The Asteroid Miner’s Guide to the Galaxy
U.S. companies are preparing to tap the solar system’s riches. But will they share the trillion-dollar deep-space market with hungry foreign competitors?
Illustrations by Brown Bird Design
Initially, the founders of DSI worked remotely from their homes, communicating by telephone. Kfir personally supplied some of the incorporation fees. Fundraising was a boot-strapped affair. “We opened with the friends and family round,” Kfir recalled, “with our hands out, going, ‘Hey, can you give us some money?’”
In approaching potential investors of the non-familial variety, DSI made sure to stress that however far-out its plan sounded, the groundwork was already there. NASA had managed to get a probe into a near-Earth asteroid’s orbit in 2000 and land on the rock in 2001. And in 2010, the Rosetta, a probe owned by the European Space Agency, had successfully passed an asteroid a full 280 million miles from Earth.
Kfir recited the company’s appeal to investors for me: “Do we have rockets? Yes. Have people gone to asteroids? Yes. Have people landed on asteroids? Yes. Have people taken samples from asteroids? Yes. Have those samples been returned to the earth? Yes. So we’re there.”
Still, DSI quickly found that many potential investors were skittish. They understood that there indeed was money to be made, especially if DSI was able to lock down the market early and sign contracts with the largest of the private spaceflight companies, or even with NASA. Yet there wasn’t much precedent. “People would ask, ‘Well, are you allowed to extract these minerals? Can you guarantee that an outside body’ — the United Nations, say — ‘isn’t going to shut you down?’” Kfir told me.
If DSI was scuffling to gain footing with investors, Planetary Resources was flush with them. In addition to Schmidt, Larry Page, his Google co-founder, provided financial backing. Virgin’s Richard Branson also invested in Planetary Resources, and filmmaker James Cameron signed on as an advisor. At the helm of the company was CEO Chris Lewicki, a NASA scientist. He had served as flight director for the Spirit and Opportunity rovers and as surface-mission manager for the Phoenix Lander that reached Mars in 2008.
One of Planetary Resources’s first missions was to develop a spacecraft, called the Arkyd, that the company hoped would eventually detect mineable asteroids. To help fill out its coffers, in 2013, Planetary Resources turned to Kickstarter. It raised $1,505,366 for what it called the “first publicly accessible space telescope,” which would ride on board the Arkyd. (A version of the craft was successfully launched last year; Planetary Resources is preparing a comprehensive update for the Arkyd crowd-funding campaign.)
Despite its connections and fundraising prowess, however, Planetary Resources soon found itself running into the same problem as DSI. Investors were concerned about the legality of the venture. Financiers, said Peter Marquez, Planetary Resources’s vice president for global engagement, needed to know that their money wasn’t going to go toward fighting battles in a courtroom.
The solution, to Planetary Resources’s execs, seemed to be the passage of a bill that would effectively legitimize, from an American legal perspective, the asteroid mining industry. In 2013, the company hired the veteran lobbying firm K&L Gates to advance its cause on Capitol Hill. (Planetary Resources declined to say how much it paid the firm.) In a memorandum addressed to lawmakers, Marquez laid out the company’s case for legislation: “[B]eing the standard bearer for this strategic market has many benefits” for the United States, including more jobs and room for growth in the tech sector. Some other perks were political. If passed, this would be the first asteroid mining bill in global history. According to Marquez, his hope was that when it came time for other countries to pen their own legislation, they would use Washington’s as a template.
In July 2014, Bill Posey, a Republican representative from Florida, and Derek Kilmer, a Democratic representative from Washington, introduced a bill on the House floor they called the Asteroids Act. “Our knowledge of asteroids — their number, location, and composition — has been increasing at a tremendous rate, and space technology has advanced to the point where the private sector is now able to begin planning such expeditions,” Posey said in a statement. “Our legislation will help promote private exploration and protect commercial rights as these endeavors move forward.”
Over the next year, Planetary Resources representatives traveled regularly to Washington, D.C., to meet with legislators and congressional aides. They were joined on the Hill by DSI, as well as staffers from Bigelow Resources, a tech startup that wants to build “private habitats” in space — orbiting condos, essentially — and others from Moon Express, a lunar mining concern from Mountain View. The companies may have been competitors in some sense, but they all wanted the same thing: a legal framework that would guarantee their future claims to outer space.
In 2015, their lobbying efforts paid off. The Asteroids Act was rolled into a larger bill called the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which protects the rights of private spaceflight ventures like Bezos’s Blue Origin. It also states, in no uncertain terms, that any “United States citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource under this chapter shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained.” The emphatic message to the asteroid mining sector? Go forth and conquer.
Last November, President Barack Obama signed the bill into law. By that fall, Planetary Resources had raised a total of $12 million from 16 investors since its inception, according to a 2015 SEC filing; DSI, based on its filings, had raised $1 million.