The team at Planetary Resources has years of experience sending spacecraft into orbit and beyond, thanks to past work at NASA and private space companies. But the company’s first mission into space — launching on Monday afternoon — won’t rely on a giant NASA-style command center with hundreds of engineers.
“Our goal is to have three people in their pajamas and an iPad operating the spacecraft, at most,” says Chris Lewicki, the Redmond-based company’s president and chief engineer, who was the flight director for the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity.
Welcome to the new world of commercial space.
Planetary Resources’ launch of the Arkyd 3 engineering demonstrator on Monday will test not only the company’s technology but also its business model, using relatively low-cost approaches to explore space and ultimately mine lucrative natural resources from asteroids.
The mission is scheduled to start at 3:45 PM Pacific time today, with the launch of an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket carrying a Cygnus cargo freighter from Wallops, Va., to the International Space Station. Planetary Resources’ Arkyd 3 satellite will be on board as part of the Cygnus payload.
The cost of the launch for Planetary Resources is hundreds of thousands of dollars, not millions.
“Fortunately we’re in a world today, in aerospace and commercial space, where a company like ours can just buy a launch to space for something that is actually privately financeable and fits within our overall process,” Lewicki said in an interview with GeekWire. “We don’t need to buy an entire rocket for launching satellites anymore. We can just hitch a ride with things that are already on their way.”
On board are Planetary Resources’ initial designs for a computer system, a power system, a communications system, an attitude determination system (determining the direction the satellite is pointing relative to the stars) and many other technologies that Planetary Resources plans to continue working on as it develops future versions of spacecraft in the Arkyd line.
The small satellite will remain in hibernation aboard the ISS before being released into orbit sometime in the January timeframe. Once that happens, Planetary Resources will be able to communicate with the Arkyd 3 from its (modest) command center at its headquarters in Redmond.
The company, started by X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis and Space Adventures chairman Eric Anderson, is backed by a wide range of investors, including Google CEO Larry Page and filmmaker James Cameron.
Future versions of the Arkyd line will have telescopes for hunting for near-Earth asteroids. Ultimately, in a few years, the plan is to send Arkyd spacecraft to mine asteroids, where the company envisions a trillion-dollar market capturing oxygen and hydrogen for fuel, and mining for precious metals.