Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Interview with Michael Heartsong: Asteroid Miner

In a previous post I explored how difficult it was to close the asteroid mining business case.  I mentioned the following platinum mining options in the comments section: 
OPTION 1: only bring back the useful ore by mining the asteroid "onsight" for the valuable elements. But that is silly, the critic says, why deal with all of the complexity of a remote compact mining device, instead…

OPTION 2: bring back all asteroidal material. Mine the ore for useful metals on earth’s surface. But that is silly, the critic says, now you have to deorbit massive amounts of asteroidal material (remember baseline platinum levels are 0.3%) just to get a little platinum.  How is this cost effective? Instead…

OPTION 3: keep the asteroid in orbit, mine the asteroid there and sell its contents for space purposes, like metal trusses for space stations & spacecraft, solar panel components, mass for shielding, etc. This way you avoid ever having to reenter all of that asteroidal material. But that is silly, the critic says, there is no market for the on-orbit products this solution hopes to produce. You have made the solution so complex, it will be prohibitively hard to raise the investment money for such an endeavor, plus the complexity will delay liquidity events to allow for a time-consuming development cycle (space manufacturing center, etc.). Why not develop a compact mining device that can be sent to surface of an asteroid, dig through a bunch of asteroidal material, find REMs, and just return that few hundred/thousand kilograms of valuable material to earth? And now we are back to Option 1.

Did I mention asteroid mining is hard (and the life of a critic is substantially easier).

Well, I wanted to talk to an entrepreneur who was working on closing this challenging business case of Asteroid Mining. Which of the three options would he pick (or would he pick a fourth option unmentioned)?

Michael Heartsong is cofounder of Promethean Enterprises, Inc. Michael is a finance and management consultant by day. This serial entrepreneur has been involved in six startups, two of which, have now been in operation for over twenty years. Last year, Michael was on the Space Show to talk about his new space mining company, Promethean Enterprises, Inc.

Promethean’s angle for closing the asteroid mining business case is the realization that large US aerospace companies are willing to mine asteroids today...but only if their risk was somehow mitigated.  Through contracting instead of partnership, Promethean intends to leverage the skillsets of the nations brightest engineers without having to pilfer them from Boeing.

With the right plan, the engineering skills can be bought. It’s an intriguing strategy (if perhaps unproven), a space firm whose competitive advantage is NOT engineering. You will hear in his answers below, Promethean is leaning towards Option 3 (see above for "Option 3" definition).

Q: For those not familiar with your asteroid mining white paper, can you give us a brief overview of your Asteroid Mining business concept?

Michael Heartsong: We intend to build and send robotic mining devices to asteroids; process the ore in space and turn it into propellant (water broken down into hydrogen and oxygen) and structural material. The structural material could be used to repair the International Space Station (or build a new one; or build other structures in space). And we intend to use the structural material to build a vast, many square kilometer solar-energy gathering array; turn the electricity generated thereby into microwaves; beam the microwaves down to earth, where they will be captured by a receiving antenna ("rectenna"), reconverted into electricity, and fed into the grid. In this way, we hope to be a major part of solving Earth's looming energy crisis (the Earth uses about 14 terawatts of electricity each year.

It is predicted that by 2050, we will need 40 terawatts. 75% or more of all electricity today is generated by burning fossil fuels. It is simply impossible to generate 40 terawatts (or even 25) with current technology: the stores of fossil fuels will be depleted. More importantly, we would destroy ourselves with the resulting pollution. (Remember the film, CHILDREN OF MEN in which almost all adults had become infertile). That is the Big Picture. AT the moment, it is just an idea, a vision. The next step is to turn the vision into an executable plan.

Q: That is a BIG effort – how are you proceeding?

Michael Heartsong: Our plans call for proceeding in essentially two Phases.
  1. Phase One is a Research Phase, that will last at least 1 1/2 years, probably 2. During this Phase, every aspect of the vision will be researched, contemplated, examined. We intend to prove and validate that what we are proposing can be accomplished with exiting technology (as as technology advances, what we are proposing becomes ever more achievable. We will identify providers--companies and people who can participate in the venture. This Phase will drill down to specifics: how best to move forward, at what cost; who can undertake it; how long will it take to design, build and launch one or more robots; which asteroids are the most promising and why, etc. etc . One of the products from this Phase will be a document that will demonstrate conclusively that what we are proposing is an economically viable business venture. 
  2. We would then leverage this analysis to raise the hundreds of millions (possibly billions of $$) that will be required to succeed in the venture. And execute the venture.
Q: So Phase I is “Build a Plan” and Phase II is “Execute the Plan”. How much capital do you need for this first exploratory Phase I?

Michael Heartsong: We are seeking $12.5 million of seed capital with which to finance Phase One.

Q: What industry partners are you working with on this venture?

Michael Heartsong: We have already had conversations with several people at Boeing, who are excited by our plans. We have a written invitation from Boeing to submit to them an RFP, so they can tell us how much of Phase One they would like to participate in, and at what cost. We have also had conversations with L'Garde, the premier deployer of inflatable space structures. Additional partners would be added throughout the phase as needed.

Q: Will you be incorporating a NEO surveying mission (NEAP 2.0) prior to your mining efforts?

Michael Heartsong: There is actually a great deal of information already collected about Near Earth Objects (NEO), and more being collected every day. One aspect of Phase One will be to identify the criteria on the basis of which an asteroid would be selected as a target for our mission. Phase One will also include actual spectrographic analyses of potential asteroids. We hope by the end of Phase One we will know precisely which asteroids are the best potential targets.

Q: To accomplish your plans, how much of your plans utilize existing technologies and how much requires you develop new technologies?

Michael Heartsong: What we are proposing can be accomplished with existing technology. That said, it will still require a great deal of ingenuity, imagination, and intelligence. What we are proposing is simpler than other complex projects. We have already sent vehicles to comets and asteroids, and even landed on asteroids twice. And we are NOT talking about sending a human being to an asteroid, just a faith robot. Although what we are proposing has never been done, all of the various components are achievable with existing technology. We just have to figure out how best.

We think once we are at the end of Phase One, having proven the economic viability of what we are proposing, people will be eager to invest. The challenge is raising that first $12.5 million in order to complete Phase One. Normally, when one is raising seed capital, investors are naturally concerned about the safety of their capital, and the likelihood of seeing a return. The major risk, normally, is loss of capital. We think our situation is very different – the risk is in not investing.

Q: Recent topics on this blog have included discussions about the late Jim Benson’s plan to own an asteroid. What are your thoughts on such an acquisition?

Michael Heartsong: The entire area of Space Law is something that is simply not yet developed. I know of two or three attorneys who have begun thinking and writing about it, Presumably, the development of the Western United States will provide a model. Also, the settling of the New World (the Western hemisphere) will probably provide a model. The moon is complicated. I personally don’t see anyone owning the moon. Regarding asteroids, I suspect whoever lands first can certainly lay claim to all of the mineral rights, if not the asteroid itself. (Remember that guy who tried to claim ownership of the Human Genome? Ridiculous!)

Q: What should I have asked that I didn’t?

Michael Heartsong: I will just leave you with this encouragement. I believe we are on the very cusp of an explosion in private space exploration. By analogy, where we are today with regard to space, is where society was 20 years before oil was discovered; or 10 years before Carnegie figured out how to mass produce steel; or 5 years before the computer revolution really got underway. Fifteen years from now (or 2 years from now) people will look back and wonder why everyone couldn't see what was "right before their eyes". And we think there will be a LOT of people who will kick themselves for not getting involved when they had the chance (just like a lot of people missed Google, eBay, Microsoft, etc.)

Q: If my readers want to reach you, would you leave an email address?

Michael Heartsong: Thank you again for this opportunity. I welcome any and all comments from your readers, who are welcome to contact me at michaelheartsong8 [at] gmail.com.

Colin Doughan: Thank you, Michael. 2011 is the year of raising $12.5M. When you are successful, I would like to do a follow-up interview. I feel this was a “strategy” interview. I can’t wait for the “tactics” interview where I can ask all of the questions that are “plan specific”. Thank you for your willingness to share your vision so early in your entrepreneurial process. I hope your openness is rewarded. And I wish you nothing but the best.

1 comment:

  1. Howdy!
    About 30 years ago I helped make an amateur film about asteroid prospectors.
    Thanks to YouTube and Google video and flickr I can show it to you.