Asteroid-mining company reveals new telescope, says ‘water is the gateway drug of space’

planetarysmalltelescopea3

Planetary engineer Spencer Anunsen holding part of an A3 prototype.

A lot has happened since Bellevue-based Planetary Resources announced its plans to mine near-earth asteroids just one year ago. To celebrate its one-year anniversary, the company just held a half-hour live stream today to discuss the past 365 days and talk about plans for the future.

“It’s really just been epic,” President and Chief Asteroid Miner Chris Lewicki said of the past year.

When you’re part of a company backed by some of the biggest names in technology and aerospace that’s planning to send spacecraft into orbit to ultimately swarm asteroids to mine natural resources — well, yes, that is pretty epic.

The more newsworthy bit of the conversation came when Planetary announced that it plans on sending a small box into the Earth’s orbit by this time next year.

The device is called the A3 and is made up of three 1U CubeSat’s, which are mini satellites designed for space research that each measure 4″ x 4″ x 4″. The name is derived from a probe droid made by Arakyd Industries in Star Wars, the epic series that Planetary drew inspiration from to name its Arkyd-100 telescope.

The company has had plans to send the Arykd-100 into space by 2015, but to bring the cost effectiveness of spacecraft development down and reduce overall risk, they want to test some of its functionality in the Earth’s orbit first.

planetaryresources“We’re going to take as much of the functions of the Arkyd-100, cram it into cost-effective box and send it into space,” said Chris Voorhees, VP of Spacecraft Development.

You can see Planetary engineer Spencer Anunsen holding an A3 prototype above. Planetary said that they can pack a lot of the Arkyd-100′s functionality into the A3.

“The A3 really represents right on our technology road map for vertical integration for doing a lot of the advancements we can do to dramatically reduce cost and size of things, and be able to really get this capability out at the asteroids,” Lewicki said.

“Our belief and philosophy is the best test bed is space itself,” Voorhees added. “Despite the fact that we’re a deep space company, we are going to use Earth orbit as much as possible for us. It’s a valuable learning experience.”

Planetary also released some new numbers: Since the company debuted last year, it has discovered 33,154 asteroids, which brings the grand total of asteroids to 616,921. Most of those, however, are not easy to get to.

But, there are 9,767 near-earth asteroids and among those, 1,763 are energetically easier to reach than the Moon.

Peter Diamandis, Chris Lewicki and Eric Anderson of Planetary Resource.

Peter Diamandis, Chris Lewicki and Eric Anderson of Planetary Resource.

The key for Planetary is to identify which objects are worth mining, then develop technologies to transform them into valuable resources and retrieve them.

“Our first focus is in prospecting and gathering that information,” Voorhees said. “We’re an information company before a mining company.”

The other interesting part of the talk came when the trio discussed the water found in asteroids. Water is valuable for several reasons: it’s the essence of life, it shields radiation and in its raw form, water is useful as rocket propellent.

“Water is going to be the molecule that unlocks the solar system for humans to expand off the Earth and get into space permanently ” Lewicki said. “It’s the gateway drug of space.”

Planetary is a finalist for one of the most hotly contested categories in the GeekWire Awards: Innovation of the Year.

Previously on GeekWire: Planetary Resources pulls in cash from nation’s largest engineering firm to help mine asteroids

  • Guest

    First it was precious metals, now it’s water. Intergalactic version of bait and switch.

    • Really

      It’s always been both precious metals and water. They announced as much at their very first press conference on the day of their founding. Perhaps you weren’t paying attention? No bait and switch involved.

      • Guest

        Except that they are not really talking about precious metals anymore. That was just a PR stunt, in the first press conference water was merely a footnote. And now they are suddenly first “an information company before a mining company.” I guess selling asteroid photos to NASA had to be relabeled as space mining to create the necessary buzz? I admit I was very excited at first, but slowly I get the feeling that this is going to be an underwhelming venture. We’ll see.

        • Korolev

          They still are, on their website. Of course to mine they’ll need water wherever they go, to manufacture fuel, oxygen and to sustain any small settlement. And if you read their plans they want to start making money first by selling information, by putting low cost space telescopes and prospecting, at least to contain the costs while they finish developing the third generation of Arkyd ships, the ones that will actually do the mining.

        • Hollister David

          They were, are, and will be talking about metals as well water. Here is one of their early web pages: http://www.planetaryresources.com/asteroids/usage/

          Information is a potential revenue stream. That a business would exploit more than one possible revenue stream should inspire confidence. And gathering information (aka prospecting) is a necessary step in mining.

          • Guest

            OK, I will reserve judgement until they actually managed to mine something (in outer space), even if it’s just water. Though my gut feeling tells me it’ll turn out to be a lot more mundane than what it set out to be.