It’s been a year since the Redmond, Wash.-based asteroid mining venture known as Planetary Resources was acquired by ConsenSys and pivoted to blockchain projects in space — but the idea of mining space resources still resonates among those who backed the venture.
One big resonance relates to the effort that rose from Planetary Resources’ remains: Last month, ConsenSys Space unveiled its first project, a crowdsourced satellite-tracking campaign called TruSat.
In a notice posted online, Planetary Resources’ president and CEO, Chris Lewicki, said his former company “facilitated a huge forward step in progress in technology, business and mindset — and we’re seeing similar steps forward across the entire space industry.”
Now Lewicki is working on TruSat and other blockchain-based collaboration platforms for space applications. “I believe that decentralizing, democratizing and diversifying space endeavors can be a pivotal next forward step,” he wrote.
Lewicki expanded upon the connection between Planetary Resources and ConsenSys Space last week, during a tutorial for TruSat’s first group of “test pilots.” In response to a question, he said the acquisition came about because of ConsenSys founder Joseph Lubin’s interest in space.
“ConsenSys is developing tools to democratize, diversify and decentralize various aspects of things that we experience in our online life, maybe some of the things in our offline life,” Lewicki said.
“From a technology standpoint, it’s interesting to think about the applications that that may have for the development of space, whether it relates to how we can securely control and communicate with robots that we’ve got all over the solar system that are going through light-speed delays, or how we might operate things that are very important or very valuable,” he added.
Lewicki said future space exploration and settlement is likely to require the decentralized approach that ConsenSys wants to pioneer. “It probably is not going to work to have a centralized decision-making authority, central computer, central storage, central bank … when we have people on the moon and Mars, and in places in between,” he said.
Enlisting people who are willing to support, and fund, space ventures is a key part of the process. Planetary Resources came out of the shadows in 2012 with backing from high-profile billionaires and high hopes of creating a trillion-dollar industry, but its financial support dried up over the course of six years.
“Planetary Resources had to pause on its ambitions for mining asteroids and developing the resources of space because it’s not a topic that is fundable yet,” Lewicki said. “We haven’t figured out how to fund large-scale, long-duration, somewhat high-risk projects.”
Lewicki said space entrepreneurs could use ConsenSys’ blockchain-based platforms to “tap into the interest and passion and desire of everyone worldwide.”
“We’re a fairly autonomous group within the company,” he said. “We’re a small team of seven, and our charter really is to look for opportunities to explore how to get more people involved, how to give people greater personal agency in what they’re contributing to, through transparency. This particular topic, of being able to monitor and support the sustainability of Earth orbit for space operations, is something that affects every space-interested person on Earth — and even the ones who aren’t interested.”
Planetary Resources pioneered the crowdsourced approach to space ventures with a high-profile Kickstarter campaign that raised $1.5 million in 2013 but ultimately fizzled out. With TruSat, Lewicki is banking on the wisdom of the crowd rather than their wherewithal.
He characterized TruSat as a pilot project and a public good. “Maybe in a few years, it’ll lead to innovations and new ideas for how we can get back to bigger projects, like mining asteroids,” he said.
With the focus of NASA’s exploration efforts quickly shifting from asteroids to the moon, the spotlight has shifted just as quickly to making use of lunar resources, starting with the hundreds of millions of tons of water ice thought to be concentrated around the moon’s north and south poles.
Even Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who’s spending billions of dollars on his Blue Origin space venture, is talking up the prospects of mining lunar resources and building a city on the moon. Blue Origin has already won NASA funding to study techniques for turning lunar ice into the hydrogen and oxygen needed to sustain a permanent settlement and refuel rocket ships.
Another leading player in the space resource game happens to be the government of Luxembourg, which facilitated a $28 million investment in Planetary Resources during the venture’s heyday in 2016.
Planetary Resources’ backers in the tiny European nation had to write off their investment as a loss when the venture fizzled.
“It failed,” Etienne Schneider, Luxembourg’s deputy prime minister, told GeekWire during last month’s International Astronautical Congress in Washington, D.C. “We lost our money. But that doesn’t mean that we changed our idea or that we will not invest anymore. So we continue on our path.”
During the IAC, the heads of NASA and Luxembourg’s space agency signed a memorandum of understanding to discuss opportunities for collaboration on the Artemis moon exploration program. Schneider said his country is particularly interested in space resources, which is the focus of a research center that’s due to be established in Luxembourg with support from the European Space Agency.
“We are not going into space exploration,” he said. “That’s too big for us. That’s not the aim of our space agency. The aim is really to help new space companies develop their activities in Luxembourg, and to help them get access to ESA programs.”
Schneider said Luxembourg is also planning to launch a venture capital fund with outside partners by the end of the year. “I cannot give you more information about it, because there are American actors involved,” he said, “and American law says that you cannot disclose information three months in advance, so we have to respect it.”
Speaking of laws, Schneider noted that Luxembourg was the one of the first nations to draw up a legal framework addressing private property rights to space resources (after the United States). He expected follow-up legislation on space activities to be enacted next year.
“Everything will be put together, so that everybody knows really clearly what they can do and what they cannot do,” Schneider said. “And then one of the next steps which we are going to discuss with NASA and all our partners is to try to develop rules on how to behave in space … because there’s no sense in waiting for the United Nations to develop a new space treaty.”
And by that time, who knows? Lewicki and ConsenSys Space just might be ready to get back into space mining on the moon and Mars, and in places in between.