space rock known as carbonaceous chondrites.

Mining advocates say asteroid-derived water could help more than the thirst of astronauts, but could be used as a shield to protect astronauts from dangerous radiation. Also, when the water is split into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen, it can be transformed into fuel for voyaging spaceships.

Lewicki said to detect and extract asteroid water, it is not challenging or expensive to provide the technology needed. Getting water from an asteroid could simply involve bagging up the space rock and letting the sun heat it up, and a scientific spacecraft will routinely identify the substance on celestial bodies.

After exploiting water, the asteroid-mining companies aim to extract carbonaceous chondrites that contain metals such as iron, nickel and cobalt. The extraction and exploitation of platinum-group metals, which are rare on Earth, could allow miners to start building things off the planet.

"Every frontier that we've opened up on planet Earth has either been in the pursuit of resources, or we've been able to stay in that frontier because of the local resources that were available to us," Lewicki said. There's no reason to think that space will be any different, he added.

After launching its first probe last month, Planetary Resources is currently developing its next spacecraft, Arkyd-6. The spacecraft is scheduled to launch to orbit in December, which will carry an instrument designed to detect water and water-bearing minerals and a "selfie cam,” Lewicki said.

Another spacecraft called Arkyd 100, which is twice as big as the Arkyd-6, will possibly launch in 2016 to hunt for potential mining targets from low-Earth orbit. Two more probes called Arkyd 200 and Arkyd 300 will come in space to perform up-close inspections of promising near-Earth asteroids in deep space.

If the project goes according to plan, Lewicki said, the first Arkyd 200 will launch to Earth orbit for testing in 2017 or 2018, and an Arkyd 300 will launch by late 2018 or early 2019. But the target asteroid of the Arkyd 300 has yet to be selected.

Lewicki claims the goal has an “ambitious schedule," but the rapid progress is feasible. The Arkyd series use the technology that has already been demonstrated, and Planetary Resources is building almost everything in-house, he said.

The other company showing interest in asteroid-mining, Deep Space Industries, is currently developing a spacecraft, and aims to launch the first resource-harvesting mission before 2020. At the same time while Deep Space is developing the spacecraft for off Earth mining, the U.S. Congress has recently passed a bill recognising asteroid miners' property rights, and the Senate is currently considering the legislation as well. Extracting and selling asteroid resources is in full compliance with the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, Lewicki said.

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