Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Looking to space as an asteroid miner

When the pioneers of yore set out to explore North America, they didn’t load up their horses and covered wagons with wood, bricks, and endless food or water. Rather, they brought with them saws, arrows, and pickaxes to chop down trees for shelter, hunt for food, and mine the land for other life-saving resources. In a similar vein, Chris Lewicki is leading his own team of covered wagons—across space, to mine for resources left over from the solar system’s birth. As the CEO and chief asteroid miner of Planetary Resources, Inc. in Redmond, Washington, the 42-year-old aerospace engineer is looking to identify how the materials in near-Earth asteroids—namely metals and water—can be used to one day facilitate long-haul space missions and travel, and even save the Earth’s resources from being overused.

Lewicki and his team operate within an emerging movement called NewSpace, whereby aerospace companies work to develop space tourism services or underlying technologies at low cost. Asteroid resource mining is an important aspect of this effort. “For all of our history in exploring space, we’ve brought everything we will ever need on the journey,” Lewicki says, but harnessing the abundant resources on near-Earth asteroids would “enable the creation of infrastructure and industries [in space] not dependent on continual shipments from Earth.”

Lewicki is responsible for not only imagining what new technologies and scientific advances his company will need to execute its asteroid-mining mission, but also for convincing investors to support the initiative. The task is monumental, but Lewicki is undaunted. “One of the things that I find very fun about creating this industry is that we have to think different than our highest form of technology and our most complicated way of doing things,” he says.

In addition to extensive experience in space missions, what has brought Lewicki to where he is now is his enduring passion and capacity for making the most of learning opportunities. “You might be shooting for the stars,” he says, but “there’s a lot of things on the way to the stars that you can learn.”

Staring into space

Although much of Lewicki’s current work is offbeat, his fascination with the cosmos began pretty conventionally. As a child who spent many nights scanning the unpolluted sky of his native northern Wisconsin, his first space ambition was to become an astronaut. But “it just seemed like … too much of an investment for something that was a [long shot],” he recalls. So, when Voyager 2 offered the first detailed peek into Neptune in 1989, while Lewicki was in high school, he set his eyes on building spacecraft and directing space missions to advance human knowledge of the universe.

Lewicki went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aerospace engineering from the University of Arizona (UA) in Tucson, gaining as much exposure to space science as he could. He became president of the UA chapter of a national student-run organization called Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS). He gained research experience at the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and also acted as a project manager and system engineer on the first UA student team charged with building a miniaturized satellite for space research. Such exposure gave him solid skills in planning and collaborating across disciplines, he says. Lewicki also got a feel for what it’s like to work at NASA during a summer internship at Goddard Space Flight Center through the NASA Academy program.

Even before he graduated with his master’s degree in 1999, Lewicki had landed a job at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, through the connections he had made as an undergraduate. He spent the next 10 years at JPL, participating in assembly, test, and launch operations for Mars missions and acting as flight director for Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity and surface mission manager for Mars lander Phoenix. During this time, Lewicki learned to tackle a broad range of technical problems and gained new skills in spacecraft guidance, telemetry, and communications. He also developed business acumen in project management, team building, and leadership.

When Planetary Resources founders Peter Diamandis and Eric C. Anderson, who have known Lewicki since his days at SEDS, needed a CEO to help them get their asteroid mining company off the ground, they went straight to Lewicki. “Chris had the technical experience and leadership skills that we needed at Planetary Resources to take it forward over the next decade,” says Anderson, who adds that Lewicki’s passion and grit were other key factors in their hiring decision. As Diamandis puts it, Lewicki “is a great mix of world-class engineer, inspiring leader, and strategic thinker.” 

The sky is the limit

There are many valuable resources in the hundreds of millions of rocks floating around our corner of the galaxy. Asteroids, in particular, contain cobalt and a lot of platinum, which is rare on Earth and yet is used in a wide range of goods, including catalytic converters, electronics, and medical devices. At least in principle, “you can do anything you want with the metals off of an asteroid: build structures, solar collectors, habitats, machines, starship Enterprises, you name it,” Lewicki says. “The universe is your factory.” Asteroids also contain an abundance of water, which, aside from serving as hydration during space travel, could be used as a shield to protect spaceships from the sun's radiation or to produce hydrogen- and oxygen-based rocket fuels.

But much work remains to be done before the mining of asteroids and use of their resources in new applications becomes a reality. Just like mining companies that operate on Earth, in space “we need to learn more about the resource before we bore and take the next step,” Lewicki says. Much prospecting must be done to find out the composition and characteristics of potential asteroid targets, and determine whether the mining will be technically feasible and profitable so that miners can home in on the best asteroid candidates.

To this end, Lewicki’s team has been working on developing a fleet of low-cost spacecraft named Arkyd, equipped with advanced spectral sensors and new technologies for onboard computing. Planetary Resources—which last year deployed a demonstration vehicle into low-Earth orbit to test core avionics, navigation, and computing systems—is soon to deploy another vehicle to test remote sensing capacities. A first prospective mission is planned to take place in a couple of years. The company has also been working on getting its transformative technologies into more immediate markets on Earth through the deployment of Ceres, an orbiting infrared and hyperspectral sensor system that aims to provide information to the oil, gas, and agriculture industries to better manage the natural resources on this planet. 

Planetary Resources’s staff of 60 includes 50 engineers recruited from companies such as NASA, Intel, Google, and SpaceX; a few astrophysicists; and even economists. Lewicki looks for people who can demonstrate that they have “practiced [their] education” in experiences such as capstone projects in engineering or scientific research. Whatever their background, “we look for tinkerers, people who are insatiably curious and who aren’t afraid to make a mistake, and people who are passionate about this journey,” Lewicki says. He is interested in people who are able to learn new skills, adapt quickly, and work across different fields. “Expose yourself to as many different subjects and challenges as you can,” he advises. He also looks for candidates who are good matches for the team, so it is important to understand the culture of the organization and demonstrate aptitude for team-based problem-solving, he adds.

Lewicki’s responsibilities don’t stop at leading the team working out the technical aspects of mining asteroids. As CEO, he is in charge of devising and implementing a strategy for his company to fulfill its vision, and he oversees its day-to-day operations. Fundraising and striking partnerships with NASA, governments, or other mining and software companies are another big part of his job, with Lewicki sometimes getting involved in science communication and policy. “I work with our own government in the U.S. and other countries around the world to develop a policy framework which starts to anticipate the development of this industry,” Lewicki says. During the debates around a new U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act aiming to foster the commercial exploration and utilization of resources from asteroids, for example, Lewicki met with members of Congress to encourage them to pass the act, which became law in November 2015.

Although his entire career has been focused on looking at the sky and pursuing grand ambitions, part of Lewicki’s motivations remain down-to-Earth. “There are only so many resources [on Earth] to go around, and we have to stop using them,” says Lewicki, who has two NASA Exceptional Achievement Medals and an asteroid named in his honor. “Just what’s on the near-Earth asteroids can support the rest of human civilization for the lifetime of the sun. … This is our opportunity to protect our planet, this unique place in the universe that is going to be our spaceship for a very long time.”