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Tuesday, 21 January 2020

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IMARC 2017: James Orsulak, Director, Planetary Resources
Austmine Limited

IMARC 2017: James Orsulak, Director, Planetary Resources

It was great to hear from James Orsulak, Director at Planetary Resources during IMARC 2017, this week in Melbourne.

With space being the next frontier in mining it was insightful to hear from Planetary Resources about their plans for asteroid mining. As we venture into out of space it makes sense that the materials and resources that we require for survival in space come from space itself, as opposed to mining and the transporting materials that have been mined on earth.

With the growth in commercial interest in space now outweighing governmental interest, the demand for products and materials in space is becoming more apparent. It is commercial companies such as SpaceX that are the predominant customer base for Planetary Resources.

Planetary Resources was originally founded by some of NASA’s top researchers who saw a place in the emerging market for metals and minerals in space. There will be two phases of focus for the first exploration into space.

  • Phase one: water and propellant. Sourced water will be sold to the international space station to avoid bringing it up from earth. Further, water can be used in various forms as a propellant to assist with space travel.
  • Phase two: construction materials and precious metals. Sourcing iron, gold, lithium in space to then be transformed into usable materials.

James focused his presentation on a case study about Robotic Autonomy in space exploration. He highlighted how the first step will be to identify the right asteroids in close proximity to earth, and sharing our orbit, that contain the most accessible and valuable materials. The next stage will involve building and creating a processing plant that will sit in Earth’s orbit to transform and distribute the items. In fact, SpaceX has already released their BFR which is a refuellable rocket that lives in the Earth’s orbit to be restocked and used as needed.

Planetary Resources is currently in the first stage of prospecting with the first exploration mission due to launch in 2020. The aim of the first mission is to locate, analyse and transmit the results back to earth. It is imperative that they choose the right asteroid to build their first outer space mine.

The autonomous robot that Planetary Resources will launch for exploration is called ARKYD 301. Its primary job will be to assess the asteroids in Earth’s orbit. It will first use sensors to analyse if there are any minerals of value on the asteroid and where they are most accessible in reasonable quantities. The ARKYD 301 will then fire four cylinders onto the asteroid which will gather data on the density, grade and level of the mineral to transmit back to the robot.

In developing the ARKYD 301, Planetary Resources looked at the learnings from deep earth and sea mining in relation to resiliency. One of the problems they had to negate was to do with the pressure and radiation that can occur in space, they have implemented a system of multiple mini computers on the robot to ensure that there is always a failsafe.

The ARKYD 301 will have to be predominantly autonomous due to the communication lag between the robot and the command centre at earth. Once again, they have leaned heavily on the learnings of current mining standards to build and affect this technology so that they have effective problem-solving solutions in times of crisis. For example, if there is an issue that is outside the scope of the machine’s learning then they have built in instructions that the robot should find a safe place to sit and wait, while it transmits for human input.  

The issues that James outlined for outer space mining are similar to ones that we face here on earth, and therefore the solutions to the problems they will face have already been able to tackle many of the issues the predict they will encounter.

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