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Asteroids Are Closer Than You Think | Chris Lewick

Chris Lewicki speaks about the surprising number and range of near-Earth asteroids and how they are forming a platform for solar system exploration today.

Full talk transcript

You and I get to go on a cosmic journey. To anywhere in the solar system. Now, where would you like to go? Starting from the Earth’s surface, and leaving and breaking the bonds of our planet, you’re actually halfway to anywhere in the solar system.

Now, we’ve made this halfway trip hundreds of times, thanks to 50 years of space exploration. And for a brief period of time, we chose to go to the moon. And we broke its gravitational bonds, and returned safely back home.

Now, in space travel, trips are measured in terms of energy. And how much rocket fuel is required to complete them. The fully fueled space shuttle, with its orange external tank, had enough energy to get all the way from Cape Canaveral Florida to low Earth orbit. And at that halfway point in low Earth orbit, if you were to fill up that orange tank again, you could take that shuttle all the way to Pluto.

Except that most of our trips are limited really by the distance we can go with a single tank of gas. It’s because physics makes it extraordinarily difficult and challenging to get anything into space, especially rocket fuel. And when that needle goes to empty, there’s no filling station in site. Except, that’s not really true. There’s plenty of rocket fuel in space, if you know where to look.

For a brief period of time, we chose to go to the moon. And we broke its gravitational bonds, and returned safely back home.

This rock in my hand was once a shooting star. Except shooting stars aren’t really stars at all. They’re fragments of star-like objects we call asteroids. And if you’ve seen a shooting star, you’ve actually seen an asteroid with your own eyes. Over 50,000 of these asteroid fragments, called meteorites, have been recovered from locations around the globe and analyzed in laboratories. Scientists have connected these laboratory studies with observations from mountaintop telescopes, looking at the spectrum and light reflected from the asteroid surfaces.

At first, for more than 200 years, using the most powerful telescopes on the planet, asteroids appeared to us as simply fast-moving stars. But less than 25 years ago, we got the first picture of one up close, as an American spacecraft went through the asteroid belt on its way to Jupiter, and snapped this picture. And at that moment, asteroids went from our imagination into our reality. And onto our scrapbooks.

Less than 10 years ago, a Japanese mission went to an asteroid, touched down on the surface, and for the first time grabbed pieces and brought them all the way back to the Earth. And now, the Europeans, after a robotic journey of more than six billion kilometers, have successfully touched down on the surface of a comet. At this very moment, they are uncovering its secrets.

Now, the limitations of rocket fuel required this spacecraft to start its journey over 10 years ago. And, amazingly, this mission was accomplished using 1990s technology. Now, what can you still do with your computer from 1992? So, why are asteroids so interesting? Well, for one thing, they tell us about the formation and history of our solar system, the planets, their moons, our sun and the comets and asteroids themselves. We’re also interested in making sure we don’t have an asteroid headed right for us, so we’ve been searching the skies, and we’ve discovered over a half million asteroids in the 21st century.

We’re now tracking the orbits of thousands of asteroids that pass near the Earth. And we’ve appropriately called these the near-Earth asteroids. One thousand two hundred and nineteen near-Earth asteroids have been discovered so far this year. And we’re finding more every day. And thinking in terms of energy, many of these near-Earth asteroids are actually easier to get to than landing on the surface of our own moon. The low gravity on asteroids makes this possible.

Geology, astronomy, and planetary sciences have allowed us to determine between many different types of asteroids. We’ve been able to directly measure the minerals and elements on asteroids, like hydrogen and oxygen, useful for supporting life in space through the air we breathe and the water we drink. And we’ve also found metals, useful for the things we build. In fact, things that we find rare and expensive here on Earth are in practically infinite quantities in space.

Within these asteroids are the very materials necessary to support the lives and livelihoods of future space travelers.

Within these asteroids are the very materials necessary to support the lives and livelihoods of future space travelers. Because of this rock, our future in the solar system is assured. This is a destiny 4.6 billion years in the making. And for the first time in history, we have the technology to unlock the solar system. We’re not talking about picks and shovels, or drills and dynamite — we’re talking about prospecting robotic spacecraft to discover new resources and automated technologies to extract them.

We’ll use the benefits of operating in space, including benefits like the sun shining 24 hours a day, providing megawatts of thermal energy for those who would chose to harness it. The void of space is a perfect industrial vacuum, allowing us to extract and transport water vapor. And the black cold sky is a freezer, allowing us to condense this precious water vapor into pure ice. Ready for transport back to fuel stations, in Earth orbit or elsewhere in the solar system.

So, let’s see how the materials on asteroids can help enable this cosmic journey. Once you leave the protection of the Earth’s magnetosphere, the harsh radiation of space becomes a problem. Now, just like a pool of water can protect you from radioactive material here on Earth, a blanket of water in space can shield you from the harsh radiation there. And remember when you got into Earth orbit with those empty tanks? Well, the hydrogen and oxygen on water-rich asteroids can be your rocket fuel.

After you’ve topped off and enabled an interplanetary highway of sorts, an abundance of materials awaits you on your road trip. The iron, nickel and cobalt in asteroids can create a space equivalent of the Iron Age, using ancient materials to build 21st century space habitats. Using 3D printing, where all we need to do is send the printer, the ink is local. And then there are the platinum-group metals, rare and valuable no doubt, but incredibly useful. And these have been measured in some meteorites to exist in thousands the concentration better than the Earth’s crust. Within an abundance of materials, engineers wouldn’t have to check the price tag before picking the perfect material for the job.

Ultimately, the most important resource in space will be people. And those people will need resources. And it all begins with water.

But ultimately, the most important resource in space will be people. And those people will need resources. And it all begins with water. Plain old H2O. We’re on the edge of making this cosmic journey possible, and this future is sooner than you might think.

Remember that comet mission enabled by the 1990s technology? Well, imagine what we could do today. And things are even getting better — technologies that weren’t even conceived of 10 years ago, you can now buy secondhand on Ebay. And spacecraft that used to be the size of a bus can fit in the trunk of your car. And small companies are now taking on projects that were once reserved for governments.

This isn’t a tale of what might one day happen. It’s actually an account of what’s already begun. Right here in Seattle, my company is working on expanding the planetary economy into space. And we’ve already built the first spacecraft towards this audacious goal. And we’re building more. We don’t need to wait for more asteroids to come to us — it’s time for us to go to them. So let’s go. It’s going to be an awesome journey.

Chris Lewicki


Speaker Bio

Chris Lewicki has been intimately involved with the lifecycle of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers and the Phoenix Mars Lander.

Lewicki performed system engineering development and participated in assembly, test and launch operations for both Mars missions. He was flight director for the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, and the Surface Mission Manager for Phoenix. The recipient of two NASA Exceptional Achievement Medals, he has an asteroid named in his honor: 13609 Lewicki. Read more